Address to National Workers Memorial Inauguration Ceremony, Canberra

  • Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Financial Services and Superannuation

[Check against delivery]

One of the privileges of being a parent and a husband is that special, amazing time of day when you come home from work.

You open the gate, walk up the path and unlock the door.

And you’re home.

There are your kids.

The little 3-year-olds who scream out daddy and hug you, primary school kids running around, the teenagers who just grunt and barely lift their head from the screen.

Your wife—who smiles at you provided you’re in the good books.

The dog—definitely, unequivocally always happy to see you.

This is what life is all about.

It is the preservation of this moment, and the tragedy of its loss, that has brought us together here at this place.

This place is a special place for our nation.

It’s not a hallowed battlefield which gave birth to songs and poems.

Or the site of a declaration of nationhood or rebellion.

By erecting this monument, we tie the lives and memories and families of thousands of Australians to this place.

We stand here in this place as a mark of respect from a civilised community as an expression of failure and regret.

That’s what all memorials are, and this one is no different.

This is a symbol of the mourning for those lost too early from our tribe Australia.

The missing music from the fabric of our lives.

The humour, intelligence, love they took with them.

The sadness, guilt and memories they left behind.

This is a place at least where families can come and try to resummon the faces and voices of their mothers and fathers, children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters.

A place to finish the unfinished conversation—the words of love and affection which sat in the heart but never passed the lips before it was too late for them to be heard and felt.

This is also a totem of our shared commitment that as a country we can and must do better.

Industrial activity has killed some of our own in these modern times when we can reach the outer universe but cannot completely fix the wheels of industry.

That thousands of Australians will die as a result of industrial disease this year is unacceptable.

That 45 of us have already died traumatically at work this year is unacceptable.

These deaths are not heroic—they’re tragic, they’re pointless and painfully predictable in too many cases.

We stand not to express awe at heroes but to hold our hands over our hearts and think quietly in the recesses of our minds—those private places where only truth can live for long.

The average age of a worker who is killed on the job is 37.

Thirty-seven: the age Albert Einstein published his theory of relativity and changed the world.

Imagine what our nation has lost through the premature deaths of our fellow Australians.

We think of what might have been, what wasteful death with each such death at or as result of work, a line of humanity comes to an end; the lifeline of each person and their possibilities come to an end.

The remaining family ‘die’ as a result. Many times those little deaths we experience throughout life.

I know families never ‘get over it’; that some healing occurs, but mostly in a matter of developing a strategy to live with the emptiness, with the vacuum created by such deaths. 

It is impossible to give these deaths meaning.

Because we know they are preventable. They are not accidents. 

Let me declare this: in by far most deaths and serious injuries, these are predictable safety failures. 

It’s not a systems’ failure or risk assessment failure, or hazard identification failure…and all those other handsome words without tears. 

It is the failure that springs as a ready-made monster from the knowing tolerance of small daily hazards at the daily tasks.

It’s the small daily hazards which left unchecked ‘gang up’ on a worker and kill them.

Our commitment to do better begins by not tolerating these small daily hazards—that’s how this long journey starts, by everyone knowing that even small safety failures will not be tolerated at any workplace.

I know this commitment has the support of business, and is bi-partisan.

And I know the trade unions promote this idea every day in Australian workplaces.

I have witnessed workplace failures.

I have witnessed the stunned eyes of pain—'how could this happen?’ they ask.

This place brings it home to me—yet again—that my own kids will be in the workforce soon enough. What standards will they work in?

I cringe to think more sons and daughters are going to be killed and seriously injured as we speak.

I ask captains of industry, and I ask union leaders, and I ask workers…do not accept poor OH&S standards quietly.

Do not accept near enough is close enough.

Do not accept silence about health and safety standards.

Too often it ends up in the prolonged silence a place like this generates.

We can honour and commemorate our workplace deaths but we cannot lift the final silence. Now it’s too late for so many.

But it isn’t for us. We do not accept the silence of convenience.

We must do better, we can do better, and it is my hope that this memorial need not accumulate any more memories and tears and mourners in the years and decades to come.

I thank you. [Ends]

For more information

Media mailbox: