PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: The Federal Government will seek national agreement for a ban on engineered stone at a meeting of state and territory Workplace Safety Ministers later today. Research commissioned by the ACTU, the trade union movement, has found more than 100,000 workers could develop the fatal lung disease silicosis as a result of, exposure to the product, which is widely used in kitchen and bathroom benchtops. But some businesses are calling for a national licensing system, instead, arguing a total ban won’t protect workers.
Tony Burke is the Minister for Workplace Relations, and our guest this morning. Minister, welcome.
THE HON TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS, MINISTER FOR THE ARTS: Good morning.
KARVELAS: A report commissioned by the previous government into silicosis made several recommendations and said only if those didn’t work then the government should look at this ban of the material by mid-2024. That was the previous time frame. Why have you decided to move that forward?
BURKE: If you have a children’s toy that’s causing – that’s considered dangerous, we rip it off the shelves. It’s not only with the benchtops, the benchtops are clearly the most dangerous of the difference forms of silica in terms of the silica content, there can be up to 95 per cent. I should explain because a lot of people will be coming to this for the first time. Silica’s a natural product. It’s in all – you’ll find it in stone, you’ll find it when tunnelling happens and it’s, you know, roughly you’ll say about 60 per cent, 40 to 60 per cent will be the silica content often in all the stone. For engineered stone benchtops, that silica content goes up to 95 per cent, and while we shouldn’t take any comfort from the fact that it’s a natural substance – asbestos is a natural substance as well. So these high rates of silica, if the dust is inhaled, people will find themselves with silicosis and it’s an incurable fatal disease.
The challenge here is what work should we be getting SafeWork Australia to do? I don’t think we should be waiting 12 months before we get them to scope out what would a ban look like. There’s a lot of questions there on a ban versus regulation. But at the moment the work they’re doing doesn’t scope out what a ban would look like, where you would ban, what percentage silica you would look at. I want that work being done straightaway. We waited 70 years from when we were told about the dangers of asbestos before we got to a ban and I don’t want us to be making the same mistake this time.
KARVELAS: Do you accept the argument, though, that with wet-cutting practices and the right PPE, engineered stone can be used safely. That’s the counter-argument being used by those who think that there should be some restrictions, perhaps, but not a ban?
BURKE: Yeah, there’s two different concepts here. The first is, there is now some research coming out and some medical views that even with the best practices you still are not sufficiently reducing the risk. That’s why the Royal Australian College of Physicians, the Lung Foundation, the Cancer Council are asking us to consider a ban.
It’s also the case that you have to consider all the different stages that these benchtops go through. You’ll often find now, you will find wet cutting in the factory where they’re first put together. When they get to installation at the home, very often they don’t quite fit and further adjustments are made, and it is much rarer for wet cutting to be done then. So if you’re wanting to make sure that we’ve got a situation where we are not putting workers’ lives at risk, then you do have to consider whether across the whole life cycle of these products whether or not they’re safe enough that a regulatory regime will do the job.
Certainly, at the moment the number of Australians with silicosis keeps rising. This is part of the cause. If we could easily regulate it, then you wouldn’t be considering a ban at all. But the view that certainly I’m putting to other ministers today – and the conversations have been constructive; we need 60 per cent support for it to go forward – is that we should be asking SafeWork Australia as of today to be scoping out the options for a ban as well.
KARVELAS: You’ll be looking to convince the states and the territories to agree to ban the engineered stone. So if that happens, you need two thirds. Let me just check, do you think you’ve got the numbers? You’re a Labor politician. You’ve heard that term before. Have you got the numbers?
BURKE: I have. I have used this term many times. I’ve got a good degree of confidence as to how the meeting will go today, but obviously jurisdictions are free to put whatever view they want. But, as we’ve had the conversations office to office, it hasn’t been a party-political thing across which governments are Labor or Liberal. There has been a good degree of support for the concept that we shouldn’t be waiting any longer before we are at least scoping out what a ban might look like.
KARVELAS: And if then you get your two thirds, which sounds like you are going to get it, how quickly would it come into effect? How can you actually move to that next stage?
BURKE: Yeah. There’s some complexity – all work health – so, for other parts of my portfolio, you just put a law through the Federal Parliament and you’ve got the laws done. For work health and safety, you work through a system with the agreement of states and territories and a lot of the laws then go through state and territory Parliaments so it’s a much more collaborative process.
What that means is if the decision’s made today, there’d be roughly a six month process from SafeWork Australia where they’d scope out what a ban would look like, what percentage you might do. For example, there are some forms of engineered stone that have a much lower percentage of silica and they may well be no more dangerous than using ordinary stone or other surfaces, so there’s a few different options that might come out of the work that SafeWork Australia would do.
The second half of the year, we’d deal with the report that they hand back and then it would be – there’ll be a decision of ministers as to how quickly you would implement. But it’s going to take a good 12 months or more before we’re –
KARVELAS: So, using your analogy of pulling a toy off the shelf, you can’t – you’re not going to be able do that, are you?
