An ongoing investigation by the Socialist Equality Party
'The fight against the destruction of people's health is at the crossroads'
The following is an abridged report of the remarks of Workers News editor Mike Head to a public meeting in Warrawong on June 1, 1997.
The Carr government's actions in shutting down the court challenge to the Port Kembla copper smelter demonstrate the necessity for the Workers Inquiry that we are preparing into the leukaemia and cancer crisis.
This Labor government has retrospectively extinguished all rights to appeal and extended the same provisions to all major mining, industrial and property development applications statewide.
Its measures were pushed through the lower house of parliament in record time with the agreement of the Liberal Party, obviously stitched up in advance behind closed doors. There was not a peep of opposition from any section of the ALP. Every Labor MP, including the MP for this area, Gerry Sullivan, who is on this platform, voted for this legislation.
So what will our answer be to Carr? It will be to go forward and intensify our efforts to convene the broadest possible Workers Inquiry.
The Workers Inquiry will provide the only forum at which ordinary working people, as well as sympathetic doctors, health workers and academics, can speak out and be heard. This includes former copper smelter workers and contractors who are now dying of cancer.
It is the only vehicle through which working class people can answer decades of official cover-up by governments, both Labor and Liberal, all the government agencies, including the EPA and the Public Health Unit, and the trade union leaders as well.
On behalf of the Committee for a Workers Inquiry and the Socialist Equality Party I want to issue a warm invitation to all those who had planned to give evidence in the smelter court case or who have any information on the health crisis:
Bring your testimony to the Workers Inquiry on July 19 and 20. If you want to give evidence, and not have it censored and suppressed, you can do so only through the Workers Inquiry.
The fight against the destruction of
people's health and lives is now at the crossroads.
It does not matter how strongly people
feel, how passionately they present their case, how compelling
and well-researched their arguments, or how many lives and futures
are at stake.
As for the government's claim to be concerned for the creation of jobs, this is a fraud in relation not only to the copper smelter but the government's entire program.
Labor's real concern for jobs is displayed by its decision to sell-off the electricity system to the giant power companies, which will destroy at least 5,000 of the estimated 13,500 jobs remaining in the industry.
That decision alone will axe more jobs and devastate more working class communities than even BHP's closure of Newcastle and its plans to shed at least 2,000 jobs at Port Kembla in the next two years.
What determines the program of this and every other government is not security of employment, but the opposite -- ruthless downsizing and cost-cutting to drive up profit margins.
In the case of the copper smelter itself, it will produce a vastly increased tonnage of copper with a drastically reduced workforce. Even on the government's own figures, the smelter will, from day one, churn out 50 percent more copper with only 60 percent of the workforce, all of which the union leaders have agreed to.
The Carr government's legislation reveals the kind of political regime the transnationals are now demanding before they will invest.
It is a regime in which Ministers have absolute power to approve projects, there are no rights of appeal and existing rights are overturned retrospectively whenever required.
Last Thursday we witnessed the utter fraud of the elections held by the military dictatorship in Indonesia. On the same day, the Carr government rushed through legislation of which General Suharto himself would be proud.
The Labor leaders are saying to the transnational companies: we will deal as ruthlessly with any opposition to your projects as the Suharto regime or any other in the world.
We know that the smelter consortium threatened to pull out if the court challenge was allowed to proceed. But this is part of a wider picture.
Today all transnationals can quickly shift their operations or sub-contract them to different parts of the world to take advantage of cheaper labour costs, lower corporate taxes and flimsier health, safety and environmental laws.
This has ended all room for manoeuvre by governments such as Carr's, or Howard's for that matter. The companies say to them: you agree to our terms and you guarantee to suppress all opposition to our operations or we will go elsewhere.
Governments are engaged in a dog-eat-dog competition to attract this globally-mobile capital by offering ever-greater concessions to the corporate elite on every front.
Whereas in the past, companies would have to agree to certain conditions before establishing mines or industrial plants, today it is open slather for profit.
Governments are also gutting spending on essential social services such as schools, hospitals, housing and welfare in order to reduce company taxes and to give unemployed workers and young people no choice but to work for whatever wages and under whatever conditions the employers demand.
That is why the same Carr government is now moving to shut down casualty and emergency services at Port Kembla Hospital, effectively ending it as a public hospital and why the Howard government is closing down the Social Security and Medicare offices in Warrawong, forcing pensioners, single parents, the unemployed and the ill to travel miles.
Every avenue of appeal against the smelter has been exhausted. There will always be those who argue that we should try yet again to find some last means of appeal to the courts or the politicians.
But there is an old saying that if you are hoodwinked once by the government and the official authorities, you can say shame on them, but if you are conned one more time, then it is shame on you.
We should draw the lessons now of the Carr government's actions. No legal niceties are going to prevail. It is the working people themselves, the vast majority of society and the producers of all society's wealth, who must come forward to put a stop to this destructive system.
Some people have raised the idea of holding a "public inquiry" or a "citizen's inquiry" into the health and pollution crisis and the actions of the government.
But the Carr government's determination not to allow even one of its own courts to hear a challenge to the smelter demonstrates that it will not listen to any inquiry, no matter how rational and reasonable its conclusions and no matter how eminent its personnel.
The issue is not making the politicians aware of the facts or the anger of people. They are perfectly aware of both.
The problem, in fact, is that at present the politicians understand much better than workers the true nature of this system. The crucial task is to clarify the working class.
This struggle will be determined in the last analysis not by appeals to any government for reason but by the development of the balance of class forces.
Once an informed, politically-aware
and militant movement of workers and residents emerges, the aura
of invincibility surrounding the government and big business
will rapidly begin to evaporate.
And wouldn't the deepening and broadening of such a movement start to demonstrate the necessity for, and the capacity of, working people to take on the task of re-organising society from top to bottom?
This is the type of movement that needs to be built and the Workers Inquiry is a decisive step in that direction.
Some people object that this perspective is too long-range and far off; that more practical measures are needed to address the immediate and pressing problems.
They basically argue that workers and residents must limit themselves to placing demands on the present official institutions and tailor their demands to what is acceptable or affordable under the profit system.
Where has this supposedly practical outlook led? The record shows that it is the most impractical of all.
As many people in this room are only too painfully aware, the campaign against the reopening of the smelter is not the first protest mounted against government decisions in recent years.
There has been no lack of protests, demonstrations, deputations, petitions and rallies against hospital closures, education cuts, job destruction and industrial pollution. What is lacking is a clear political movement.
Time and again working people have come up against a brick wall. Now the Carr government's actions show that the road of protests has come to a complete dead-end.
The truth is that there is no short cut: the essential task is to bring forward the independent role of the working class, equipped with accurate information and an understanding of the necessity to transform society.
The Workers Inquiry is continuing the fight taken up by Melissa Cristiano, who was just 19 when she was diagnosed with leukaemia. She demanded answers: why were so many young people in the Warrawong area dying of this rare disease?
She refused to be put off by the Health Unit, which did not even return her first phone call. She refused to be brushed off. She went to the media and then the public outcry grew.
The Carr government's official leukaemia investigation, being carried out by the Health Unit, is designed to be another cover-up. Carr and Health Minister Refshauge set it up for one reason only -- to quash the widespread community concern.
That is why the Socialist Equality Party initiated the fight for the Workers Inquiry -- to prevent another whitewash and lay bare the truth.
This will be our answer to Carr -- the development of a powerful Workers Inquiry which opens up a vital discussion and political development in the working class. So we appeal to you: support and participate in the Workers Inquiry.