Matter of Public Importance
Mr HICKEY (Cessnock—Minister for Mineral Resources) [4.50 p.m.]: Protecting the health and safety of workers in all sectors of the New South Wales mining industry is an absolute priority of the Carr Labor Government. Mining in New South Wales has a safety record that ranks with the best in the world, but the number of deaths and serious accidents in the mining industry is still unacceptable. In 2001-02 there was one fatality in New South Wales coalmines and 21 serious injuries. These incidents caused untold grief and pain to miners, their families and the communities in which they live and work.
I know first hand the terrible cost that mining accidents and disasters have exacted in my electorate of Cessnock. Indeed, one of my saddest duties as the local member is to attend the annual service at the Jim Comerford Memorial Wall in Aberdare, which lists the names of the 1,537 miners killed on the northern coalfields since the first lease was granted in 1801. To put the Hunter region's loss in perspective, that is three times the number of soldiers Australia lost in the Vietnam War. We owe it to their memory and to today's mine workers to ensure that New South Wales mines meet and exceed world's best practice. We must never become complacent.
The Carr Labor Government has initiated significant health and safety reforms. Its commitment to protecting the State's mineworkers has seven key components. They are increasing annual mine safety funding to $17.9 million this financial year; rigorous enforcement policies and practices, including a departmental investigations unit-the first of its kind in Australia-and the employment of an extra 11 mine safety enforcement officers; delivering a robust legislative and regulatory framework endorsed by industry and employee representatives; establishing the Mines Safety Council in 1998, following the recommendations of the Mine Safety Review and the Gretley Inquiry; supporting a national approach to mine safety through the Ministerial Council on Minerals and Petroleum Resources and the Joint Coal Safety Forum between the New South Wales and Queensland governments; promoting the free flow of safety information and best practice through a diverse communications strategy that includes regular conferences, seminars and publications, including the department's Mine Safety Review; and continuing onsite training and assessment of mine safety systems, processes and standards.
Training our mine rescue teams is a vital part of the overall effort for a safer mining industry in this State. Last Friday the annual Newcastle mines rescue competition was held. It was the first time this competition-which has been running for around 50 years-has been conducted as a simulated emergency. To maintain authenticity, the nominated colliery remained unknown to those taking part in the exercise until the call-out that morning. Rescuers were called from 6.00 a.m. and told that an emergency rescue exercise was underway. It was not until that point that they were informed that the exercise would take place at Newstan Colliery, near Fassifern.
Eight teams of six people, along with four representatives from Stawell Gold Mine in Victoria, who train with their New South Wales counterparts, took part in the operation at Newstan. About 100 people took part, including assessors and assistants. The rescuers were underground for close to eight hours. During that time, breathing apparatus was tested, along with escape systems, rescue skills and processes. Once all participants were underground, team names were drawn out of a hat. In a real situation, not all rescue teams would arrive and stay together. The competition was organised by Mines Rescue, part of Coal Services Pty Limited. The New South Wales Department of Mineral Resources provided two inspectors to act as assessors.
Similar rescue exercises will be held throughout New South Wales over the coming months, in the lead-up to the national mines rescue competition in Wollongong this October. The winners of the Newcastle rescue competition were Steve Beikoff from West Wallsend, who was team captain; Stephen Slot from Myuna, who was vice captain; Daryn Baird from West Wallsend; Dave Anderson from Southland; Paul Raszewski from Southland; and Garry Young from Myuna. On behalf of the Carr Labor Government I congratulate this team on its exceptional effort, and I thank everyone who took part in the exercise.
Like all mine rescue teams, these men are volunteers from collieries who train together at least half a dozen times a year. It is this bond of mateship, dedication and diligence-beyond the call of duty-that puts our mine rescue teams at the forefront should disaster strike. By continuing to adopt a cooperative approach to addressing mine safety, involving mining operators and employee representatives, we aim to achieve major improvements in this vital area of mining. Fewer fatalities and serious accidents not only lessen regrettable human tragedy and suffering but also positively impact on mine productivity and industry competitiveness. I hope I never have to stand in this place and deliver a speech similar to that given by my predecessor, the Hon. Bob Martin, on 14 November 1996, following the shocking news of the deaths of four miners at Gretley Colliery.
The shadow Minister is making fun of that speech. The then Minister stated:
There should be no higher priority than the safety of workers. In the mining profession, it is often said that deaths and injuries are simply part of what is a dangerous and risky occupation. It is sometimes suggested that such accidents should be expected to happen in the pits. The Carr Government does not support that proposition.