BURKE: No, you’re absolutely right. You’re not. And this is one of my concerns with why I didn’t want to wait another 12 months, as the original recommendation had been. The moment you get to this point, there’s still further delays and we’re talking about a situation – there’ll always be times in life where disease catches up with us, where there’s sicknesses that people had no control over. But we shouldn’t have a circumstance where it’s foreseeable. We’ve now been warned and people are dying simply because they had a job and turned up to work.
KARVELAS: Will the government set up a compensation fund and ensure companies that manufacture or use engineered stone contribute to it to avoid problems we saw with, for instance, James Hardie and asbestos.
BURKE: We’re certainly not at that point yet, but those sorts of decisions –
KARVELAS: Is that on the cards?
BURKE: Well, those sorts of decisions with respect to asbestos came after a decision had been made about a ban. The first decision to make is a decision with respect to how – you know, where do you draw a line on what can be safely regulated and what realistically just can’t be safely regulated.
KARVELAS: Changing topics, looking at corporate profits. Does the fact that December quarter profits were up more than 10 per cent compared to wages, which rose 2.6 per cent for the same period, demonstrate that it’s corporate profits driving inflation, as the union movement is arguing, not wages?
BURKE: Yeah, look there’s lots of trained economists in the building and I’m not one of them, so in terms of the causation of profits versus inflation I’m not going to get into that boots and all. What I will say is this: it is really clear that wages are not driving inflation, are not the principal driver of inflation here. It’s really clear we don’t have some sort of spiral of inflation being caused by high wage growth. It’s also really clear we don’t have high wage growth.
I was pleased that the last wage price increase got up to 3.3 per cent to the extent that that’s the highest it’s been for some time, and had we not taken actions that we took last year, particularly with respect to the minimum wage and awards, you wouldn’t have got a figure as high as that. But it’s still much, much lower than inflation and, so, the argument that somehow wages are the problem here is an argument that I think really needs to be put to bed.
KARVELAS: You also promised during the election that we would see wages go up under Labor but with inflation running as high as it is, workers are not experiencing what you promised they’d get, are they?
BURKE: Well, wages are going up. There are some issues that you can control, and there are some things that are outside of Government’s control. Obviously, the impacts of the war in Ukraine and what that’s meant for global prices, people know that that’s ricocheted to Australia and so those things you can’t control.
There are some prices we can have an impact on. So early childhood education prices, as of 1 July this year, we’ll be having a real impact on them. Medicines are now cheaper for the first time in the 75 year history of the PBS. So where we can have effect on prices, we’re doing it. Where we can have an effect on wages, we’re doing it. That’s what we’ve done with aged cared workers, it’s what we did with the annual wage review last year and it’s certainly what we did with the Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill. So I think people know that we are acting to deliver that, but obviously there’ll be a point where inflation starts to subside and we want to make sure at that point that people have real wages returning as well, not just the money into the bank account.
KARVELAS: So you don’t have a view about whether these record profits are part of the inflation problem?
BURKE: I’m leaving it – I’ll leave it to economists to argue that one out.
KARVELAS: Okay. Just a final question: before the election the Prime Minister made it crystal clear there wouldn’t be changes to superannuation and now, clearly, superannuation changes are on the cards. Is that a broken promise?
BURKE: If you have a look at the figures that Jim Chalmers’ has referred to – sorry, the first thing, the answer is no from my perspective there.
KARVELAS: Well, he said there wouldn’t be any changes.
BURKE: Yeah, you had the reference to major changes. You also had the reference as to whether we were planning anything, and none of those proposals were proposals that were discussed in any forum in Opposition. This is something that as we’ve had Treasury advice, as we’ve looked at the different challenges we’ve been levelled with, has started to become part of the public conversation.
I mean, I had no idea that there was this concept where people would have the sorts of extraordinary amounts of money in superannuation accounts which was therefore protected from normal taxation, where it was clearly going way beyond what would be for the purposes of retirement. So, you know, it’s a valid conversation for us to be having and working through the detail of.
KARVELAS: It is.
BURKE: A trillion dollars of debt doesn’t pay itself down.
KARVELAS: I think a lot of people probably want to have the conversation, but I think on the issue of trust. I do think that Labor in Opposition made it clear you didn’t want to touch superannuation and then post election, the discussion is being had. I mean, don’t voters need people to level with them and have those conversations before elections?
BURKE: I think you also have to have a situation where you receive more advice at a point in time and for us, you know, you don’t get Treasury advice until you’re in Government. When you receive more advice, then you listen to it and you have a conversation with the Australian people. You don’t ignore sensible advice when it’s given to you.
KARVELAS: We’re out of time. Thanks so much for your time this morning, Tony Burke.
BURKE: Great to talk.
KARVELAS: That’s the Workplace Relations Minister, Tony Burke.