Industrial Deaths: Families Speak

Senator O’NEILL (New South Wales) (18:29):

I rise to make my contribution on the arrival in this chamber of this very significant report on industrial deaths. I acknowledge those who have travelled here, physically, from New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and as far away as Western Australia, but the journeys that you’ve undertaken with your bodies are nothing in comparison to the journeys of the heart that you’re undertaking right now.

I want to particularly acknowledge one woman who’s sitting up there, Mrs Kay Catanzariti, who, in a great leap of hope in a time when politics is treated in our media and in our society as an instrument that can deliver nothing except conflict, contacted Senator Marshall, a Labor senator from the great state of Victoria—not as great as New South Wales, of course, but he had an open heart, open ears and a willingness to work on this issue, which has plagued this nation for far too long.

We heard from Senator Bilyk that 200-plus people die per year. As one of the parents said earlier today in a meeting that we had at nine o’clock in Bill Shorten’s office, ‘Australians accept deaths in the workplace.’ That is a chilling sentence, and we can no longer allow that culture to prevail. That is what this report is addressing—that cultural reality that we live with today.

You are here today as citizens in a democracy making history. You’re in a historic building. I know that you just think you’re ordinary Australians, but this is what’s great about this country. Ordinary Australians, when we stand up for what we believe in and fight for what’s right, can do amazing things. You’ve already done amazing things, and now we will try to do our best with what you have given us.

Words matter. It will surprise you, as it often surprises me, that across this nation right now there will be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who are listening as they’re driving home from work—happily, I hope—to their families, and they’ll hear what we’re doing here. So today, in preparing my speech for this moment, I thought: what words could I say? We talk about the work ahead of us, and I acknowledge the great contributions of the senators who have spoken here before me this evening, but I’m going to do what I can to get as many of your words on the record as possible, because they were so powerful. I’m sure some of you sat in English classes and thought you’d never have the gift of the gab and you’d never say things that would matter, but I’m going to try to read as much as I can of what you gave us into the Hansard record to be part of the history of this nation, because you’ve done something very powerful and significant by participating in this inquiry and bringing it to be.

Mr Jack Brownlee was killed at work in 2018, aged 21. Dave and Janine Brownlee, his mum and dad, are here. Mr Dave Brownlee, I bet you don’t even remember what you said, but this is just a bit of what you put on the record, and it was pretty amazing, because truth has a voice:

I’m here with my wife and also representing my two sons, Mitchell Brownlee and Jack Brownlee. Jack was 21 years old, and he will always be 21 years old. He will never age. He went to work on 21 March and was caught in a trench collapse that covered the boy up to his neck, with one arm free. About 9.30 on that day was the last time they— Jack and his co-worker Charlie Howkins— were seen and they weren’t found until 11.30. They weren’t rescued until 2.30. In the first two hours, Jack would have had the most horrific time. His mate— Charlie Howkins, Lana Cormie’s husband— was dead beside him, metres away. Jack would have been screaming for help, and the other boys were at smoko. They were left on their own. There was no supervision of these boys. There was nothing. At the time, I was at the hospital with my wife, who was suffering severe migraines. We received no phone call from the company until 5.30 that afternoon.

Beforehand, I had a friend who worked in Geelong. He rang me and informed me. Things were on Facebook about a trench collapse in Ballarat and he thought our son Jack was involved. I raced up there to the site and was met at the roadblock by the police. We weren’t allowed in. Jack had just been evacuated, they said, and they were putting him in an induced coma. I was informed by the police that the best thing to do was to hightail down to Melbourne and meet him at the hospital. We still had not heard from the company.

This is an excerpt of what Mrs Janine Brownlee said:

The hardest thing for us was to leave our son and drive home. The hardest thing was to drive there in the first place, getting updates telling us, ‘Hurry up. Your son mightn’t make it.’ And then the hardest thing was to drive home the next day, leaving our boy at the hospital. That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do: knowing he was there on his own; leaving my baby there … Things need to change. How we were treated was so wrong.

Mr Charlie Howkins was killed at work in 2018, aged 34. His wife is here, Dr Lana Cormie. She said:

I am a doctor of veterinary science and I am married to Charlie Howkins, who was a registered building practitioner and worked in civil construction at the time of his death. I am—and we were—parents to two small children: Sophie, who is four, and George, who is one year old. Charlie went to work one day in March and he never came home. He became just another of the dead bodies which are carried out of a workplace every second day in Australia. Words simply cannot do justice to the devastation which has followed. His death is a result of a failure in the culture, values, systems and laws of our country. What is left in the wake of this failure is our broken family.

Mr Robert Cunico was killed at work in 2018, aged 60. Robert’s daughter, Ms Ashlea Castle, is here and so is his wife, Debby Cunico. Ms Castle said:

My dad lived for almost an hour in the most horrific conditions while being cradled in the arms of a colleague before succumbing to his injuries. Despite the efforts made by the first responders and emergency services, his injuries were so catastrophic that he was never going to survive. My father should never have sustained even a paper cut whilst he was on the job, let alone injuries so severe that his life was ended. My dad was a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather, an uncle and a friend to many.

Mr Luke Murrie was killed at work in 2007, aged 22. Luke’s parents, Mark and Janice Murrie, are here. Mr Murrie said:

Luke was 22 when he was killed. He was killed in an unsafe work environment where inexperienced workers were instructed to do an unsafe lift. The unsafe method was quicker and therefore it was cheaper. There was no meaningful deterrent for the employer to do it safely. He put the dollar before safety.

Mr Ben Catanzariti was killed at work in 2012, aged 21. His parents, Kay and Barney, are here today. Kay said:

I’m here today not by choice. I’m here because my son Ben, who was 21 years old … was killed when a 39-metre, three-tonne concrete boom collapsed and crushed his skull in 2012. You senators have chosen this career to represent the Australian people first and foremost, to listen and to protect all Australians and take responsibility for their health and wellbeing in our ever-changing world, and we need to unite regardless of which party we belong to. We are all the same. We are human beings. We have the right to live our lives without fear of going to work and not coming home.

Mr Jason Garrels was killed at work in 2012, aged 20. Jason’s parents, Michael and Lee Garrels, are here. Lee said:

My son Jason Garrels aged 20 was fatally electrocuted on the 27th February 2012 in Clermont, Queensland. My son was employed as a labourer for approx 9 days with Daytona Trading Pty Ltd … I went to assist at the resuscitation not knowing it was my son. Words cannot describe the impact that it has had on me and my family; I was thrown into a life that was a surreal nightmare which became my reality.

I want to acknowledge: Mr Glen Biddle, killed at work in 2007, aged 39, and his sister Shauna; Iremar Moussa, killed at work in 2016, aged 55, and wife Linda; Mr Jarrod Hampton—Troy and Robert Hampton are here today; Mr Daniel Bradshaw, killed at work in 2017, aged 37; Mr Jayden Zappelli, killed at work in 2013, aged 18, and his father, Greg; Mr Chris Patrick, killed at work in 2014, aged 25, and his partner, Christiana Paterson and Mr Wesley Ballantine, killed at work, aged 17, and his mother, Regan Ballantine. Thank you for coming to be here today for the reception of this report. Thank you for your work as Australians. We honour you and we’ll do what we can.