THE NATIONAL ASBESTOS MANAGEMENT PLAN - Speech on a Senate Motion, Thursday 22 March 2018
It would be remiss of me to not contribute to this debate on Senator Hanson's motion on the issue of asbestos, particularly the national asbestos management plan and the issues around the disposal and eradication of asbestos, given my well-known long history of involvement in this issue, but, I have to say, it is a remarkable that, in contributing to this debate, I find myself in agreement with Senator Hanson. I think it would have to be one of the very few times, if not the only time, that I have done so since she arrived in this chamber.
What is clear, as I've been sitting in the chamber, listening to the senators who have contributed to the debate so far, is that a number of senators are learning about the complexities of managing and eradicating asbestos, and they're also learning about the health impacts. I appreciate their interest and the fact that, whether they are on the government side or on the crossbench, they are here to broaden their understanding of not only some of the work that has already been done but also work that needs to continue to be done in this area. Senator Ketter outlined very clearly the work that has already gone on in this place through his chairing of the Senate Economics References Committee inquiry into non-conforming building products and particularly the committee's interim report, which focused specifically on protecting Australians from the threat of asbestos.
I also stand here today as the co-chair of the Parliamentary Group on Asbestos Related Disease—PGARD, as it's known. It was one of the first things I set up when I started here in the Senate in 2011. That idea came from my time as a minister in the state government in Tasmania. As the minister for workplace relations and workplace safety, I was asked by the then Premier, David Bartlett, to embark on a whole-of-government strategy for the eradication and management of asbestos. It wasn't a path that Tasmania had gone down before, so it was a new policy development area. It meant doing a lot of work, firstly, in setting up a steering committee comprising a range of people with various expertise, including people from the union movement, people from the area responsible for testing asbestos, people from the building and construction industry and also, very importantly, people from the health sphere. I wanted them to be able to provide me with advice on how we would develop such a policy and how we would move forward.
The long and the short of all of that is that we came up with a number of things, one of which was an asbestos unit within the Department of Justice. That asbestos unit looked at some of the issues that Senator Hanson outlined in her motion today, but it was a precursor to what became, under then minister Bill Shorten's leadership, a national body called the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, ASEA. That looked again at having a national unit, so to speak, on how to address and deal with this terrible scourge, as Senator Molan rightly called asbestos, this deadly product.
One of the most important legacies and things I'm most proud of from my time in that role as state minister was introducing asbestos compensation legislation. Asbestos related compensation, which is a state matter, is a hotchpotch right across the country. Some states have a common-law approach; some states now have a no-fault compensation scheme, which was what I embarked on developing and which subsequently became law in Tasmania. I remember that, at the time, there was a lot of resistance from the business community, because it was going to mean a slight increase in workers compensation premiums. But, at the end of the day, it did rise above the issues of politics, as this issue should, because we were talking about the future of people's lives—people who had now contracted the disease from their time in the workplace and knew that their future was bleak because there is no cure when we talk about mesothelioma. We know, with that long latency period, which can be 20 years, 30 years or even 40 years, that that one fibre that it takes to develop an asbestos-related disease can end someone's life. And that is exactly what it has done over so many years.
Whilst compensation won't bring back their lives, in those dying days and the days leading up to them needing treatment and support from family and the medical field and changes in their home to enable them to cope and live, it was important that they were compensated. But it was also important that they were compensated because every day they went about working in a workplace without any idea that they were slowly putting themselves in a position where they could be killed by this deadly substance. Some of those workers, particularly those in Western Australia in Wittenoom, in New South Wales and right across the country, were working for a company that knew for a very, very long time, for decades, that they were putting their workers in harm's way and that they were putting their workers in a position where they were going to lose their lives. That company, of course, was James Hardie. It was an absolute disgrace. Of course, we've had documentaries, a Four Corners program and even movies about this, and we've also had a very good book written by Matt Peacock called Killer Company specifically on James Hardie and what they were doing to their workers—leaving them completely in the dark, blind to the fact that their lives were going to be shortened from being exposed to a substance that the company knew was deadly. Now we stand here in the Senate with full knowledge that asbestos is a deadly, deadly product. Yet, because of our desire to use it all those years ago in such massive amounts—more than any other OECD country; Australia used massive amounts of asbestos in a range of, I think, about 3,000 different products—it now lies in our built environment in so many different ways, and that means we do need to do something about it.
I've met some incredible people over the journey of my involvement in policy development on this issue of workplace health and safety. Tonight, Senator Molan mentioned Bernie Banton. I didn't have the privilege of meeting Bernie because he had passed away by the time I had become involved in this issue, but I have met his wife through the Bernie Banton Foundation, which she established. I also learnt a lot about Bernie's incredible stoic campaigning for justice. Of course, a person often by Bernie's side through a lot of that was Greg Combet. Greg has been an incredible shining light in exposing the nature of employers around this issue of asbestos. On top of that, there's been the AWU's Yossi Berger, an absolute walking bible of knowledge when it comes to asbestos and certainly someone I took counsel from during my time as minister in the state parliament—and I think he has continued to provide a lot of counsel for members and senators in this space. There is also someone who actually created the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, and that, of course, is Bill Shorten. Bill Shorten, from day one, was incredibly committed to fighting for justice for those workers that had been exposed to asbestos, and that is why today we have the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency. It is through his leadership and dedication to this issue that we have come this far and that today we can at least debate the next strategic plan.
