House debates

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Statements on Indulgence

West Gate Bridge

5:03 pm

Photo of Joanne RyanJoanne Ryan (Lalor, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I'm really pleased to be in the parliament today, to join those speaking on indulgence on the 48th anniversary of the West Gate Bridge collapse. Just before lunch on 15 October 1970 an eerie pinging noise filled the air. Moments later the West Gate Bridge fell, claiming the lives of 35 workers. All Melburnians remember that day; it is the worst industrial accident in our history.

In my primary school years there are three times I remember the broader world crashing into our classrooms. The first was man walking on the moon, and we were all in a classroom to watch it. This was the next. I was in a classroom in Melbourne's west, at St Andrew's primary school in a working class area with lots of children of British, Irish and Italian migrants. Lots of them had family members who were working on the West Gate Bridge. I will never forget our classroom that day or over the coming weeks. That sense of the world crashing around us was real in our classrooms across that week.

My first memories of looking at a newspaper are about the West Gate Bridge. I remember the shock. I remember thinking about the people who had gone to work on the bridge that day—the great people who were going to build this marvel for Melbourne. In the west of Melbourne, we didn't have a bridge to get to the city. It was a long, long journey. This bridge was going to be innovative, brave and bold—it was going to be all of those things. When it fell that day, families and communities were absolutely shattered—the day 2,000 tonnes of steel plummeted into the Yarra with an explosion that shook buildings hundreds of metres away and that could be heard more than two miles away. I think it's poignant that right now in Victoria, at a time when we're looking at major infrastructure projects and when young people and working-age people are excited about the jobs being created and excited about the training they might get, that this anniversary reminds us all about the importance of, in the excitement for these infrastructure projects, having at the forefront of our minds the safety of the workers who are going to deliver these projects.

In research for this, I came across George Tsehilios. He was 32 years old. He'd sold his blacksmith shop in Greece to come to Australia and had saved for eight years to buy a home in Altona for his wife and two sons. He lost his life that day. The stories of those 35 men who lost their lives needs to be remembered not just this year but every year. Every year the catastrophe is commemorated with a wreath laying in Melbourne at the ceremony at the foot of the bridge. In the words of Danny Gardiner from the West Gate Bridge Memorial Committee:

The legacy of those who lost their lives has been safer workplaces. This bridge is a monument to them all and a reminder that we all must work safe.

I have equally strong memories of the eventual West Gate Bridge opening and of going across it for the first time. Going across that bridge for the first time, like all members of the public from the western suburbs, our thoughts that night were for those people who lost their lives. The fall of the bridge was well and truly in the forefront of our minds, as it is for me every time I go across that bridge.

In a time of major infrastructure projects, I think it's really important that we take with us the lessons that we in Victoria learnt that day. We don't want to stop being bold and innovative. We don't want to stop designers from finding new ways to do things, but we do want to and we must make sure that, in all of that planning, occupational health and safety is given pride of place. In the words of Bill Shorten, 'Until every Australian workplace is safe, until every Australian has the right to come home to the people they love, there is more for all of us to do.' Every workplace death is a tragedy, and no workplace death is acceptable.

As the mother of sons who work in the building industry and as a sister who lost a brother driving his truck in his workplace, I have lived the reality of workplace deaths and of getting the phone call to tell you that a loved one hadn't come home from work. That's with me every day when my sons go to work. It's why I stand in this place and it's why I am so offended when people in this place deride unionism and collectivism. The falling of the West Gate Bridge is a poignant and compelling reminder of why we join unions and why we work collectively for safety and for fair remuneration. It is why all of us on the Labor side come together in this place to ensure that lives lost in workplace accidents are always remembered and are used to drive us forward to ensure that it is in the forefront of our builders' minds and in the forefront of all of the work we do to ensure that, as a workforce, we know we're going to leave our home in the morning, go to work and then come home.


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