Construction fatalities in Australia: The Coalition’s deadly legacy

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Construction workplace deaths tragically increase during periods of Coalition government (Screenshot via Vimeo)

The Coalition still blames Labor for the deaths of four workers in the pink batts scheme a decade ago. So, how many deaths is the Coalition responsible for causing? Alan Austin reports.

WHATEVER WE BELIEVE about the Coalition’s competence at economic management, the data shows clearly it is deadlier for workers.

We can now quantify deaths in the construction industry for the full five years following the interventions by former Prime Ministers Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull. The picture is disturbing.

Before the 2013 Election, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott promised construction companies two things. First, that there would be a phenomenal boost in construction activity. And second, that builders would be freed from onerous regulations.

The Bureau of Statistics records construction engineering activity, seasonally adjusted, in file 8755.0, Table 01. The chain volume measures have eliminated the effects of price and hence only reflect volumes. 

Safe Work Australia has tracked fatalities in the construction sector from 2003 to April 2019. Unfortunately, this department no longer publishes the cumulative data until nearly a year has elapsed — a change made just in the last couple of years. Other agencies keep track, however and workers compensation law firm Millner and Knight has provided IA with the preliminary tally for calendar 2018.

So we can now match workplace deaths for 16 years — ten under the Coalition and six under Labor.

(Image supplied)

The table below shows the data, but the graph above is easier to understand at a glance. Before 2005, construction deaths were high and accepted as inevitable. But by the end of the Howard period, unions and others had succeeded in getting the fatality rate below 60 per one hundred million chain volume measures (CVM) of construction activity, or not far above.

After Labor gained office in 2007, new regulations and safety education reduced this dramatically — below 50 in 2008, below 40 by 2011 and down to 15.7 in 2013. Pretty impressive, though the 22 workers tragically killed that year were still 22 too many.

Then came the Coalition Government led by Tony Abbott, who in opposition had promised that he would be “an infrastructure Prime Minister who puts bulldozers on the ground and cranes into our skies”.

Many times he intimated that:

“I absolutely hope that in four or five years’ time people will say ‘Yes, that Tony Abbott, he did all sorts of things but, by God, he was an infrastructure Prime Minister. He was a builder’.”

(Image supplied)

He was the opposite. Activity contracted 10.7% in 2014, then another 14.8% in 2015. The contraction in 2016 of a thumping 19.5% was the worst on record and the first time there had been three consecutive annual declines. Ever.

The collapse in construction activity following the failures of the first two Abbott/Hockey budgets was 38.7% in three years. That is not all Abbott promised. He also assured the industry that:

  • “...a more productive economy is a less-regulated one.”
  • “...excessive regulation creates greater costs than benefits and discourages investment and the willingness to ‘have-a-go’.”
  • ‘every year… two sitting days will be dedicated to the repeal of redundant legislation and review of regulations.’
  • ‘To ensure that deregulation is taken seriously, I will take responsibility for deregulation out of the Department of Finance and into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.’
  • “Australia... is once more open for business.”

Malcolm Turnbull repeated and reinforced the deregulation mantra, boasting about the Coalition’s “target across Government of reducing regulatory costs to the economy by $1 billion per annum”.

The outcomes are stark. The rate of construction fatalities increased alarmingly in four of the next five years. With the data, above, we can actually count the excess number. If we take the last three Labor years and the first Coalition year as a realistic benchmark, the average deaths per 100 million CVM for those four years – 2011 to 2014 – was 23.93. Close enough to 24.

The excess in 2015 above the rate of 24 per 100 million CVM works out at eight fatalities. In 2016, it was up to 15, then five in 2017 and 21 in 2018. The grand total for the last four years is 49 construction workers killed who would not have been had the fatality rate not blown out in 2015 and beyond.

Can we sheet home the blame for those 49 deaths to the politicians who publicly proclaimed that regulations could be disregarded until scrapped?

That might seem extreme. But Abbott and other Coalition MPs deployed precisely this strategy in the 2010 campaign and in every election since. They blamed federal Labor ministers directly – and ceaselessly – for the deaths of four insulations workers killed during the pink batts program — which insulated more than one million homes in 2009 and 2010.

Abbott said in 2010 that if then Environment Minister Peter Garrett had been a company director, “he would be charged with industrial manslaughter”.

The Liberal Party is still using this spurious attack in this election campaign — with the aid of the Sydney Morning Herald.

If Garrett and Labor should face four manslaughter charges, should Coalition leaders face 49?

Stand up for human rights! Read about Alan Austin's current situation HERE and help out by contributing to the crowd-funding campaign HEREYou can follow Alan Austin on Twitter @AlanAustin001.

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