There have been a lot of people on the ground, though, who have worked absolutely unbelievably tirelessly, day in and day out, in running support organisations right across the country. Vicki Hamilton was one of them, but there have been so many others right across this country that have provided day-to-day advice and support to victims of asbestos related disease, whether it's them needing transport to hospital for treatment, navigating the legislation in their home state in relation to compensation or just advocating so strongly about needing change here in Canberra. So I do, indeed, want to pay tribute to their ongoing dedication to fight for so many people's lives.
We are talking about a lot of people's lives. We are talking about thousands of people's lives. In fact, as many as 40,000 people will be diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease in the next 20 years. That is its long legacy. It is the long latency period, unfortunately, that asbestos has that means we'll have so many more people diagnosed. It's actually predicted that around 25,000 people will die of asbestos related diseases over the next 40 years. This is why research is so important.
I was pleased last year, with my co-chair, Russell Broadbent, to host the ANU's and the Asbestos Disease Research Institute's Associate Professor Martyn Kirk here in Parliament House. Martyn came from the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the ANU. He was here to launch the ACT's final report on asbestos health studies into the health effects of living in a house with loose-fill asbestos insulation. We know that Canberra has its own legacy here with Mr Fluffy. A lot of houses have contained Mr Fluffy and a lot of work has needed to be done to protect those residents that have had those types of houses. I also introduced Professor Ken Takahashi. He has become the new director at the Asbestos Disease Research Institute. As I said, research is going to be ever-increasingly more important because, at this point in time, we don't have a cure.
There have been some remarkable breakthroughs, like a drug called Keytruda used, in the main, to treat people with melanoma, a skin cancer, but it has actually had a positive impact on people with mesothelioma. I remember Russell and me meeting with the then minister, Sussan Ley, about this issue of how we could get Keytruda listed among those drugs that could be used for the treatment of mesothelioma. It was costing something like $3,000 a treatment because there wasn't a line item for it. That is something I think Minister Greg Hunt should continue to pursue because, if there is no cure but there is some sort of drug that can provide some comfort and at least delay the onslaught of those symptoms from an asbestos related disease, we should be open minded about embracing that.
I will turn to the issue of illegal dumping, which I know Senator Hanson has found herself interested in. Illegal dumping has been going on for absolutely decades, and it's been going on right across the country. I do not think there is one state or territory that is immune to illegal dumping. Yes, I have heard it said a few times here today that this is a complex issue. Well, guess what? We're in the federal parliament and we're here to deal with complex issues. That's our job, all right? We have to deal with these complex issues. The buck stops with us. In fact, the buck stops with the government, but it stops by us dealing with these complex issues. How we are going to resolve the issue of illegal dumping is incredibly important. I know in Tasmania a lot of asbestos is dumped in our forests. It is costing us something like $200,000 a year to clean up illegal dumping. That's just in a small state like Tasmania. I can't imagine what it would be in some of the bigger states. The thing is, if we don't have enough pits to have asbestos dumped in and the cost of dumping asbestos is going to be so high, then, unfortunately, certain scurrilous individuals are going to do the wrong thing. They're going to either put it in wheelie bins or dump it illegally. So it does come back to access and to cost. These two issues need to be addressed. There are some councils in Australia that have addressed them. They've addressed them really well and they've provided vouchers to their residents. There are other council areas where there is simply nowhere to dump it and, in fact, you've got to drive for miles to find somewhere that has a purpose-built facility.
These are some of the challenges that the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency can address in its new management plan, but, as far as instructing states and instructing councils—because it gets right down to the council level—to change their policy parameters around this, the agency is going to need support and funding as a national body to be able to push this right up to the COAG level, because that's where it really needs to sit. It is going to be very difficult for the federal government, of any persuasion, to get councils and state governments to have any interest in changing what they are doing without it, I think, being part of some kind of COAG position.
Senator Ketter has already raised a range of other issues today. The recommendations from the Senate Economics References Committee's report lays it all out—it really does. There are some excellent recommendations in that report and the federal government, the Turnbull government, needs to seriously address them. At the end of the day, do we really want to create another generation or, as they call it, a third wave of asbestos disease sufferers in Australia? I hope we certainly don't. But, if we don't want to create that, then we need a government that's going to take this issue seriously and give ASEA the funds and the teeth that it needs to do its work, and we need a minister who actually has a bit of interest in this. Over the last I don't know how many years of this government, we've had, I think, three ministers, if not more, for asbestos. I do acknowledge and give some praise to Senator Abetz because, when he was Minister for Employment, he did actually commit to tackling asbestos and he did take it quite seriously indeed. But it's been pretty much a hodgepodge approach since that time, and then there was the threat of withdrawal of the funding of the agency and the question of whether the agency would continue. There's just been absolutely no commitment, and this is an issue, as I said, that has to rise above politics. It has to have the commitment of all sides in this place so that we can deal with some of the issues that Senator Hanson has decided she wants to get involved with today.
On the issue of illegal imports, for some time now—and I think it is one of the recommendations that Senator Ketter's report puts forward—we have been calling on the Australian government to push and push for the listing of chrysotile asbestos in annex III of the Rotterdam convention. What that means is that, on any import into Australia, it will have to be listed that it contains a hazardous substance called asbestos, and at the moment it simply doesn't. So, yes, we end up with cars like Great Wall and their asbestos brake pads. It's just ridiculous that there is no listing of chrysotile asbestos in the Rotterdam convention. That has to continue to be pushed by the federal government. At the same time, Border Force are given a lot of resources when it comes to drugs, as they should be, but, if they're not given the resources and put through the training to be able to identify asbestos and check these products before they come into our country, at the border level, then of course we'll find more examples of the kids' crayons and building materials and the like coming in. So more needs to be done by government and more commitment needs to be made if they're really serious about addressing asbestos in Australia.