Senate debates

Thursday, 20 June 2013


Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency Bill 2013; Second Reading

12:45 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency Bill 2013 establishes a national agency known as the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, as recommended by the Asbestos Management Review. The coalition indicated its support of the Asbestos Management Review and its recommendations very early on. Now that we as a community are fully aware of all the dangers of asbestos and the effects that it has on people exposed to it, it makes good sense for all sides of politics and for unions and employers to join together to try to overcome the legacy issues that are clearly out there. Those legacy issues will remain with us as a country for at least another 30 years.

We in Australia have the highest reported per capita incidence of asbestos related disease in the world. It is estimated that by 2020 there will be 13,000 cases of mesothelioma in Australia. A further 40,000 Australians will contract asbestos related cancer. Mesothelioma and asbestos related cancer differ in the way that they affect families. These cancers do not affect you today or tomorrow but 10, 20 or 30 years or even longer after exposure. Over the years, we have all seen and heard of too many cases of people who have passed away or who are living with a disability because of exposure to asbestos. These are the stories of cases that not only cripple the families and friends but impact entire communities.

While Australia has had a nationwide ban on the production, importation and use of asbestos since 2003, we still have many serious legacy issues, as exposed by the recent NBN debacle. Many buildings in Australia still have asbestos or asbestos products within them, which put at risk do-it-yourself homebuilders and renovators in particular. Regulation of asbestos issues is vital and is a matter for all levels of government in Australia. The prevalence of asbestos in our built and natural environments also means that asbestos regulation spans multiple areas of government, including health, environment, urban planning and workplace health and safety. The involvement of multiple governments across these diverse areas means that efforts to date to address asbestos issues have been fragmented and duplicative.

Turning specifically to the bill, the coalition identified a number of issues with this bill and I recognise that Minister Shorten and Labor took steps to ensure that our concerns were addressed through certain amendments that were passed in the other place. One of those concerns was that, despite a clear recommendation from the management review that all states be involved in the council, the government sought to restrict membership to only include two representatives from the states and local government. We welcome the minister's decision to expand the membership of the council. It is our view that in order to ensure that the council works well and that all levels of government work together across the nation you need to have everyone at the table. The one-size-fits-all approach does not usually work. Direct input of each state will give direct purpose and direct responsibility to each state. We welcome the step in the right direction that are the amendments in the other place put forward by the minister, but we believe that it would be advantageous to have everyone at the table. Nonetheless, we recognise that the government did take a step in the right direction.

We also urge the expansion of the powers of the council so that its deliberations could be more broad-reaching within the confines of asbestos related issues and not limited by the minister of the day. I might also point out that the coalition is disappointed that the agency funding has been slashed. On 20 March 2013 Mr Shorten introduced the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency Bill, which pledged, on page 2 of the explanatory memorandum, under the financial impact statement heading:

The cost to establish a new statutory agency will be $12.3 million over the forward estimates.

Yet in the budget just weeks later, on 15 May, we have this:

The Government has introduced legislation and will invest $10.5 million over four years to establish the agency.

And that is on page 18 of the education, employment and workplace relations portfolio budget statement.

So, in just six weeks, Labor has cut $1.8 million from its own asbestos regulator before it is even established. I invite the minister, in the summing up, to explain the cut and detail the services that might not be available as a result of this cut. This cut needs to be explained, especially in light of the NBN asbestos debacle—an issue the coalition and I personally raised at Senate estimates over two years ago. The issues, the problems and the debacle were foreseen and warned about yet foolishly ignored in what appears to be the priority being given to the government's political NBN agenda over the health and wellbeing of Australian workers and Australian citizens. And, as is typical with this government, they always have money for their political agendas. They will have $22 million for the NDIS advertising campaign. They even found $10 million out of the normal budget process to fund the ABC's hopelessly biased and compromised fact checker before the election. They found that money. And how did they find it? They found it by cutting the asbestos agency. That says everything anyone ever needs to know about this government's funding priorities, and it is not pretty.

Nonetheless, the coalition supports this bill. To conclude, I will say that I commend the Australian trade union movement, which has taken a very proactive role in dealing with the issues of the hazards of asbestos. It would be fair to say that, without their active campaigning, things may not have progressed as far as they have and as quickly as they have. The coalition commends the bill to the Senate.

