Subjects: Safe Work Australia report on use of engineered stone, silicosis, Closing Loopholes legislation, Israel-Hamas war, Australia’s Palestinian community.
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Engineered stone has become a popular feature of kitchen renovations, but it poses one of the biggest risks to the health and safety of workers since asbestos. Particles of dust from the dry cutting of engineered stone can lodge in the lungs of anyone close by causing a fatal condition known as silicosis. Union and health experts want it to be banned, a subject that will be up for discussion when workplace relations ministers meet today.
Tony Burke is the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, and he’s my guest this morning. Minister, welcome back to the program.
TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS, MINISTER FOR THE ARTS: Good morning, Patricia.
KARVELAS: Will today’s meeting resolve to ban the use of engineered stone in Australia?
BURKE: What will happen today is I’ll be recommending that we release the report publicly and then that we reconvene fairly soon once the report’s been out there for people to be able to publicly see exactly how strong it is for us to then make the decision. The important thing here is the powers largely reside – in work health and safety – at a state level. I’m wanting to make sure that I can keep all the states moving together. I would have liked to have actually had agreement to release the report before today. I didn’t get that agreement from every jurisdiction; I got it from most but not from every jurisdiction. So today we want to make sure that the report is released publicly.
I’ll tell you, the report is much stronger than I expected it to be. We put out three different options that we asked Safe Work Australia to consider. One was a regulation system. The second was a ban of anything with silica content above 40 per cent. The third was a complete ban. The report, which unfortunately some of it’s appeared in the media today in the papers, prior to its release, but what’s reported there is correct – it’s come back with a very strong recommendation in favour of a ban.
KARVELAS: Okay. So the report calls for an outright ban?
BURKE: That’s right.
KARVELAS: And will you take that recommendation and make it law?
BURKE: The power to do that rests with the states. What we’ll be doing today is doing two stages. First thing, I don’t think it’s reasonable for us to be making a final decision without the public knowing what’s in the report. There have been calls in the lead-up to this meeting for the public release of the report. I wanted to be able to do that but didn’t get the agreement. Today I intend to get the agreement so it can be publicly released.
People have a right to know why there is such a strong recommendation. Then I want to make sure that we return before long – certainly this year – for a further meeting where we can make final decisions. Some jurisdictions I expect will come out with their own position in advance of that.
But we have a substance which is being compared to asbestos for a reason. Similar to asbestos if you have one of these kitchen benchtops in your home, while it’s there, when it is stable, it is not a risk. It is not an immediate panic or anything like that for people who have these in place. The risk comes either at installation or at renovation or removal, and we will be dealing with this as a legacy product for decades to come.
KARVELAS: Are you worried that some jurisdictions will try and avoid an outright ban?
BURKE: I would be surprised. I’d actually be surprised if the industry campaign that has been running so strongly with advertising over the last few days continues in that form once they’ve seen the report. I don’t believe there’s any section of Australia that will look lightly at the reality of people losing their lives because they went to work.
One of the key differences here between what we remember happening with asbestosis and mesothelioma was that those diseases, they came on late in life. With silicosis, people get it young. I’ve met people in their 30s who now have silicosis. One worker said to me that his doctor said: “Don’t panic. You do have silicosis. But do you have your affairs in order?” These are the questions that are being put to people because they went to work, and we need to take action. We need to take action soon. But I do think the public have a right for the public release of this report first.
KARVELAS: Minister, final question on this, but will – how quickly will we see a full ban on this?
BURKE: It’s in the hands of the state jurisdictions. I think –
KARVELAS: How quickly would you like to see it?
BURKE: I want as soon as possible for people to be safe when they go to work. It’s as simple as that. I can see a lot of goodwill from all the jurisdictions here. I don’t think people will be disappointed in the pace of action. But because the report wasn’t released earlier, we’re in a situation today where the public release of the report is the priority. But I don’t get a sense from any jurisdiction that people are looking for delay.
KARVELAS: Just on another issue in your portfolio, to industrial relations, WA Premier Roger Cook says the Prime Minister needs to carefully consider the legislation that you have – your IR bill – warning the potential damage it could cause on the state’s mining sector. What’s your response to that?
BURKE: In terms of making sure that we carefully consider the implications, that’s right, and we are. If you have a look at the evidence that’s been coming through the Senate inquiry at the moment in terms of the mining industry, there’s some arguments that don’t disagree with the policy intention of the Government. Which is to make sure that service contractors aren’t caught by the labour-hire loophole sections. There’s some conversations going on about alternative drafting there and that’s a very constructive conversation.