The Minister spoke eloquently on that awful day about his deep concern that a creeping ambivalence, a worrying attitude of laxity, had developed in some mining operations, which in turn had precipitated his move to establish the Mines Safety Review. Now, as then, the Carr Labor Government puts the welfare of workers first. That is why mine safety is a matter of the highest public importance. The wider community must never forget the risks and the dangers that miners encounter in their every working day. Our job as the Government is to ensure that these risks are minimised through legislation and regulation that is understood and implemented across the New South Wales industry.
Mr PICCOLI (Murrumbidgee) [4.58 p.m.]: Mine safety is a very important issue in New South Wales and throughout Australia. To echo the words of the Minister, it is one of the most important duties of the Parliament, the Government, and the bureaucracy to ensure the safety of our community, and particularly people who are employed in hazardous occupations such as mining. I do not think the importance of mine safety, and work safety in general, can be overstated. As the Minister said, over the decades the number of mine accidents and deaths has been reduced, and I am sure all members are very pleased about that. However, governments, bureaucracies and private organisations can never do enough to improve mine safety.
Coal and Allied Industries Ltd recently provided me with details about the work safety measures the company has put in place at its collieries. Indeed, there has been fantastic investment by private companies in work safety measures. I am sure that even some private companies would acknowledge that decades ago perhaps insufficient emphasis was placed on employee safety in mines. As a member of Parliament and a member of the general community, I am encouraged that so much emphasis is being placed on mine safety and that there is so much investment, particularly by private organisations, in improving mine safety. The accident record at mines is improving every year. I believe that the industry has a goal of reducing mine accidents by 50 per cent a year, which is fantastic. Indeed, I am aware that last year that goal was exceeded.
In its annual report the New South Wales Minerals Council referred to an increase in mine safety right across the sector, which is encouraging. Obviously, in the years to come even more work will be done to improve mine safety, so that miners and their families can be confident that every single matter to do with mine safety has been considered. I acknowledge the Minister's comments. I certainly hope that in the future no Minister for Mineral Resources ever has to make a speech in this Parliament about a death at a New South Wales mine.
Given the reduction in the number of injuries and deaths in New South Wales mines, as acknowledged by the Minister, one would expect that one consequence would be a reduction in workers compensation premiums, which is a significant issue for the mining industry because it costs the industry a lot of money. I believe that workers compensation premiums in the coalmining industry have doubled over the past four years. Primarily, mine safety is about reducing risks, reducing injuries, and reducing deaths, but it is also about sustaining the viability of mines. All New South Wales industries have made representations to the Government about reducing workers compensation premiums, but the mining and coalmining industries, in particular, are being hammered by the cost of those premiums.
I would like to hear what the new Minister for Mineral Resources proposes to do about reducing workers compensation premiums for mining companies. It is almost impossible for mining companies to prosper and create jobs in New South Wales when their workers compensation premiums are so high. As I said, under this Government workers compensation premiums have doubled in four years, with premium rates for some New South Wales underground coalmines being more than 30 per cent of wages. By comparison, in Queensland the average premium rates are 1.6 per cent for open-cut mines and 5.5 per cent for underground mines.
If the Minister is to really achieve something in his portfolio, he must do something about workers compensation premiums, because the statistics alone suggest that companies are being encouraged to invest in Queensland because of this Government's inaction over workers compensation premiums. In a press release, the newly elected chairman of the New South Wales Minerals Council, Wayne Isaacs, said that workers compensation costs, in particular, are heavily impacting on mining businesses and threatening their viability.
Mr Hickey: This is about mine safety.
Mr PICCOLI: I know that this matter of public importance is to do with mine safety, but mine safety has a lot to do with workers compensation. The mining industry is doing the right thing by increasing safety, investing in safety measures, and reducing the number of accidents and deaths; it is doing exactly what the Government has asked it to do. But what did the industry get in return in the past four years? Its workers compensation premiums were doubled. We cannot expect this industry to survive with a doubling of its workers compensation premiums. Something must be done about workers compensation premiums in New South Wales, particularly in the mining industry. On the figures I have quoted—do not take my word for it, take Wayne Isaacs' word—the increase in workers compensation premiums is threatening the future viability of mining in New South Wales. Unless the Minister and the Government do something about the continuing increase in workers compensation premiums, jobs will continue to go from New South Wales to other States
Mr MARTIN (Bathurst) [5.06 p.m.]: Improving mine safety continues to be a high priority of the New South Wales Government. As the Minister said, the Carr Government supports that commitment through a mine safety budget of $17.9 million this financial year. This spending commitment is backed by some major reforms outlined by the Minister which I am pleased to be able to detail. They include the establishment of a Mine Safety Advisory Council, with industry, union and Government representatives, to provide strategic policy advice on mine safety and oversee the implementation of the mine safety review; the establishment of a special investigation unit within the Department of Mineral Resources to undertake more major investigations and improve the overall standard of investigations; the development and implementation of a comprehensive enforcement policy that came into effect on 1 January 1999; and the provision of $1 million over two years to establish a prosecutions fund to support this policy.
