National Workers Memorial ground breaking

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

Good morning, everyone, and thanks for coming to this early morning gathering.

I would like to start by acknowledging the very special and dedicated work of the National Workers’ Memorial Steering Committee chaired by Doug Cameron.

It’s proof that when you put your mind to something, you can actually change things. I do believe that the stewardship of all of those on this memorial shows that you can actually make a difference to workplace safety.

It is true that up to 300 Australians every year get killed at work. This number is a secret number to most Australians, I believe.

I don’t believe Australians by and large appreciate what tragedy can occur in the blink of an eye in Australia’s workplaces.

When you use a number like 300, it doesn’t even begin to encapsulate the impact and the suffering, and in some ways – in many ways – this memorial to workers, should probably also be a memorial to their mothers.

And just talking to Kate before, you realise that nothing is ever the same after a fatality work and nothing ever goes back to the way it was as much as you wish it could.

And this memorial is at least a place to go, so that the conversations that people always want to have, but can never have again, because someone dies, at least there is momentarily an opportunity to remember and say perhaps some of the things that you wish you had just one more chance to say to someone who never came home.

It will be a place of memory. This is a city which has memorials, as it should as the national capital. This will not be the most important memorial in Canberra, but I don’t think there will be any memorial which is any more important, because at least it is a chance for people to remember what is past.

When you think about workplace fatality – and I rarely use the word ‘accident’ – I believe nearly everything is preventable, and I do believe that this memorial will also be a memory, that with a little more effort and a little more thought, we can actually change what will happen in the future.  

Sometimes we feel we should talk about some deaths in the workplace as heroism – it could be the bush fire fighter, it could be the policeman in the line of duty, it could be someone in a mine shaft trying to rescue someone else, but I am afraid to say that I think many workplace deaths have a pointlessness to them, a sudden arbitrary twist of fate, which is the real story: electrocution, scaffolding that falls-in, a cloud of gas in a confined space, a piece of machinery that goes berserk, an unguarded pinch point in a conveyor system.

It is good that business is here, and it is good that this proposal has been bipartisan, but I should also say when you think about the pointlessness of workplace deaths, it is the union movement that fights the posthumous cases for reparation, apology and subsequent safety measures.

Unions do this to try and help fill that hole of sorrow that has happened. But all of us – employers, union reps, human beings – who know and know close up how hard it is on the widows and the sons and daughters and the mothers and the fathers and the brothers and the sisters, whose minds forever tumble with the possibility loss now that it might never have happened had there been better precautions on the day of days, that ends a story for people, which should be going on.

And given that there is no comfort, which despite all our love which we can give people, really for the death of the young or the youthful married or the middle aged or the formerly middle aged, with unfinished business of love and family, parenting with Christmas dinners with grandchildren they will now never meet, at least here, there will be a chance to spend some time recalling that.

We in the Labor movement know the battles, we know the arguments that still have to go on; any person who employs others knows the importance of safety and I do think that this memorial is an opportunity to remember the ongoing war which never ends to prevent fatalities at work.

This will be a place of remembrance and morning, and indeed, as the sun goes down, and in the mornings we can commemorate here, we can try and resummon in face and voice, and express our thanks for people we had the brief privilege of knowing.

There is a lot said about the modern Australian workplace productivity and competition, but here too, I think there is much that should be said of safety loss.

Unsung individuals in the memory of our tribe, who can be found here on the walls of this resident place, some of the missing music of their lives, and I’d like to thank the committee for the work they’ve done so far.

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