Senate debates

Thursday, 22 March 2018



4:24 pm

Photo of Barry O'SullivanBarry O'Sullivan (Queensland, National Party) Share this | Hansard source

Indeed, this notice of motion by Senator Hanson raises a very important issue. I'm a child of the 1950s. Those of us who, sadly, remember back that far know now of this hazard. As a child, we would play with asbestos. It made terrific swords, and you won the fight when you struck the other child's sword and broke it in two—releasing, I imagine, millions of these fibres into the atmosphere and certainly within close proximity to where you were.

I want to deal with Senator Hanson's motion in three parts, if I might, because, as you read it, it is itself in three parts. She notes the urgent need to establish an effective, safe means of eradicating asbestos from our community—and I'll deal with that separately to the issue of what happens with the disposal of this commodity—and the talk of coordinating a national asbestos management and disposal plan. Let me finish with that.

Senator Hanson is right to suggest that per capita we're up in the top percentage of countries whose citizens are exposed to this terrible condition resulting from inhaling asbestos, and there's a reason for that. The reason is that, per capita, we used more asbestos in our building industry than almost every other country on earth. It was a revolutionary product of its time.

There are two types of asbestos. There's an A type and a B type, but both of them were introduced to this country in the postwar period. Again, you can still see evidence as you move around our country of what a revolutionary building material it was. It went into every aspect of construction in this country. We clearly were clueless, as a nation, about the potential problem. We built entire schools out of asbestos and asbestos related material. We built all of our homes out of it. Again, I refer back to when it was a very common practice for children to play with asbestos and punch an asbestos wall. That was when you knew you were tough and ready; you could punch a hole through an asbestos wall—and hope you didn't get the stud. It took me a while to find out that you should look for the line of nails before you threw the big right cross! Nonetheless, it was a very common practice.

But this is a very serious issue, as raised by Senator Hanson. On the question of establishing an effective, safe means of eradicating asbestos, this government has taken a very strong approach to this. Senator Hanson referred to the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Council, ASEC. As an aside, the government has just doubled the funding for this organisation. This council—I think there are nine members on it, from memory—is designed to provide advice to government and to the states and local government. It's a national resource to provide a focus on asbestos issues that go 'beyond workplace safety to encompass environmental and public health' issues. So it is unfair to say, as her motion suggests, that this government—and I'm sure there were measures under the previous government—has not established an effective, safe means of eradicating asbestos from our community. That's happening.

I know from some experience—and I hope all of my colleagues on the other side listen carefully when I say I have no business interest any longer. I was at some stage involved in quite comprehensive business exposure in construction, which many times included the removal of asbestos and asbestos products. I can tell you that there are no other products—other than solids that come from the liquid waste industry—that require such protection when they're being removed and buildings are being dismantled. The whole site has to be sealed off so that there can be no airborne transfer of these invisible fibres. The asbestos products, where possible, are wet and soaked to minimise the release of fibres in demolitions and in the removal of the material. It can only be done by professionals, so tradespeople who haven't got the special qualifications cannot be involved in this procedure. This asbestos is taken and seal-wrapped. Only certain vehicles are allowed to carry hazardous waste when there is more than 10 cubic metres of the material. It's taken off to a facility where it is dealt with according to the processes available generally through local government.

Apart from the establishment of this national resource, the regulation around dealing with asbestos products and the removal of them is largely a state responsibility. I often dislike it when others hide behind what the states need to do and what federal responsibilities are, but this area is largely covered by by-laws and regulations of local governments. The overall workplace health and safety requirements to deal with the protection of workers, and the safe and effective removal and transporting of this material and its disposal, are state government responsibilities. So I think it is unfair that Senator Hanson's motion notes 'an urgent need to establish an effective, safe means of eradicating asbestos from our community,' because I think ASEC does that. It's a competent body. It's made up of experts. It's very well funded. As I said earlier, it has now has had its funding doubled. And it is a national resource.

So this is not something that is required to trickle down through federal or state or local governments. All of those bodies and identities can rely upon ASEC for information. They are a cast of professionals who are determined to do whatever is at their disposal in terms of advancing sciences to deal with this. I think it would be unfair to suggest that, confronted with the potential of a new technology that would be much better than the existing practices—thermochemical conversion—they would ignore that. These people have no stake in these matters, other than to provide the three tiers of government, and others, with the very best advice possible out there. I remain satisfied. I would need to know more about it. I don't want to challenge Senator Hanson in relation to thermochemical conversion, because it seems she has spent some time in coming to understand the technology, but I would urge her, at the earliest possible opportunity, to present what she knows of that technology to ASEC, because I imagine they would be willing to assess the potential of the technology and then recommend to governments accordingly. In fact, I would be somewhat surprised if they weren't already aware of the potential of that process for use.

The motion calls on the government to coordinate a national asbestos management and disposal plan. Again, this is some of the work of ASEC—that's one of their responsibilities—so this element of the motion is already dealt with. Senator Hanson may have a view, based on what she knows, that she doesn't think they're doing a terribly good job of that. There is no evidence before me that that's the case. My inquiries, as I prepared for this, suggested that they are a very well respected bodies across all tiers of government. Their work is progressive. They are continuing to look. Indeed, as a result of recommendations they've made from their own due diligence and applying the science to this, there have already been massive improvements around the way that asbestos management is dealt with in this country and, indeed, asbestos is disposed of.