Some businesses came to the Senate inquiry from the mining sector saying this will be a disaster for them, and then when they were asked, "Do you have an enterprise agreement?” they said “No”, and then acknowledged it wasn’t going to affect them at all. So, there’s been some businesses where there’s been significant exaggeration. There are other areas where there are constructive conversations that are happening. And there are some businesses that just don’t want us to close the loophole, and that’s where there’s just a straight-out difference of opinion.
I don’t think it’s right that you can agree to an enterprise agreement, agree to a minimum rate of pay and then undercut it by either employing people through a shelf company or a labour-hire firm.
KARVELAS: Minister, I want to move to the issues emerging from the Middle East and the implications here in Australia. Israeli ground forces mounted a big raid into Gaza overnight, but there is growing anger in the Arab world and anger here in Australia amongst Arab Australians about Israel’s relentless bombardment. Is it proportionate, what we’re seeing?
BURKE: I think the statement from Penny Wong yesterday is really significant where she said the way Israel defends itself matters. When we carried the resolution in the Federal Parliament we specifically called for the observance of international law in all instances. The concerns from the community, I think we’re now in the order of six and a half thousand people who’ve died in these bombings, and that’s before you get to the issues that are separate from the bombings but potentially in terms of human rights are even more significant. If you go back to the first days after October 7 when the Israeli Defence Minister referred to a complete siege, he used the term “human animals”, and he said there would be no food, no water and no fuel into Gaza.
In my part of Sydney, people are not simply getting their information through the media; they’re getting information directly from the ground on Gaza. It’s coming through WhatsApp groups. People are getting updates, people are seeing horrific images updated every hour on their phones. What people are telling me is the concept of having access to clean water for many people has already ended. The concept of having available water at all may well for many people be in the final days now. There is an aquifer in Gaza, but that aquifer is saline; it’s dependent on desalination. If neither fuel nor water is provided, then people say to me, “Who’s going to run out of water first? The family that’s evacuated because their home was bombed or the Hamas fighter? Who’s going to be more affected by the impossibility of importing medicines? Will it be the Hamas fighter or will it be the people in a hospital?” The people in the area say to me, “When fuel runs out, desalination stops. But also, in a hospital who’s going to have the backup power kept separate from the supplies? The Hamas fighter or the people on life support or a baby in an incubator?”
The impact of that decision is ticking. It’s being felt now. People are already, on the information that’s coming to me from people on the ground, much sicker as a result. While it hasn’t had the same attention as the direct bombing, in terms of the humanitarian impact of that siege we are moments away from horrific impacts there from all the information that’s coming to me from the community.
KARVELAS: I’ve heard people describe it as a genocide. Do you see it that way?
BURKE: I prefer to provide the facts as I just did, and I think your listeners will find their own words to be able to describe it. I think when we go straight to “do we use this word?”, “do we use that word?”, we end up in an argument about linguistics. What I want to talk about is what’s happening to individuals. And the people –
KARVELAS: And what you’re saying is that that’s not – you are raising the alarm in relation to the blockade. You’re saying that the blockade is a humanitarian disaster. Is that what you’re saying?
BURKE: The blockade has been there for in the order of 17 years. There has been since October – and I’m not understating the problems with that. But since October 7 there has been a siege, as announced by the Israeli Defence Minister. Since October 7 the announcement was no food, no water, no fuel. For all the information that is coming to me from my part of Sydney, from the community that I represent, the people who are going to be most affected by that, the people who will die first as a result of that are not Hamas; they are families who live in Gaza. Many of them live in Gaza already as refugees who are now refugees again because they’ve evacuated. I’ve had people tell me of family members who evacuated from the north when they were told to and then faced bombing on the way while they were seeking to evacuate.
We need to be able to distinguish in the debate in Australia between Hamas and Palestinians. There have been too many occasions where the two have been conflated and the military conflict is meant to be against Hamas.
KARVELAS: Canterbury Bankstown Council has voted to raise the Palestinian flag until a ceasefire is declared in Palestine. That’s in your electorate. Do you support it?
BURKE: I support the decision completely.
BURKE: You need to understand, in my part of Sydney people are watching every day, death. They’re watching every day images, sometimes of people they know, often of children. I had a professional women say to me the other day she has never seen so many images of dead babies in her life. Often the images they’re seeing turn out to be of people they know. Everybody in – if I go through the suburbs across from Belmore, Lakemba, where I live in Punchbowl through to Bankstown, pretty much everybody knows somebody who has lost someone. Until the Council made that decision there was nowhere in Australia where those colours were being acknowledged as worthy of grieving.
