19TH ANNUAL MEMORIAL DAY SERVICE FOR COAL MINERS
SUNDAY, 14 SEPTEMBER 2014
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Family and friends of those we gather to remember.
Today, we share our tears and we grieve our loss.
I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet – and I pay my respects to their elders past and present.
I acknowledge National President Tony Maher, District President Peter Jordan, District Secretary Grahame Kelly.
Federal and State colleagues.
Friends, one and all.
It is an honour to be here.
It is a privilege to follow in the footsteps of the great leaders of our party and our movement who have spoken here since Paul Keating began this noble tradition in 1996 – alongside the late, great Jim Comerford.
We meet today to renew the pledge carved in the stone of this wall.
To ‘remember before God the men and boys who gave their lives in the northern district mines’.
Tragically, it is also our solemn duty to add four new names to the list of those lost.
And we can no longer speak only of ‘men and boys’.
Ingrid Forshaw, who was killed at the Ravensworth open cut mine on 30 November 2013, was the first woman to die in the northern district coalfields.
We light a lamp for Ingrid today – and for Phillip Grant and Jamie Mitchell, who lost their lives at the Austar underground coal mine on 15 April this year.
And for Mark Galton who died at the Boggabri open cut coal mine on 21 May.
I did not have the privilege of knowing the people we mourn today.
As a father, as a son, as a husband, as a brother - I cannot imagine, I cannot know - the pain, the loss, the bottomless chasm of sadness brought on by a sudden, fateful phone call or knock at the door by sombre police officers bearing the worst news of all.
But I do know that words of consolation and condolence are never enough.
They are merely the start of the process of going on, in slow time, with a heavy heart full of memories.
I do know that whether you call it closure, acceptance, or simply ‘moving on’, it takes a very long time, a lifetime.
I do know that there is no memorial, no ceremony, nothing we can say or do to fill the void left by the sudden, tragic theft of the people who loved you, the people you loved.
No words can restore the birthdays that are marked but not celebrated.
No words can make up for the empty chair at Christmas, the encouraging voice missing from the sidelines of weekend sport, the smiling face absent from the parent teacher interview at school.
But I hope you can draw comfort from the knowledge that you do not walk alone today – you never will.
There are no strangers here.
We are mates, we are family.
On days like today – we look around and see the true meaning of that great, grand word - solidarity.
We stand here wrapped in the great and generous embrace of our party and our movement.
Whether or not we knew the departed, we feel the loss, the absence, the unfinished conversations, the empty air.
We are all diminished, because we are all involved.
We are a living community, a country and a society – joined together in a single shared destiny.
That, that is solidarity.
Ours is a bond that reaches back beyond Federation.
A connection forged here – and in every place where hard-working people endure deep hardship and high risk for modest pay and little reward.
Mining, coal mining has been difficult and dangerous work for centuries.
It kills regularly in explosions, in gassings, in collapses, in water in-rushes and on, and on.
Before Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson crossed the Blue Mountains, before the Rum Rebellion brought down Governor Bligh, before John Batman decided that the banks of the Yarra would be ‘the place for a village’ – people had worked and died in the mines of the northern districts.
Against the backdrop of this history of danger and death and suffering, it is no wonder that coal-mining has such a long and proud tradition of strong unions, of enduring mateship.
This is the heartland of workers who dared to say, with one voice: “We are not expendable”.
They stood and said: “We are not fodder, we will not be carelessly discarded and quickly replaced.”
They stood up for their mates, knowing, demanding, that their health mattered, their safety mattered, their lives mattered.
They stood together for a fairer deal, a safer workplace, a better future – and their victories defined our modern nation.
They still do.
They wrote their chapter in our Australian story – a story so often authored and anchored in adversity.
It is a chapter that deserves to be better known.
Our nation has always held a special regard for the extraordinary courage of ordinary people.
Fighting bushfires, battling floodwaters, making a life in rugged and remote locations and, of course, serving our country in war.
Last Thursday marked the centenary of the little-known Battle of Bita Paka.
A hundred years ago, seven Australians were killed during the capture of a wireless station in what was then German New Guinea.
Those seven were the first of more than 60,000 Australians to die in the Great War.
A war that left a vivid wound on the fields of Europe and an indelible scar on the minds of all who lived through it.
A war that claimed more than 16 million lives – and ruined millions more.
It was a war fought, for the most part, with 20th Century technology and 19th Century tactics.
As Winston Churchill grimly noted, generals on both sides seemed intent on:
‘fighting machine-gun bullets with the breasts of gallant men’
This was a war that left an unbridgeable divide between the men and women who had known and endured its horrors, and those who could only guess at the trauma and the tragedy.
As the poet John Masefield said, the scale and depth of mass warfare created the need for:
‘a new term for mud, a new word for death’.
And this senseless loss, this awful waste of a generation’s potential, only served to sow the seeds of a second terrible conflict that began 75 years ago this month.
In our capital cities, and in every country town and coastal village, white markers, stone monuments and tree-lined avenues of honour record the names of citizen-soldiers who left behind their homes and loved ones to risk their lives in Australia’s name.
In the five years of commemoration ahead we will pause, time and again, to remember all who served.
People who fell in foreign fields far from the land they loved – and people who came home forever changed by what they had seen.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, Australians everywhere will utter our nation’s enduring promise: ‘Lest we Forget’.