12:53 pm

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I too support the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency Bill 2013 and commend the government for introducing it, but I share the reservations Senator Abetz has raised in relation to what appear to be funding cuts to this agency. This is an important bill. I also should declare that I have been, for many years, a patron of the Asbestos Victims Association in South Australia. I was a co-patron with a number of other people, including former South Australian premier Mike Rann. I was very happy to be part of that, and I still am. I want to pay tribute to the selfless voluntary work of Terry Miller, who received an Order of Australia medal, and his team over many years to support victims of asbestos, to advocate for changes in the law. I was immensely proud to introduce legislative changes in the South Australian parliament back in November 2005 that were eventually passed with bipartisan support to significantly improve the compensation payable to asbestos victims. I want to pay tribute to Melissa Haylock, then a relatively young woman—in her early 40s—who suffered from mesothelioma and who has since, sadly, passed away, and to her family. I pay tribute to her courage in speaking out. She was instrumental in changing the law in South Australia.

This bill is important. It is important to acknowledge how serious an issue asbestos is in this country. I note from the information provided by the Asbestos Victims Association of South Australia back in 2005 that with a latency period of between 20 and 50 years post exposure, mesothelioma cases and deaths are not due to peak in South Australia until 2020, with up to 2,000 South Australians dying from mesothelioma and up to double that number dying of other asbestos related diseases, including asbestosis and asbestos related lung cancer.

So this is a serious issue, and this is something that could have been avoided in the sense that we have known about the dangers of asbestos for many years now. But it was still being marketed and still being sold up until the late 1980s. That is why the book Killer Company, about James Hardie, was quite illustrative of the problem of there being knowledge yet the product is still being sold.

I share with Senator Abetz the concerns raised about the funding cuts. Also, if we are spending money on promoting, for instance, the National Broadband Network, in a huge advertising campaign—and it is something that the coalition has done perhaps even bigger and better with campaigns in the past, and Work Choices comes to mind—then I think that is not a good use of money; it should be spent here. And the other issue is that asbestos victims' groups and research groups around the country actually need the money to push research that could end up saving lives. Gene-splicing therapy has been tried in the United States with some mixed success. But we need to get a breakthrough, because at the moment mesothelioma is almost invariably a death sentence.

That is why I would like to think that this council will provide that research role. And my question to the parliamentary secretary representing the government is: to what extent does the government see the research role of this agency being important? And I do not just mean in preventing exposure: if someone does have an asbestos related disease, what role does this council play in advocating, in pushing for research, for if not a cure then at least medication or treatment that can prolong life in an appreciable and significant way? Right now, some of the experimental treatments may prolong life by a few precious months, but at the moment it is largely a death sentence, usually within nine months, to be diagnosed with mesothelioma.

Having said that, I support the legislation. I would like to think that this is part of a broader effort to reduce significantly the impact of asbestos in this country. I note the controversy recently in relation to the NBN and Telstra and the questions of asbestos exposure. It is an issue that has been brought to my attention by a number of constituents in South Australia. I think this is an issue that will not go away, and it is important that we do not have that next wave of mesothelioma sufferers or other asbestos victims in the next 20, 30, 40 or over 50 years time. That is why it is so important that we get it right now. But it is also important that we have enough funding, enough research to actually find a cure—or at least something that will extensively prolong the life of mesothelioma sufferers. I support this bill.

12:58 pm

Photo of David FeeneyDavid Feeney (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

I will begin by thanking senators for their contribution to this debate on the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency Bill 2013 and indeed by thanking them for supporting this bill. Before concluding, I will just address some of the questions and points that have been raised by Senator Abetz and Senator Xenophon.

Firstly, with respect to Senator Abetz and the question of funding, I guess I would be keen to make the point that the Australian government has indicated that it will be providing some $10.5 million over the forward estimates. This funds the agency's 10 staff, together with the costs of the council and its research and communications activities. Further, the government has said that the agency will have sufficient funds to deliver the outcomes of the national strategic plan. I think it is worth noting, for the benefit of the Senate, that this agency—the Office of Asbestos Safety—has commissioned Allen Consulting to undertake an analysis of asbestos removal approaches. This report is now being revised in the light of consultations on the draft National Strategic Plan. Until that information is provided and assessed and the report is finalised, an estimate of its costs cannot be provided.

I would also make the point—perhaps it is a little partisan, but I do not think it is out of keeping with Senator Abetz's own partisan remarks—that, while Senator Abetz is supporting this bill and is eager to accuse this government of not adequately funding the agency, he, of course, made absolutely no commitment with respect to funding.

I thank Senator Xenophon for his remarks and his support. I am pleased to be able to give you quick comfort on your question. Clause 8(1)(f) of the bill states that part of the agency's function is to commission, monitor and promote research about asbestos safety. So research into these issues is very much part of the agency's function.

I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.