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Adjournment speech: Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (22:02): On another matter, today I met with the victims of asbestos-related diseases. I have met with victims before-people who have lost loved ones, people who suffer from asbestos-related diseases themselves. I always find it very moving. Today it was not just moving; it was quite troubling to hear what they had to say. I became aware that the Turnbull government is putting the brakes on the vital work of the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency.

I met with women who have lost their husbands. I met a young woman who contracted mesothelioma as a young girl-she just picked it up from where she was living. I was told of a very disturbing and what I believe is a heartless approach from the Turnbull government. Before I go into the details of that, I congratulate the Asbestos Victims Association, the Asbestos Disease Support Society and the Asbestos Diseases Foundation. Their work is critical in taking Australia to the next stage of managing these insidious diseases, because while we have had incredible advances in assisting people with diseases we now know that we could have another wave of tens of thousands of people being affected by asbestos related diseases. In fact, Australia has one of the highest incidences of asbestos related diseases in the world. Around 700 Australians die each year from mesothelioma and more die from lung cancer and other asbestos related diseases.

Proper management is needed. It is quite staggering that tens of thousands of Australians could be exposed and diagnosed with asbestos related diseases in the future. This brings us back to the issues that were raised with me today. Really, it is one of those aspects of government work that one should not even have to come into this chamber and talk about; it should be so easy for the government to get on and do the job. The issue is the funding of the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency. I congratulate Labor for setting up the agency, recognising it was needed to identify possible products containing asbestos coming into Australia. It is not just building products that are affected. I found out today that asbestos has been found in children's crayons and, for people who have children or grandchildren, in Dora the Explorer toys. Those are very popular young people's, mainly young girls', figures. There are books, toys et cetera. They have found asbestos in these toys and have had to have them removed. This is incredibly serious, and this very important organisation ASEA is ready to do the research, ready to give the leadership to deal with this potential growth.

The immediate issue is that ASEA is ready to work with the Australian Border Force in ensuring that these products do not come into Australia, and dealing with them if they do. But what is very shocking, and I do see the cruel side of the government here, is that it is refusing to sign off on $3 million-only $3 million-that has already been allocated. It is not new money. It is money that is sitting there but, for various reasons, the Minister for Employment is saying that she needs to have a review before this money can be given. I have to say that this week we have seen that this government, whose main tactic for the past weeks and since we have come back here, has been blatantly anti-union and in fact anti-worker. You have to think there is a connection here. I spoke briefly with the minister today; I am sure she would deny that. Why would she not just get on with the job and ensure that these few process issues are dealt with?

What has the minister come up with? As I said, delay. The agency sought approval from the minister. I understand that was forwarded to the Department of Employment, which assessed the agency's funding as being sufficient. They are saying that it does not need this extra money that has been allocated. That was despite the CEO of the agency, Peter Tighe, advising Senate estimates on 11 February this year that the lack of funding is preventing the agency implementing the National Strategic Plan for Asbestos Management and Awareness. It had to have a plan, it got the plan, the money was allocated and now the government is saying, 'That last $3 million is not available. We've got to review the whole thing again.' Why would you do that when it has all been approved, particularly on this issue that is so critical?

On 30 March this year, Minister Cash announced that she had commissioned a performance and financial review of the agency. That is the review she has in place. The time frame for the review is five weeks. When we had the informal chat today she mentioned this to me. Let us remember what is going to happen in the next five weeks: an election is going to be called. If that election is called the review will be delivered during the caretaker period, which would leave the situation unresolved for months. We cannot afford that. This agency is sitting there with money to pay staff but no money for the staff to carry out their work, work they are supposed to be getting on and doing under the national strategic plan.

I had very thorough discussions with the people from the various asbestos groupings, as well as with victims who are part of many of these groups and who follow this so closely. They all said that a review is not needed. The issue is simple. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the agency was unable to spend the $3 million to implement the national strategic plan. These circumstances and the agency's current financial position have been dealt with in at least two Senate hearings. Questions have been asked and it has become quite clear that it is time for the money to be released. Seriously, this is the issue: I know Mr Turnbull has a million things to do, but this disease is insidious and it affects so many people. Surely the right thing should be done here.

I would urge the minister in particular not to hide behind the review, because it is a ruse. The minister told me today that she is concerned about asbestos, and I believe her-I think everybody would. But if that is the case the minister should be demonstrating her concern and have the $3 million released now. Otherwise, the election is going to be called and the Turnbull government will be causing more delays and more suffering, and that simply is the wrong approach at this stage.

 

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