Mr NORTHE (Morwell) — I rise this afternoon to speak on the WorkSafe Legislation Amendment Bill 2017. I certainly note and endorse some of the comments made by the member for Essendon, particularly on the Longford gas plant explosion. It was a horrific time for those workers at the Longford gas plant and the community. In addition to that, it of course made life difficult for Victorian businesses and households. My comment around workplace safety is that we should be doing all we can to the best of our ability to make sure that people go to work and come home safely. No doubt there are workplaces that are more dangerous than others. The improvement that we have seen in workplace safety and the focus on that over the past years and decades is something that we should all be proud of, but by the same token there are still people being injured in the workplace and killed in the workplace. I am sure that all of us support sincerely and deeply the eradication of that in its entirety.
The bill amends a number of acts, including the Accident Compensation Act 1985, the Dangerous Goods Act 1985, the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 and the Workplace Injury Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2013. The bill has quite a few different clauses and provisions, some of which we on this side of the house are quite supportive of. We do have concerns about other aspects of the bill as it sits, as mentioned by the member for Mornington, who is the shadow minister.
The member for Mornington has outlined a number of those concerns. In particular, the introduction of a new enforceable undertaking offence as outlined in clause 10 and the penalties associated with that give us some cause for concern. In addition, the member for Mornington and others have spoken about the significant increase in penalties and how that is then converted into an indictable status of offence relating to the notification of a serious incident and the preservation of the site of a serious incident. On the surface, they seem to be quite excessive. I know that they have been fleshed out in detail by the member for Mornington in his very good contribution in this place.
I also want to refer to comments around the workplace. The member for Essendon in his contribution talked about the economy and how important that is. A loss of service and a loss of workers in certain industries can have a massive impact. From a local community point of view, whilst we talk about improving workplace safety, I think it is important to note that one of the things our community wants and needs at the moment is simply to have employment, for people to have a job. Unfortunately what we have seen over the past months with the closure of the Hazelwood power station has been the exodus of hundreds of employees and a number of service providers and contractors impacted.
That is simply not good enough for our community, where we have seen unemployment absolutely go through the roof over this period of time. I suppose that, given what is happening at the moment, we are going to see the possible demolition and decommissioning of the plant. That will have an impact on Victoria’s economy and the ability to provide energy security to the state of Victoria.
But within that there is also some nervousness around workplace safety and how that might play out, because when you are talking about a power station of the magnitude of Hazelwood power station which contains asbestos, of course that raises many issues on many fronts. Whilst many community members do not want to see Hazelwood power station closed or certainly demolished, if it is to be done, then it needs to be done in a safe and appropriate manner.
If I can add further to that, I think it is important that wherever possible where that work is being undertaken, that it is undertaken by local contractors and service providers. That is critically important. What we unfortunately saw last week or the week before was some demolition work — which can be dangerous work, and regulations around workplace safety for demolition companies have been enhanced in recent years — being done on a number of Morwell schools by an external contractor from the other side of Geelong. That was certainly a bitter pill to swallow for many of our local contractors, who have the capacity and capability to do that very same work and can do it in a very safe environment. I think any suggestion by some that local companies do not have the occupational health and safety standards or the workplace safety standards in place was something they were quite angry about — that such aspersions might be cast upon them — because these same demolition contractors have previously done work in our local community. So for them not to participate in this work is extremely disappointing.
I was held up earlier, not physically but when the member for Malvern came to tap me on the shoulder to come and speak in here, and I was running a little bit late. The reason why I was running a little bit late was because I had just spent 30 minutes on the phone with a local lady whose partner works at Carter Holt Harvey in Morwell. I refer back to the point that if we are talking about workplace safety, the first principle for many people in our community at the moment is a job. This lady was very emotional about the fact that her partner is likely to lose his job, and she wanted to know what would become of the family.
In many respects we can have all the workplace regulations in place, and that is appropriate, but, by gee, we need to do something about maintaining, retaining and creating new jobs in our community at the moment. It is really difficult to come into this place and speak about these particular matters when you have had a very emotional person on the other end of the phone, whose partner is likely to lose their job in the next six weeks or so and they have nothing to go to. It simply defies logic and belief that we have this situation occurring.
It is the same principle so far as I am concerned as that in relation to Hazelwood. If Carter Holt Harvey in Morwell does close its plant, and it is a massive plant and a massive precinct, it will be interesting to see who does the work in terms of the clean-up and the dismantling of the plant. Again, all those workplace safety provisions must surround that, but in reality the cry from our community at the moment is that we just cannot afford to lose any more employment.
I noted the unions yesterday were campaigning right across the city for a particular cause and purpose, and good on them; that is their prerogative. But what I would like to see is the unions in our region making sure they stand up and fight for those workers and those jobs in the Gippsland region, particularly in the timber and energy sectors, which are so critically important, not just locally but, as the member for Essendon said, in terms of Victoria and nationally.
We just cannot afford to let those things happen. Yes, make sure we have got all the workplace safety provisions around that and the safety networks — of course they are paramount. But to see the demise of the energy industry and the timber industry in the Latrobe and Gippsland regions is utterly unbelievable at this point in time, and we need to make sure that the government in consultation with these companies does all it can to keep these businesses open and employees working. Then we can worry about workplace safety, because you can only worry about workplace safety when somebody has got a job. At the moment this is a critical issue in my community, where unemployment unfortunately has risen in the last two years from 7.3 per cent to 11.2 per cent in Latrobe City, and it is simply not good enough.