The right to work safely is one of the principal rights we expect as Australians. Whether we work in mines, construction sites, hospitals, schools or offices, we all rightly expect to be safe in our day-to-day work. Thankfully, the vast majority of us get through every day—working hard to provide for ourselves and our families—without incident, and return home safely.
Unfortunately, accidents do still happen and people suffer injury or illness at work. In April this year I had the honour—along with many members of this place, including the member for Blacktown—of attending the International Day of Mourning event at Reflection Park, where we remembered workers killed at work.
I heard personal stories of workers killed in the course of making a living and reflected on the importance of the strong safety net available to people in this State. Workers compensation rightly assists those harmed at work. It is a critical keystone in our welfare safety net and is vital to protecting us all in our time of greatest need.
In 2012 this Liberal Government made a grave error in ripping apart the workers compensation scheme. Three years later, it has returned to restore some funding and patch together what it wrecked. The Minister will crow that he has made the system stronger; but, when I think of all those workers his changes left in the cold, I wonder at what cost.
I truly value our workers compensation scheme and want to see it strengthened and restored; but I fear what other mistakes this Government is making in this process.
Since early last century, the Dust Diseases Board has provided care and compassion to victims of dust- and asbestos-related disease. For farmers suffering silicosis, the Dust Diseases Board was there.
The board was there for the carpenters and construction workers left with the debilitating effects of asbestosis. It was there for the countless workers—electricians, engineers, plumbers, railroad workers, sheet metalworkers, welders and mechanics—who were exposed to asbestos each and every day in the course of making a living and who were cut down by mesothelioma.
The board was there, helping to schedule medical appointments, provide oxygen generators and connect victims to the supports they needed. It was there for their families, helping with travel arrangements or mowing the lawn when no-one else could. It was there to help organise funerals and to provide support for widows and the family members left behind.
All you had to do was pick up the phone and the board was there to help in whatever way it could.
I was struck recently by reading the story of Helen Davis, reported in the Sydney Morning Herald last week, who, when her husband was diagnosed with asbestos disease after replacing broken fibro in their home in the 1960s, relied on the Dust Diseases Board. Helen said:
They would have sent someone out seven days a week to shower him, do my housework, mow the lawns, that sort of thing.
I could go and spend time with friends and they would sit with him.
When he passed away, they would contact me and make sure that the girls and I were doing OK.
Surely this board represents something important and real—an attempt by government to be there for people who need it most; a caring agency that represented the helping hand any of us would want to offer to our neighbours or friends given the circumstances.
It has ensured that, as a society, someone was always there to help our most vulnerable in their time of greatest need.
I am deeply worried about the abolition of the Dust Diseases Board and the reasoning behind it. The Minister argues it will improve efficiency and make processing of claims more prompt, but we have heard this from the Liberal Government before. There are grave concerns in the community that the "greater efficiency" this Government talks about is nothing more than a smokescreen for reduced quality of services and compensation.
The Minister claims there will be no changes to the services that victims and their families are able to access, but we have heard this kind of thing from the Liberal Government before. These changes were dumped on the board and on workers last week, with little to no consultation. The public was given no warning, leaving those who relied on the service in confusion and chaos.
I fear abolishing the Dust Diseases Board is nothing more than another attempt to cut services in the name of efficiency and the bottom line. I fear it will sow uncertainty and confusion and rip away a critical lifeline for those who rely on it. The Minister and this Government should know that the community is distrustful of change for change's sake.
As Bernie Robson, President of the Asbestos Diseases Foundation, has said:
Why change something that has been working for nearly four decades?
The community will not stand for any move that threatens services for victims of dust-related diseases and their families. The Dust Diseases Board represents a lifeline for victims and their families; but for us as a society, it represents more than that.
It shows we care about our sick; that we care about those who are most vulnerable. It also shows that as a society we will look after workers who are injured or who fall critically ill in the course of making a living. It shows that we are a fully functioning and civilised society.
This Government made a critical mistake when it tore apart workers compensation in 2012, only to try to piece it back together now. In those three years how many workers were left without the support and compensation they were entitled to and which they needed? How many families were left in uncertainty and fear?
And will we stand here in three years' time, trying to piece back together the Dust Diseases Board because of another Liberal mistake?
For sufferers of mesothelioma, silicosis and other dust-borne diseases, three years is a very long time.