House debates

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Statements on Indulgence

West Gate Bridge

4:53 pm

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I want to take the opportunity to support the comments made in the House by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition recognising the 48th anniversary of the West Gate Bridge collapse—an extraordinarily tragic occurrence that affected so many families so dramatically and, no doubt, for so long. There were 35 killed and 18 injured. The flow-on effects of that through a family and a community are significant.

As I listened to our leaders speak about this in the chamber, it very profoundly reminded me of occasions in my own electorate where we come together to commemorate, sadly, the significant number of lives lost in work based disasters. That's why I wanted to endorse the sentiments that were expressed on the anniversary of this particular disaster. Whilst it occurred in Melbourne and not in my own state of New South Wales, I think the repercussions and the feelings that people are reflecting in supporting the motion occur in any area where we've seen this sort of terrible tragedy occur. I absolutely heartily endorse the comments of both of our leaders.

I come from the Illawarra, which is obviously a long-time mining area. We've been doing underground coal mining for well over 100 years. On 31 July each year, a great local group of people at Mount Kembla gather together to put a commemoration service in place. It's always on a very, very cold evening at a place called Windy Gully but it's a very moving and very significant occasion. In 1902, the Mount Kembla Mine explosion occurred. As a result of that explosion, 96 men and boys were killed. I ask people in this room to imagine how small communities were in 1902. This is a little mining village. There wasn't a family who was not directly affected by that level of loss of life. If you look at some of the unofficial toll of deaths that occurred after the direct deaths caused, it would have been even higher, but 96 was an extraordinary number of lives to have been lost in a small community.

It's significant to me because my mum's family had direct ties to it. In fact, three of our ancestors were killed in that explosion: Claude Stafford, who was 17; David Stafford, who was 17; and William Stafford, who was 25. Whilst William was only 25, he was a widower with small children. The implications for these families were devastating and so we come together to commemorate that occasion.

Why is that so important? It's important to do that because, as I reflect each year as we meet, it reminds us starkly of the importance of ensuring that we do everything we possibly can to guarantee that people who pack their lunch bag or grab their wallet as they're going out the door and off to work in the morning, the afternoon or the evening—whenever they're working—come home to those families who are seeing them off and they don't die at work as a result of things that should be preventable.

Sadly, in 1979, we also saw the Appin coal mine disaster in our area, which was a significant loss of life again. In that time, my dad was employed at the mine, and I was actually living on the mine site. That occasion is profoundly burned in my memory. In fact, I'd been to a high school dance that night, and mum had come to pick us up. The father of one of the young guys who came back with us in the car was subsequently killed that evening.

These are really, really important reminders. Each of these resulted in inquiries, investigations and recommendations on better work health and safety. They are profound reminders of how vigilant we have to be on these issues not only for those workers but also for their families and communities. I do want to put on the record that I think one of the most important interventions that increases the likelihood that we are better at health and safety in our workplaces is the role of the trade union movement.

I know that some of those opposite see only bad in the union movement. I would ask them to look very, very closely at the significant work of unions. The Leader of the Opposition in his comments on this very motion reflected the fact that the West Gate Bridge disaster created a generation of activists, because of their dedication to improving safety. I look in my area at the miners' union and the critical role it has played in the introduction of better protective technologies, clothing and work practices. It is a critically significant and important role. Look at the role of unions like the Transport Workers Union. We all share the roads, but they are a workplace for these workers. It has worked continually for safer roads for its members and the general public, including in recent times very important work around mental health challenges as a workplace issue for drivers. Look at the work of the construction unions. Many of their industries are highly dangerous environments, and those union representatives spend a great deal of their time working directly with members on ways in which they can ensure that safety is improved. It is very important to recognise that that is really tough work sometimes. Sometimes those union representatives are doing home visits for families who have lost people, to extend the union support, the members' support, to them. They take on sometimes very recalcitrant employers who may not want to hear messages about safety, unfortunately.

There are a lot of really good employers in my region. Like me they come from families who've worked in the industry. They are great. They understand it and work really well, but you do come up against those with whom you have to have a bit of a battle to make sure that safety remains the dominant issue.

I wanted particularly, in this debate, to reiterate those sentiments and to express my support for the point that the Leader of the Opposition made that every time and on every occasion we're in a place in our community where there is a memorial as a result of a workplace disaster, when we speak in this place on these issues or when we watch another report on the news about another tragic workplace death—every single time—we make a commitment and a dedication that in this place in our roles as we currently perform them we remain vigilant and do everything we can to ensure that people are able to go to work safely and return home to the families that love and care for them. I extend my great sympathy and support to the members of families and communities that were affected by the West Gate Bridge collapse.


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