Senator Hanson-Young—Senator Hanson, I should say. I suspect I could have offended two senators at once there! Senator Hanson is right to say that we should take every available measure to minimise the amount of material that goes into landfill, particularly hazardous material and material that has long life, as would be the case, I suspect, with asbestos. I've got to say, the other side of the chamber, when they were in government, paid a lot of attention to this, as has our government and as we all continue to do. There has been massive progress with respect to the management of hazardous waste and, in fact, material that goes into landfill over recent decades. This government and previous governments have spent hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars supporting technologies and practices to do with transfer stations where waste goes. Putting hazardous waste aside for a moment, that waste is separated in looking for the potential to recycle it, even if it's not cost-effective to recycle it, as is the case with many types of waste.

Senator Hanson is right to point out that, if there is any measure whatsoever that would allow us to deal with waste, particularly hazardous waste, in a way that neutralised the hazard of the waste, it should be undertaken. But it wouldn't make sense for organisations such as ASEC, which have been formed specifically with this intent, to act as she suggests. They've got no position to protect, other than their reputation at doing the work, determining best processes, technical and otherwise, and providing that contemporary advice to all levels of government and other industries in this country.

There has been a massive amount of work done to ensure that there are no asbestos products coming into this nation now. About two years ago, I recall a visit to a facility on an unrelated matter in Brisbane. It was a transit centre for goods that are both exported and imported. The principal of the company was showing me massive amounts of product in there. It looked perfectly all right to me—motorbikes, motor vehicles and other commodities that had been sitting in their facility for months and, in some cases, years. It was there because small traces—in some cases, very small traces—of asbestos had been detected. I am not even in a position to tell you which government would have been in power on the day, but I would imagine it would not matter. The Labor Party have a very, very high commitment to and pride themselves, along with our government, on creating the highest standards and safest possible environment for workers and our citizens. Billions of dollars are spent over every budget cycle to ensure, for example, that there's no contamination in our waters. We spend billions of dollars on our environment, supported by everybody, to try and protect our environment as best as we can.

When I hear that there is a process and I hear that we have a specialist professional body whose job it is to scour the planet to try and find the best possible practices and technologies to deal with the scourge of this terrible, terrible thing that produces mesothelioma, to me it denies logic that technology exists that has not been adopted. Sometimes the adoption of technologies can be slower than one would like, particularly when you've got something as serious as this. You have to be absolutely certain that the technology is foolproof and that, in being applied to deal with a serious problem, it does not create another serious problem. As undesirable as it may be that it is in landfill, if that is the best way to protect our citizens from this terrible plight, then that's what needs to happen.

I don't want to challenge the views that Senator Hanson has formed on this, because I don't have the information before me. Accordingly, I say to Senator Hanson: if she has empirical evidence—academic studies or trials from the United States or any other developed nation where they've paid attention and stuck to the scientific principles when they've looked at these matters—she ought to take it directly to ASEC so they are be able to assess it. I'm certain that they'd be prepared to correspond with her and brief her if they've already done some assessment. Senator Hanson, I extend an invitation to you here, through my speech: I'll come with you. If you've got a body of academic evidence or industrial evidence that supports this as a commercially sound and superior method to deal with this terrible commodity, then I will come with you. We will go to see them together, and, as colleagues know, I won't blink when it comes to bringing people to proof on something. I'll test them. If they say it's no good, I won't leave until we know why.

We've got other measures. I imagine—and the minister may be able to nod and confirm this—ASEC is probably subject to attending estimates in some form or another, if it's a body funded by the federal government. So Senator Hanson ought to consider bringing them to estimates, at which time we can then properly evaluate, through examination of their officers, just what they are doing, what they intend to do, what their knowledge is of this thermochemical conversion process and what their assessments are to date. They may well have a perfectly sensible explanation as to why it might not work. We've had many emerging technologies over time, not just industrial technologies but biological technologies and manoeuvres. Think cane toad. I used to love the cane toads when I was a young fellow on a Friday night with a golf stick. But, at that point, they were no further north than Townsville, and now, of course, they're even in northern Western Australia. They are a terrible scourge. There was the introduction up my way of prickly acacia, a bush that was meant to be fodder for dry times. It is now choking massive tracts of land in Central Queensland and in the Central West.

So I exercise a voice of caution with new technologies. I know nothing about this technology. I can't extend an invitation, but I'm certain that the relevant minister—I imagine it is perhaps the environment minister, given it's to do with matters of landfill—would provide Senator Hanson with a full and complete briefing with respect to this and any other emerging technologies that might be under active consideration. In the meantime, Senator Hanson, whilst I do agree with you on many occasions, I can't share your view that a government funded initiative through ASEC, when providing advice to state and federal government and to local authorities, would ignore best practice and best technology that had any potential whatsoever to provide a safer environment for the removal and disposal of asbestos and for the good health of everyone in this nation. My invitation stands. I'll wait to hear from you.


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