Dangerous Goods Amendment Bill 2019 – Second Reading Debate

You can watch the video here

I stand today to support the Dangerous Goods Amendment (Penalty Reform) Bill 2019 because at the heart of this important legislation is community and workplace safety. Also at the heart of this legislation is protection for the environment. These issues are very important to me, and they are important to the people of Victoria. I know that this legislation is going to look after these little people up here who have joined us in the gallery today by keeping our community safe. That is what this government is about—making sure that we have a Victoria for the future that looks after everyone and our environment.

We are introducing this bill because failure to safely store, transport and dispose of dangerous goods can cause explosions or fires, serious injury, death and large-scale damage, and this is unacceptable. We are amending the Dangerous Goods Act 1985 to increase the penalties for various offences in the act so that the penalties better reflect the serious nature of these offences, and to create a new offence for reckless conduct in respect to dangerous goods that endanger persons, and for other purposes.

I note that WorkSafe is the relevant authority for the Dangerous Goods Act, and regulation of dangerous goods falls within the responsibility of the Minister for Workplace Safety. I wish to thank the minister for presenting the bill to the house and thank everyone who has been involved in advising on and drafting the amendments, as well as those involved in the consultation process. I would also like to take this opportunity to commend the minister for the other work that she is undertaking to make sure that workers in Victoria are safe—that workers come home safe. I am particularly proud of the government’s commitment and the work that she is doing around new workplace safety laws, including industrial manslaughter legislation. This bill will change the culture of the industries that deal with dangerous goods.

At the beginning of the year this government came out and said that it would strengthen the penalties. Today this is what we are delivering on. By strengthening the penalties under the Dangerous Goods Act we are tightening the net with respect to those who fail to comply with the law in their management of dangerous goods. I believe, like my friend the member for Ringwood, that profits should never come before the health and safety of Victorians. An increase in penalties means that non-compliance cannot be a cost of running businesses. We need to have a really strong deterrent. What does the act actually do? The act regulates the handling, transport, manufacture, storage, sale and use of substances that are corrosive, flammable, combustible, explosive, oxidising or water reactive, or have other hazardous properties. But what are common examples of these? Often you say, ‘What are dangerous goods?’. We are talking about petrol, we are talking about kerosene, we are talking about turpentine.

We are talking about corrosive materials, flammable gas, non-flammable toxic gas and asbestos. Of course we must make sure that the way that we store and dispose of asbestos is done safely. If you do not do it safely, you will be penalised—and you will be penalised big-time.

These goods are dangerous, and we have seen firsthand the serious consequences of what can occur when dangerous goods are mishandled. I refer to the recent fires across Melbourne, including at Tottenham, Campbellfield and Epping. A fire in Campbellfield earlier this year resulted in plumes of black smoke sweeping the skyline, while schools and businesses were forced to shut down. This should not happen. The trauma and stress these events cause our communities are undeniable. Children, according to my good friend the member for Footscray, are having art therapy techniques to overcome the trauma of the fire in Footscray. We have heard the stories of Stony Creek—I love my dog, and I love taking Licorice out for a swim at Victoria Park in Ballarat, not Collingwood—of those family dogs covered in sludge. For anyone who has a dog, to think that they could be covered in sludge because of a chemical fire—it just should not happen. This fire followed two major fires that occurred because of the stockpiling of waste in Coolaroo and Campbellfield. Let us be very clear: these fires were caused by the stockpiling of various types of waste, including dangerous goods. The result was that community safety and our environment were put at risk. This is not acceptable to the government and it does not meet community expectations and standards. These fires should never have occurred and we need to ensure that other fires are prevented from occurring.

This legislation will have positive impacts on workers, and I am very proud about that. The Andrews government is steadfast in its approach to workplace safety. We will not tolerate conduct that puts the lives of Victorian workers at risk. Labor governments do not shy away from taking action to protect workers. It is in our DNA. These fires put the lives of first responders at risk, including hundreds of firefighters, as a result of dodgy practices in the mishandling and storage of dangerous goods. Emergency workers were placed at serious risk because companies failed in their responsibility and duty of care to their workforce. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all our first responders for the work that they do, and to particularly thank firefighters for the danger that they put themselves in to keep us safe and protect our environment.

Luckily—and I say luckily because it was only good luck—no lives were lost in these fires. However, far too many lives were put at risk and there was substantial damage to property and to the environment. Importantly, this government reacted and WorkSafe reacted, leading a task force to take swift action to remove illegally stored waste and chemicals from warehouses across Melbourne. Thirteen sites have been identified as requiring clean-up by the task force, and so far 6.8 million litres of dangerous goods have been removed from these sites. I can tell you that this is welcome news for local communities, for workers and for first responders. It is also great news for the environment, as we make Victoria safer for everyone.

The mishandling of dangerous goods poses a real threat to our community, and those who do it are breaking the law. We are a government that gets on with the job and we have a clear message: clean up your act or face the consequences. The risk that improper practices pose to workers every day cannot be understated and it is crucial that operators take their obligations very seriously. The current penalties need to be increased because the existing penalties imposed for contravention are below those for similar offences under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 and the Crimes Act 1958. The set rate presents little deterrent for non-compliance. We need to rectify this, and that is why we are committed to legislation that will provide a strong deterrent to industry by significantly increasing penalties for individuals but also body corporates, and that is very important.

I am supporting this bill because I firmly believe there is a need for stronger compliance with existing regulation and a compelling case for change that deters the mishandling of dangerous goods. So what is this bill actually going to do? It is going to make individuals and organisations more accountable by making amendments that create the new offence of reckless conduct. If you place a person in danger of death, the penalties are going to be very significant. We are going to increase those under the Dangerous Goods Act to reflect the seriousness of the offending. I have mentioned a number of times already that it is about deterrence—deterring illegal activity and non-compliance with requirements under the Dangerous Goods Act.

The new offence means that individuals that recklessly manufacture, store, transport, transfer, sell or use—we have all bases covered on this—dangerous goods that do or may place a person in danger of death will face an individual fine of $627 800. A body corporate—you cannot hide behind that corporate veil—will now face a fine of $6.6 million. Significantly this offence also carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. This is a great increase on what was previously there, and I am confident we are going to get real cultural change in this industry in terms of the handling of dangerous goods.

We are a government that gets the job done, because we do not want to see a repeat of the warehouse fires across Melbourne as a consequence of illegal stockpiling of waste and dangerous goods. This is why this bill will introduce new penalties that will bite and will be a serious deterrent for all. I am very proud to recommend the Dangerous Goods Amendment (Penalty Reform) Bill to the house.