Last Sunday I was humbled and privileged to attend the Northern District Branch of the United Mineworkers’ Annual Memorial Service at the Jim Comerford Memorial Wall in Cessnock. The wall was unveiled by Prime Minister Paul Keating in 1996 and bears the name of each coalminer in the Hunter Valley who has died in the course of his work since 1801. This year Prime Minister Julia Gillard attended. In her keynote address the Prime Minister spoke with great empathy about the lives lost and the dreadful hurt these losses can cause a community. Mining coal is a dangerous business and there are plenty of ways it can go wrong. The clearest proof of this is the list of names on the Jim Comerford Memorial Wall. There are 1,795 of them.
When the wall is next refurbished that number will exceed 1,800. That is far too many lives to be lost in the pursuit of earning a wage. Let this House be in no doubt: Miners risk their lives every single day, and this State and this country prospers off the back of their willingness. I make special mention of the family of Peter Jones, who attended the day. Peter died in a coalmining accident just 13 weeks ago. I have dozens of friends who work in the industry and every single one of them can tell a range of stories that usually include phrases such as, “I had just been standing there a minute before the fall”, or “The one-metre bolt went flying past my head and implanted itself in the wall.”
It is often said that Australia’s mining safety laws were written in blood—that they have been a response to some of the terrible accidents we have seen around this country and in this State. In my electorate the Bellbird Colliery mining disaster of 1 September 1923 stands out. Twenty-one men lost their lives that day after an explosion underground. Nine decades later the grief caused by the disaster still permeates the town. However, as the Bellbird memorial states, “This appalling disaster resulted in the formation of the industry’s central mines rescue stations.” It is a cruel irony that it took the accident to make that happen.
I believe memorials such as that serve two purposes. Firstly, they give the people who have lost someone—a relative, a partner or a friend—the chance to remember them. However, attending the service on Sunday did something else. It reminded me and, I would think, everyone who was there, of the importance of maintaining safe working standards. This last year has been a particularly bad one for mining safety around the world. Twenty-nine men were lost at Pike River in New Zealand in November, and shortly before that 33 men in Chile survived through the most extraordinary good fortune. In each of those instances, and dozens of others across the world, it is predictable that the tragically affected will put in a call to Australian miners who are the best in the world when it comes to mine rescue.
While we talk in this House about making New South Wales number one again, we must ensure that New South Wales and Australian mine rescue and mine safety continue to be the best in the world. Being in a civilised Western country is no guarantee that workplace safety and conditions are assured. Attendees were reminded on Sunday that even in the United States of America 1,000 people each year die of black lung. That can be prevented by having ventilation in mines. In Australia, every mine is ventilated. On Sunday, the Prime Minister announced the Government’s intention to ratify Convention 176 concerning safety and health in mines, which has been proposed by the International Labour Organization. I commend this intention. It is not just in the interests of miners and their unions that international standards are raised; it is in all our interests. I trust it has the support of all members of this House.
The United Mineworkers’ annual memorial service is an emotional occasion because it touches the hearts of so many people. In Cessnock and the Hunter Valley more people than not would have been affected in some way by a mining fatality. That is the nature of the Hunter Valley’s history, and it has only recently become a history. All men at some time either have known someone who worked in a pit or have worked in a pit. The Jim Comerford Memorial Wall records that history and reminds us of our responsibility as legislators to try to ensure that no more names are added to it.