I want to begin by paying my respects to the 136 workers represented by the boots on the steps of this Parliament who lost their lives at work over the last five years here in Victoria. We are here debating this bill because the current laws are not enough. They are not enough. Twenty workplace deaths this year tell us that they are not enough. The purpose of these laws before us today is that we continue to shine not a light but a spotlight on health and safety. Mr Davis talks about objectives. Well, surely the objective of workplace health and safety laws must be the fundamental right for every worker to be able to go home after work. That has got to be the objective, and if that is the objective, then we should explore everything available to us in order to ensure that we meet that objective. Twenty workplace deaths this year alone tell us that we have not achieved that objective, and these laws, as I say, will continue to shine a spotlight on workplace health and safety, as they should. These penalties are severe, as they should be. They are significant, as they should be, because one death is too many. I listened to Ms Stitt’s contribution earlier, and like Ms Stitt I spent 30 years advocating and representing workers as a union official. There was not a day that went by when we did not talk about occupational health and safety.
How could we make the workplace safer? How could we ensure that that objective of people going home uninjured, unharmed to their families at the end of their workday happened? That was every day for 30 years. And it was with mixed emotions, I have got to say, that I woke this morning. I hope that these laws never have to be used, because if they do not have to be used it means that we have achieved the objective. It was with mixed emotions that I thought, ‘What am I going to focus on today when I speak about this?’, because it is shameful, I think, that 136 Victorians and their families grieve today. And that is just from the last five years—that is if it is just 136, and I doubt that it is just 136. I think it is probably a lot more.
These laws are about changing behaviours, about trying to ensure that the behaviours that are occurring in the workplace today are changed so that we can meet that ultimate objective of people going home after work each today. I want to tackle a couple of things very quickly. I will not go on for too long because I do know that we have a committee stage and there are others who want to make a contribution. But I do have to tackle a couple of things that have been said in this chamber today. It is a very cynical world that Mr Quilty lives in, I have got to say—a very, very cynical world—if he thinks that these laws have been brought to this Parliament simply to increase red tape. I do not know where you can fabricate that in your own thinking.
I just do not know where that line of thinking comes from—that somehow this is all just designed as some great conspiracy for us to put a regulatory burden on employers and make them suffer by filling out reams of paper just to add to folders. Far from that, Mr Quilty, these laws are designed to stop the deaths—20 of which have occurred this year—in Victorian workplaces. That is what these laws are about. It is not to seek to impose a regulatory system over the top of employers for the sake of it. It is designed to get those 20 workers home each year. I want to talk about the opposition and some of their kite flying. We hear it all the time in these debates. They fly these kites about what might happen. It is this Chicken Little argument that they bring to this chamber all of the time—what if, what if, what if, what if, what if. Today what we are hearing is the demonisation of employees again.
As a union official for 30 years I never once went into a workplace where the workplace power was shared with employees, where the employees made the ultimate decision over things like workplace health and safety. It never happened, and I would love for anyone in the opposition to take me to a workplace where that occurs, because in 30 years as a union official I have never seen it. The workplace power arrangement simply does not exist like that. It simply does not exist. Despite the contributions that have been made here today, it is a furphy to suggest that employees who do transgress the law will not be dealt with. Of course they will be. Today we heard of drugged employees who will cause untold harm in workplaces and be immune from any form of prosecution. Nonsense. Those laws exist today, and they will exist tomorrow. If there is an employee who contributes to the harm of another worker in that circumstance, as Mr Davis described, they will be dealt with as they ought to be under the law. Do not come in here and fly kites and just throw around assertions that are plainly not true. I want to tell a very quick story if I might about a woman by the name of Sue Cooper.
Fortunately the unions that I represented were not in what you would call dangerous industries, although, like Ms Stitt, I have a son who works in construction. He is a plumber. I have got to tell you, every day you hope that the health and safety representatives in his workplace have done their jobs, that the employers have fully complied and that we see him each night and hear from him. Mr Quilty said he was not sure that these laws will drive behaviour. Well, Sue Cooper was a woman in the mid-1980s who worked in the Australian Tax Office, and she suffered from repetitive strain injury. My union at the time—and I was a baby organiser; I think I started when I was about seven—took the might of the commonwealth government on in this issue of RSI through the courts. What we were able to demonstrate was that new technologies had been brought into the workplace to the extent that people were getting harmed—people were getting injured. There was not workplace design. There was not proper testing of furniture and equipment, workflows et cetera.
They were absent, and ultimately we were successful—and successful in getting workplace health and safety changed to the point where in a matter of two years the reported cases of RSI in the commonwealth public service dropped from 4000 to some 200 simply because we were able to shine a light on the gaps in occupational health and safety. Why did employers respond? Because it was costing them millions of dollars. It was costing them more not to deal with the problem. Today’s laws are about people like Sue Cooper and all of those who have tragically lost their lives. Sue never lost her life, of course, but was maimed in the workplace through her injuries. But today’s laws are a testament to those people and all of their struggles. I, too, pay homage today to the families of the fallen workers who have gone before us. I also want to congratulate the mighty Victorian trade union movement, who I know have advocated for these changes for at least the last 30 years, and I look forward to them getting into workplaces tomorrow with these new laws and making sure that every Victorian worker can come home safely at the end of the day. I commend the bill to the house.