JOURNALIST: Minister, why will you be pushing your state counterparts to ban engineered stone?
THE HON TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS, MINISTER FOR THE ARTS: We have a situation at the moment where people are contracting a deadly disease because they've gone to work. There are lots of times in life where people will get different diseases, where people will get sick, but it should never be simply because you turned up for work. So, what I'm hoping the ministers will decide today and we brought them all together, excuse me – What I'm hoping the ministers will decide today, and we brought them all together, is to go down three parts; to scope out what regulation looks like, to scope out what a ban looks like and to look at what we have to do with public education and communication about this.
JOURNALIST: Can you explain what the risk is exactly?
BURKE: Yeah, silicosis has the risk of becoming the new asbestos. It's a product where we often talk about kitchen benchtops. It's not only there. It's also in tunnelling, in quarrying, in in different areas where people inhale disease, inhale dust particles that are so tiny you can't even see them, and it's often young workers. I met a woman by the name of Joanna in her mid 30s, who worked in admin at a quarry in Victoria. Now, in a situation where she has silicosis. Not sure whether she'll see her daughters grow up to be adults. These sorts of challenges are real, it's happening in workplaces, and I want Safe Work Australia to start the work now to see what a ban would look like, where you would draw the line on what was banned and what wasn't, where you would put rules in for much tougher regulation than we have.
JOURNALIST: So, does it need to be a blanket ban?
BURKE: Well, the thing is, if you're talking about the kitchen, bathroom benchtops, some of them go up to 95 per cent silica. There are others that can be as low as 40 per cent silica. Once you're down to 40 per cent, you're actually lower than ordinary stone. So, Safe Work Australia have the expertise to be able to work through exactly where the line should be drawn. But wherever that line is drawn, it has to be drawn on the side of people being able to go to work and come home without a terminal illness.
JOURNALIST: And on the ban was there a timeline of when you'd like to see that in place? Is it next year, the year after, this year?
BURKE: The nature of how these laws work is we need every jurisdiction to come together. So, the process today will be ministers will decide whether or not to give Safe Work Australia the job of coming back to us. Excuse me –
The work of ministers today will be to decide whether we task Safe Work Australia to come back to us later this year with the scoping out of what a ban would look like, then we would have to decide whether all jurisdictions agree to it. If that's the case, then you'd find you'd be well into next year before we'd be in a situation where further action was taken.
JOURNALIST: Minister, when did this silica first become a threat to workers? As in, when were the benchtops first put in with high silicon contents? And how many people does this affect Australia wide?
BURKE: There's a study from Curtin University that anticipates that between - I have to apologise - there's a study from Curtin University that anticipates that between 80,000 and 100,000 people may be in a situation with silicosis. Roughly 600,000 workers are exposed to it each year. So, it's not just kitchen benchtops, it's anything where you're working with stone, with rock, with tunnelling, all of those issues carry different levels of risk. And in fairness, there's probably none of those workplaces where our current rules have been tough enough.
With benchtops, there are things that business has done, and industry has done to improve the situation. So, if you have one of these in your home, it's not dangerous while it's sitting there, it's when it gets cut, it's when it gets manufactured, that the danger takes place. Now, in the factory, they tend to use wet cutting, so there's water on it, which therefore gets rid of most of the risk of people inhaling the particles. But often when it gets to someone's home, it then gets further adjusted and it is often at that point that you find the dust particles can still be flying. And even though the initial manufacturer did everything they could to keep it safe, we still end up with a dangerous product.
JOURNALIST: Has successive governments taken too long to act on this?
BURKE: Look, I don't want to turn it into a partisan issue. Obviously, I am putting a greater urgency on this than what previous deadlines had been. I'm not critical of the various state governments, they've been very cooperative in the discussions leading to today, regardless of their political colour. It is certainly the case that there has been a spike in more recent years. So, if you look at the New South Wales workers compensation figures, for example, up until about 2017, they were getting 6 or 7 cases a year of workers compensation. 2019-2020, that spiked up to more than 100. So, it was dampened a bit during the lockdown years, but we are seeing a spike as people have absorbed this over time. So, with these issues, do I wish action had been taken earlier? Of course, I do. That's why I'm not waiting ‘til June of next year before I put to the other ministers, let's scope out what a ban would look like. Whenever we make that decision, it still takes more than a year for things to work through the system. So, let's not keep delaying, let's start the process today.
JOURNALIST: Just quickly, on super, is it a minor or major change to make tax concession alterations for people over $3m with their account?
BURKE: Most Australians weren't aware that you could have $3m in a superannuation account. I think you'd have to view that as minor in terms of the number of people who are affected.
JOURNALIST: And also on this super debate, there are a lot of Australians with smaller accounts that are actually quite nervous at the moment. They're worried with what's going on. What's your message to them, given this debate seems to have got a bit messy?
BURKE: Well, you'd only be worried if you were listening to Peter Dutton or Angus Taylor, because they've jumped straight to a fear campaign. It's what they do, they'll vote no to everything. Whatever decision we make, they'll be opposed to, no matter which direction it goes to. So, if people are listening to voices of people who make stuff up, then you would be concerned. But realistically, we're having a conversation about a pretty modest change in terms of the number of people affected. Decision at this point hasn't been made. But if you look at the dollars involved and the concept that we're heading towards a period where tax concessions on super end up costing more than the age pension, then I think people understand why the Treasurer is saying we need to have the conversation.
JOURNALIST: So, with that extra money, hypothetically, if the government changes the tax concessions, do you think that should be put back into super? Should it be used on another program, for example even with super, women don't get paid super on paid parental leave. Is that maybe where the money should go?
BURKE: I hear what you say, but I'm not going to become Treasurer midway through the interview. So, the first thing is to have the conversation about how do we make sure that superannuation is sustainable. It's a Labor reform, it's made a huge difference to people's dignity in retirement, and we just need to make sure that it keeps true to that purpose.
JOURNALIST: Can I ask a question on a totally different subject?
BURKE: As in a totally different portfolio than mine?
JOURNALIST: I think it's your portfolio, it's the National Library of Australia – the cultural institutions in Canberra. There's concern about Trove being shut down at the National Library. We all use Trove, we need it to search for historical information. Can you offer any assurance to the people at Trove and the National Library that they might have a chance of getting some help in the May Budget?
BURKE: Okay, well, the first thing is that the budget decision hasn't been made. We were left with a situation where the previous government had decided that Trove funding would expire on the 30 June this year. Trove is incredibly important, the work that it did through the National Library when we were last previously in office was incredibly important. The 2014 Budget cut saw funding for Trove cut for a period of time and then with the previous government resumed funding for Trove. They did it on a time limited basis. I don't know anyone who uses Trove who thinks it's a time limited service in terms of its requirement. The decision hasn't been made, but it is fair to say that Labor has always had a commitment to the cultural institutions. I think we showed that when we launched Revive in terms of cultural policy, generally. But the previous government has run them down and with Trove they have run it straight up to a brick wall of funding where it all stops on the 30th of June. So, that's probably as much as I can offer in advance of there being a budget decision. Okay, thanks everyone.