When the councillor Khodr Saleh, who’s my local councillor, brought forward that resolution and then the mayor, Bilal El-Hayek, supported that resolution – which I might add was supported unanimously – they were truly representing the grief that is in the community. Once again it is not the Hamas flag that is flying; it’s the Palestinian flag. It’s a flag that gives people the chance to know that there is recognition and not selective grief. We can’t say we only grieve for certain people who are slaughtered. We can’t have a situation as a nation where we only formally acknowledge particular deaths.
What happened on October the 7th was horrific and was rightly condemned by the Parliament and condemned by me – the condemnation of Hamas. We can’t have that condemnation be added to by saying as a result of condemnation, that’s somehow weakened if you grieve for anybody else. That’s somehow weakened if you do something to acknowledge the Palestinian loss of life.
KARVELAS: Okay. So we know that the Opera House was lit up in the Israeli flag colours. Do you think that was the right call?
BURKE: The decision that was made – look, I agree with what Matthew Thistlethwaite said to you on Q&A the other night. Not all the listeners might have watched the episode, but when Matt said as a general rule with the Opera House, the more we start to return it to an arts and cultural precinct – and it got to the point where it’s been used for commercial advertising as well – that’s the proper use for the Opera House, and it’s sensible for us to start getting back to that.
The concept of having places where people were able to grieve with the Israeli colours, with the Israeli flag, I respect absolutely. Respect absolutely and don’t disagree about having places to do that separate to a decision about the Opera House. But in the same way, we have had until Canterbury Bankstown Council made that decision no parallel for the grief of Palestinians. I’m really glad that the council made that decision. I’m very proud that it was my local council.
KARVELAS: And should it happen more broadly in Australia at the moment given the numbers that you have pointed to?
BURKE: I suspect it will. I suspect it will. There’s a really immature debate that we often fall into where it says if you acknowledge anything in favour of the Palestinian people or a claim that if in any way you acknowledge that there is a history that began before October 7 that somehow that’s making excuses for Hamas. It’s not. It’s simply the case that people have a right to be able to grieve when innocent life is lost. The concept of competitive grief, which certainly hasn’t driven any of the interviews on this program but has driven some of the media, is something that I don’t want to see in Australia. I believe we do have the maturity and we need to have the maturity to have the respect for each other’s grief.
KARVELAS: Does it also mean that your government needs to have a tougher line on Israel‘s bombardment and deprivation – as you say, water and food – of the Israeli government? Do you need to use – you are right now but everyone needs to be using stronger language to condemn it?
BURKE: I think the words that I referred to earlier from Penny Wong yesterday were highly significant. Highly significant.
KARVELAS: She didn’t call for a ceasefire; it was a pause.
BURKE: That’s right. She called for a pause, and the Australian Government acknowledges that any country in the world after an attack like Hamas will want to respond directly to Hamas. That said, we want to protect every civilian life, and that includes civilian Palestinians. We want to make sure there is a proper humanitarian response. We don’t want to see people starving. We don’t want to see people without water. We don’t want to see hospitals without power. We also want to be able to help get people out.
I heard the interview earlier on this program today with respect to the Government trying to get people out of Gaza. We have been able to get people out of Israel. We have been able to get people out of the West Bank. Of course, at the moment no one can get anyone out of Gaza. So while the Government’s still making best efforts there, there are people who Australia has a direct responsibility to who we want to help get out. But there’s also people who simply, because we have a strong view about the treatment of civilians, who have no direct personal link to Australia but we still want civilians to be safe.
KARVELAS: Just brief answer on this, if you can, because David Speers is waiting in the US to speak to us: human rights organisations and legal experts have increasingly described Israel’s policy towards Palestinians as apartheid. I know you’ve been there. You’ve been to the West Bank. Is that how you see it?
BURKE: Once again, I don’t want to get into the debate about the labels. Certainly the description you gave is a description that Desmond Tutu had used. It’s not a description that we use as a government. But let me just give this example: I’ve been to the military courts in the West Bank. Military courts where Palestinians are tried within the order of a 99 per cent reported conviction rate. If two children throw a stone at a member of the Israeli Defence Force, one is Jewish, one is Palestinian, the legal consequences of that identical action are different depending on their race. People can reach their own conclusions about what word to apply to that, but that’s how the law works there at the moment.
KARVELAS: Tony Burke, thank you.
BURKE: Thanks for the chance to talk.
KARVELAS: Tony Burke is the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. You’re listening to ABC RN Breakfast.