It is a declaration that their lives were not spent in vain.
It is our shared oath to remember their sacrifice.
And it is a unifying affirmation of our country’s love of peace.
On this day, at this memorial, we remember different people and a different cause.
But their deaths are no less tragic, their lives were no less meaningful, their story is no less central to the country we know and love.
More than a hundred years before the first shots of the First World War – men and boys were mining coal beneath the soil of this nation.
They went down into the earth not out of love for King or country, not in pursuit of a grand adventure or patriotic duty.
Theirs were more modest goals, theirs was an uncomplicated love.
A love of the people they knew.
A duty they felt to support them, a desire to give them a better life.
But their loss was just as cruel, the bereavement of their loved ones just as deep.
And their lives were just as full of quality and meaning as the ones laid down for our country on the other side of the world.
It is not for us to compare, or to weigh one lost life against another.
No-one has that right, no-one can do that.
But just as commemorating the sacrifice of Australians in war spurs us to seek and protect peace.
Today, in remembering those lost to danger, we re-affirm our commitment to safety.
We promise to remember them – and to do better by them.
We vow to continue the fight for the most basic, the most essential workplace right of all - the right to come home alive.
Until that is assured, until there are no more new names on this wall – the work of our movement is not done.
This is an Australian mission – and an international task.
The International Labour Organisation has Convention Concerning Safety and Health in Mines, known as Convention 176.
Australian laws already exceed these standards - thanks in no small part to the hard work of your union.
But as a mining nation, we have a responsibility to lead, to make a strong statement.
The next Labor Government will ratify Convention 176 – and we will work with our friends and partners in mining nations around the world, to encourage them to ratify it too.
Friends, there are those who say that all the great battles of have been fought.
They say our great race has been run and won.
That the sun has set on the labour cause.
They say that health and safety is the curse of the nanny state, that every compliance measure is ‘red tape’, that every hard-fought reform is a brake on their profits.
They say fairness is guaranteed, our rights at work are secure, and the unfettered free market can take it from here.
They say Australia has no more need for unions.
I say - let them come to Cessnock.
Let them stand before this wall.
Let them look upon the roll-call of those who lost their lives, just doing their jobs.
Let them pause in front of the name of Robert Irving – an 11 year old boy sent down the mines to die before the union won the fight against child labour.
Let them see the names of men aged over 70, who urged their fading health and failing strength to work each day because security in retirement belonged only to the rich.
Let them reflect on the 21 names from 1923, men who were killed in the Bellbird Colliery explosion.
The worst single disaster in the district’s history – that’s what it took to convince Parliament to amend the Mines Rescue Act to include explicit mention of ‘health and safety’.
And let them reflect on what the union movement has contributed to this nation:
- Fair pay and equal pay
- Loadings that recognise the sacrifice of working unsociable hours
- Parental leave, carer’s leave and annual leave, giving people the right to enjoy a life outside of work
- Compensation for injuries
- And universal superannuation – a national promise that you won’t work hard all your life just to retire poor.
None of this came easily.
None of it was given willingly.
At every turn, on every issue, our forebears had to fight a hundred incremental battles.
They measured their success in inches – but they took their cause, and our country, miles.
Their story should be told, their achievements should be known.
This is why it is important for our kids to study our Australian history.
Our children should know that modern Australia, the fair, prosperous and inclusive nation we are lucky to call home was not the product of good fortune or happy accident.
They should know that we are the beneficiaries of a generational struggle to seek the fair go and embed it in our national life.
Friends, there will always be people who devote their energies to denigrating the work of the union movement.
Powerful, privileged voices who seek to diminish the role of unions and the labour cause.
People who throw ‘union’ at your feet like an insult.
And when they do – I think of days like this, I think of people like you.
I think of Beaconsfield gold mine.
When Larry Knight’s body was found and the management wanted to halt the search so the coroner could have a protected site.
I saw the grim determination in the eyes of the hard rock miners there, I heard the steel in their voice when they said:
“No. This is still a rescue operation – not just recovery. Until we know different, there are men down there who are still alive.”
When I reflect on these moments, I take that title – union – I pick it up and I wear it as a badge of honour.
Because the union movement is the fair go on the march.
I finish today, where I began, with the people we remember.
My daughter, Georgette and I were on the 7am flight from Melbourne this morning which means being out the door before 6.
We tiptoed out so as not to wake the rest of our family, we patted our two bulldogs and that was it - out the door, through the gate, into the car and onto the plane - confident that we’d be back tonight in time for dinner, Sunday night TV and bedtime stories.
Today we mourn and honour more than 1800 people who went out their front gates to work one day and never came home.
More than 1800 partners and parents, children and friends who had no idea that the usual mad scramble of the morning routine would be their last moments with the people they loved.
So when we leave here, when we return home tonight.
We will remember all those lost.
We will remember their potential and their possibility, their qualities and their character.
We will remember them not for how they died but for why they lived.
And today we promise to go beyond remembrance.
We vow to do better, we vow to do more.
We vow that the deaths we mourn today were not in vain.
We rededicate ourselves to making every workplace a safe and healthy one.
We set ourselves a simple, defining goal.
We will work every day to stop more names being added to this wall.
MEDIA CONTACT: LEADER’S OFFICE MEDIA UNIT 02 6277 4053
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