Prosecuting those who commit serious breaches of mine safety legislation is now an essential component of mine safety regulation. The Department of Mineral Resources now has a record of successful prosecution, with seven convictions. A further 19 matters are proceeding with a number of parties involved. The new Act will ensure that the New South Wales coal industry has the best possible and most up-to-date standards of occupational health and safety legislation. It gives greater power to local check inspectors so they can be more effective in protecting workers. The Carr Labor Government is committed to mining industry training for all site check inspectors.
The Government will also work closely with employee representatives to develop new regulations to support the Act so they can be brought into law in the foreseeable future. In addition we have adopted the recommendations of the Gretley Colliery inquiry, and released the draft Mine Health and Safety Bill as part of the ongoing consultation process on new safety laws for metalliferous mines and quarries. This effort is producing results, with major improvements in safety performance. It is saving lives and stopping injuries. There have been relatively few accidents in the western coalfields in recent times. That said, any accident resulting in serious injury or fatality is one accident too many. My own constituency includes large parts of the western coalfields and I share the Minister's passion for the continual improvement of mine safety.
Two accidents involving the collapses of the rib wall at the Charbon Colliery in Kandos in 2001 and 2002 resulted in miners receiving broken legs. Following an investigation into those accidents the company was able to identify ways to eliminate the risk of such accidents happening again. A fatality at the Baal Bone Colliery at Cullen Bullen in September 2001 is currently under investigation and, once again, a lesson has been learned there about appropriate risk assessment and proper controls. The Minister and all Government members want to see a time when miners do not have to lose their lives or be seriously injured in order for safety lessons to be learned. While safety performance is getting better, it is an area where government, industry and employees must strive for continual improvement. A lot has been achieved, but a great deal of work remains to be done.
During this term of office the Carr Labor Government plans to introduce new legislation based on the draft Mine Health and Safety Bill, develop new coalmine safety regulations and maintain active government regulation of mine safety. This is very important. As I said, in my electorate there have been relatively few serious accidents in recent years. However, before I came to this place I worked for some 30 years in the coal industry in the western coalfields. As the personnel manager for a mining company, I had to knock on a family's door and tell them that the husband would not be home that night because he had been lost in a fall at the coalface at the Hermitage colliery.
When one is that close to the action one realises the importance of mine safety and how it impacts not only on those killed or injured but on the family and, indeed, on the community. Anyone who lives in a mining area knows the tremendous impact a fatality has throughout the community. The Minister and the department are addressing these issues and working with industry to reinforce the fact that there can be no complacency when it comes to mine safety. I am sure that the Minister and the Government will not rest on this critical issue. The elimination of fatalities and serious accidents is the call and we must not condemn the memory of all workers lost in mining accidents in this State by repeating the past. I commend the Minister for bringing this important matter before the House.
Mr HICKEY (Cessnock—Minister for Mineral Resources) [5.11 p.m.], in reply: The shadow Minister for Mineral Resources has echoed what I have said previously. It is sad that he is not in the Chamber to hear my reply. Mine safety is a major concern of the Government. The Government is doing everything to make it an absolute priority. It is putting money and solutions forward. It is ensuring that safety in the mining industry is addressed. This is not about workers compensation. The Government works in close consultation with the mining companies in relation to mine safety. However, the burden of leadership clearly rests with the Government. The Carr Labor Government does not and will not shy away from its responsibility. Our commitment is there; it has been spoken about. The $17.9 billion this financial year is there.
The shadow Minister referred to workers compensation premiums. We are not here to discuss workers compensation: compensation follows the accident. We need to address the problem; we need to put solutions forward. The Government is trying to put solutions forward to address the issue before we get to workers compensation. We are talking about prevention through the best health and safety procedures and laws and regulations possible. The United Nations recognises the safety record of New South Wales and what the Government is doing to address a lot of the issues surrounding mine safety. I, as the Minister for Mineral Resources, am not here to address workers compensation; I am here to address and resolve mining industry problems. It is sad that the shadow Minister does not see that. The Minister for Industrial Relations is responsible for workers compensation and the shadow Minister should have directed his comments to him. The shadow Minister's input to this debate was minimal.
Pursuant to sessional orders business interrupted.
PRIVATE MEMBERS' STATEMENTS