12:00 am, Monday 9 October, 2006
Imre Salusinszky, NSW political reporter
TEN years after one of Australia’s worst modern mining accidents – at Gretley Colliery near Newcastle – a report claims the NSW Labor Government tailored its prosecutions to punish business, protect a powerful union and conceal its own culpability.
The report, which will be released today by the Institute of Public Affairs, a pro-business think tank, makes explosive allegations about the Government’s failure to prosecute UMSS, a labour-hire company owned by the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union.
UMSS employed three of the four miners killed at Gretley on November 14, 1996. The men drowned when they cut into the flooded shaft of an adjacent mine that had been closed since 1912.
Prosecutions of labour-hire firms for workplace safety breaches are common under NSW’s occupational health and safety laws, which are the most punitive in the country.
The IPA report, by Ken Phillips, also asks why the Government failed to prosecute its own Department of Mineral Resources when an independent inquiry in 1998 found the department negligently provided faulty and incomplete maps to the Newcastle Wallsend Coal Company. Xstrata Coal, which bought Newcastle Wallsend in 1999, was last year found guilty over Gretley by the NSW industrial court and fined $1.47 million, with three mine managers fined a further total of $102,000.
The four miners who died at Gretley were Edward Batterham, 48, John Hunter, 36, Mark Kaiser, 30, and Damon Murray, 19.
Mr Murray’s father, Ian, a CFMEU official, yesterday backed Mr Phillips’s call for the department to be held to account for providing maps that showed the old mine in the wrong position. “I don’t take umbrage with Ken or anybody else that says that’s what should have happened,” Mr Murray said. “It was the Crown that put forward a position that it wasn’t possible to charge the department. All that needed to be done was for someone – be it from the department’s side or the employer’s side – to view the original map.”
But Mr Murray rejected the report’s concerns about UMSS, which employed his son, along with Hunter and Kaiser.
The IPA report says OHS laws in NSW would normally have required WorkCover to undertake a detailed investigation of UMSS and apply the same “presumption of guilt” it applied to Xstrata.
The CFMEU sold its majority stake in UMSS to Tasmanian labour-hire firm TESA, which last month was sold to Melbourne-based labour-hire giant Skilled.
Tony Maher, NSW president of the CFMEU, told The Australian last night UMSS had not been in control of the business at Gretley. “Labor-hire firms have been prosecuted in the past,” he said. “Whether they were on that occasion would have been determined by the regulator, based on the facts.”
The IPA report suggests UMSS escaped serious scrutiny because the CFMEU has “deep institutional links” with the Government and “significant influence over the political preselection processes of many (Labor) MPs”.
It claims: “The processes of prosecution or non-prosecution have suffered from serious irregularities, to the point that there exist questions about the integrity and impartiality of the OHS prosecution processes in NSW.”
A spokesman for WorkCover said yesterday the agency had followed “expert advice that there was little prospect of success against the Department of Mineral Resources or UMSS and therefore did not proceed”.
But Mr Phillips replied that, if that was the case, WorkCover should make the advice public.
The IPA report comes at a tricky time for NSW Premier Morris Iemma, who is seeking to reform OHS laws to bring them into line with the other states and demonstrate that NSW is “open for business”. His reforms have been stalled by opposition from unions, with the CFMEU among the most hardline.
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