Senate debates

Tuesday, 10 December 2013



8:00 pm

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | Hansard source

Last month the theatre production Dust was presented at the Brisbane Powerhouse. This inspirational musical performance involved local communities gathering together to talk about the horror of asbestos in our society. The performance has been going on for several years now. It was originally written by Donna Jackson. It features local performers coming to talk about asbestos, the inspirational struggle people have had to fight the evils of asbestos, their real-life stories about how insidious the impact of asbestos is on people's health and the terrifying fact that there is an increase in the number of people who are now presenting with symptoms.

We thought this was a historical disease and that we could look back with horror, see what had happened, beat our chests and say, 'How on earth could something like that occur in our community?' We saw the struggles of inspirational human beings, particularly through the trade union movement, who refused to be silent and consistently fought authority figures and industry to show that they were being killed by the very things they were working with and living with. We know the results of the James Hardie Industries legal case and the fact that finally there has been effective compensation—but there can be nothing that truly compensates for pain, suffering and death.

Dust is a presentation. I have always said that sometimes theatre can be more effective at getting messages across than 1,000 hours of seminars or lectures. Indeed, with this performance that is true. The group involved always comes together from the local area. Dust has been presented now in a number of places across Australia. I know in Victoria, South Australia and Queensland there have been local productions, but one common element is the amazing talent of Mark Seymour. Madam Acting Deputy President Stephens, you and I would remember Mr Seymour from Hunters and Collectors. I know I went to a few concerts where he was performing. I assure you his talent remains strong. Mark Seymour, using his musical talent and personal commitment, leads the cast who are gathered together to talk to all of us about how asbestos kills and how it can so easily move into our lives.

It is a dynamic performance. There is a stage show and break-out performances where the whole audience moves around and looks at small vignettes of the kinds of issues that could lead to people having asbestosis, mesothelioma and other diseases that are caused by asbestos. So we saw snippets of people working at local schools. I know Queensland and other states have a raised awareness when looking at older school buildings because they have found asbestos was used in the construction. Several years ago nobody took any notice. I am terrified now to think about the way we took it for granted and the work that was done. Now there is greater awareness of the issues. We had vignettes of schoolteachers talking about how they were originally discouraged from talking about finding white dust in the schoolyards. Now, because of the awareness and knowledge, school buildings have had very expensive and long-lasting processes to remove the asbestos. We continue to this day to have more indications about the expensive processes that must take place in school buildings in Queensland.

We moved from that vignette to a vignette of people working in the mining industry. We know that people can be exposed to asbestos through the mining equipment and in the areas where they work. Exposure is an ongoing issue of concern as there is the possibility of them becoming ill.

One of my personal favourites was the story of the mud army in Brisbane. You would know, Madam Acting Deputy President, that after the awful floods that occurred a couple of years ago there was an outburst of volunteer action to help with the clean-up. With the excitement and enthusiasm in the clean-up, being exposed to asbestos at damaged houses and foundations was not front of mind for most people. Believe me now that, through the awareness raising and the training, it is front of mind.

There were poignant stories about young people who grew up in communities where asbestos was being mined. It was a job that people had. They lived in ignorance about the kind of damage that was being done to their future health not just from working in the area but from living with people. There were tragic stories of women who acquired these diseases simply by washing the clothing of their partners or family members who were working there.

The horror of their stories never ceases to shock. There was a graphic presentation in the theatre. An ongoing motif was the depiction of lungs that were struggling to breathe. Reverberating through the theatre was the sound of the struggle to find a free breath. At the afternoon presentation—and they did several performances—I looked around at the other people who were sharing the performance and noticed that we were all mirroring the pain and our own breathing was affected by this process.

There is no better way of getting the important message across. Those of us who are fortunate enough not to have to live with the impact of asbestos related disease cannot really understand what it is like to be reliant on breathing apparatus to get a clear breath, to be struggling to be mobile and to see healthy family members who were strong and the money earners of the family now crippled, unable to work and move, and looking at their own mortality.

I really want to congratulate the people who worked to put the Dust presentation together. The Dust partner in Brisbane was the wonderful Asbestos Related Disease Support Society. This group started in the 1980s with a small number of families and people from the union movement who understood what the impact of asbestos was. It now has thousands of members, because people care about what is going on and they want to work together to be strong. The Dust production in Brisbane was a real cooperative. The Brisbane Combined Unions Choir—I am very proud to be their patron—provided many of the performers in the presentation. The Flipside Circus, social workers, scaffolders and union representatives all got together to be part of the performance, because they knew they could be part of an education process as well as give a sign of support and loyalty to friends and family members who have had the struggle—and too many have lost that struggle—with asbestos related disease.

Every year during Asbestos Awareness Week we have an ecumenical service at the Cathedral of Saint Stephen in Brisbane. At that service we gather and we remember the people we have lost. We share that as family members, because the people who work with and support each other through the evils of asbestosis are a family. As I said earlier, one of the messages out of the current awareness is that this disease continues. It is not just historical; this is something that people are being diagnosed with now. We as a community need to understand that. We also need to know that we have not got effective rules at the moment in our country to ban any overseas product coming in which may contain asbestos. It seems confronting that, with all the knowledge we have—the public awareness, the shared pain—we do not have effective rules in that way.

I have been a member of the asbestosis society for many years. I joined when I was working in the Department of Social Security, because we had people coming in needing payment to keep their lives together because they had been crippled by this illness. The Queensland Council of Unions, and particularly the CFMEU, are doing ongoing work in this area. We know about asbestos. There is no excuse to have any element of asbestos exposure in our community today.

I want to congratulate the people who band together and enjoy presentations such as Dust and give us their strength so that we can work together on the issue. Probably at this time next year, after Asbestos Awareness Week has happened, there will be people in this place talking again. But that is how it should be, because we have a commitment to people who have had the illness, who live with the illness and who all too frequently die from the illness. We can never forget.


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