Abbott moves to decrease “red tape” in the mining and
construction industries, has this increased workplace deaths? Freelance
journalist Alan Austin explains.
The tally of workers killed last year in industries the
Abbott government is deregulating raises ominous questions. Not just
about workplace safety, but also about hypocrisy in politics. The
figures are grim.
Backgrounding this is the vigorous campaign by Tony Abbott
himself — both in opposition and in government — to reduce constraints
on businesses’ profit-making. “Australia is open for business” and
“Australia is under new management” and “red tape is feeding into poor
multi-factor productivity” and “a more productive economy is a
less-regulated one” were mantras repeated endlessly.
Abbott insisted many times that “excessive regulation
creates greater costs than benefits and discourages investment and the
willingness to have-a-go”. He repeatedly promised, “every year, there
will be a Deregulation Report tabled in the parliament and two sitting
days will be dedicated to the repeal of redundant legislation and review
There were no caveats, no exemptions. Regulations
safeguarding the environment were not exempt. Neither were regulations
shielding consumers or preventing fraud. Nor those protecting workers’
wages, conditions and lives.
Preliminary figures for 2014 — still subject to some
category tweaking — confirm the long-term trend of declining fatalities
is continuing. But only barely, with 185 total deaths in 2014, compared
with 187 in 2013. Outcomes are disastrous, however, in the two sectors
the government has spruiked most aggressively: mining and construction.
Abbott told the Australia Israel Chamber of Commerce in July
2013, “there’s no reason why Australia can’t again be the world’s
premier destination of mining investment once uncompetitive taxes and
regulations are removed”.
Following many assurances that the compliance regime in
mining would be relaxed, what happened to fatalities? Deaths rose in
2014 by 50% over the 2013 number, from 10 to 15. That is the highest
tally since 2006, and is almost double the average of 7.8 per year for
Labor’s last five years.
Construction is the second area Abbott has vigorously
promoted. “I hope to be an infrastructure prime minister who puts
bulldozers on the ground and cranes into our skies”, he said launching
the Coalition’s 2013 federal election campaign. Construction deaths in
2014 increased a staggering 70% over 2013, up from 17 to 29.
It ought be noted that the figure of 17 construction deaths
in 2013 was abnormally low. The average for the last five Labor years
was 33. The average for the last five years of the Howard government was
39. But, it also needs to be noted that the rise in workers killed in
mining and construction in 2014 was despite significant contraction in
workforce and activity.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ figures on drilling
metreage in mineral exploration show that, for the first three quarters
of 2014, metres drilled in new and existing deposits declined 16%.
Expenditure on that drilling, which includes labour costs, declined
30%. ABS engineering construction figures show that for the first six
months of 2014 activity contracted 4% from a year earlier.
So have the construction and mining industries responded to
Abbott’s gung-ho urgings and promises of reductions in red tape and
relaxed their vigilance? We will find out in a few months when we see
the coroners’ findings, data on prosecutions for breaches, penalties
imposed and, of course, company profits. The initial figures for workers
killed suggest this may be the case.
Why this is a raw area for many practitioners in workplace
safety and observers of government hypocrisy is that the Abbott team,
when in opposition, gained great political advantage from the shameless
exploitation of the deaths of four young workers on the home insulation
program (HIP), part of the Rudd government’s 2009-10 stimulus
spending. The names of those men and the circumstances of their deaths
were well publicised by the mainstream media and an opposition out for
blood. Government ministers were directly blamed.
Less well publicised were the facts that the HIP insulated
more than a million homes, that overall construction fatalities
decreased in 2009 and, arguably, that the stimulus saved Australia from a
devastating recession. So what will be the reaction of the media, the
opposition and indeed the government to the additional 17 mine and
construction workers killed in 2014 while those industries contracted
Royal Commission, anybody?