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Wednesday, 1 June 2005
Page: 39

Mr TUCKEY (12:00 PM) —I have read the second reading speech relating to the Asbestos-related Claims (Management of Commonwealth Liabilities) (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2005, which the concluding remarks of the member for Perth drew attention to. He highlighted the fact, not putting it in strong terms, that there may have been a discourtesy arising from the minister’s office not consulting the Stevedoring Industry Finance Committee. But the reality is that the Minister for Workforce Participation made it clear in the second reading speech:

As the committee—

the Stevedoring Industry Finance Committee—

will no longer perform any other functions after the transferral of liabilities for asbestos related claims to Comcare, it is appropriate to repeal the relevant legislation. The stevedoring industry levy collection acts—

which are also being dealt with under this legislation—

have been redundant for several years.

In other words, there seems to be a very good reason to repeal this legislation and dispose of a committee which possibly has costs to the stevedoring industry or the taxpayer that will perform no functions. What is more, the funding processes under the levy acts have not been applicable for years. I note they have $24 million in the bank, which will be recovered to consolidated revenue. That also seems to be a practical and sensible solution.

While I express sorrow that there was not some appropriate consultation as a matter of courtesy, I would not suggest that there needs to be any opposition to repealing the two acts that become redundant simply because of the government’s decision, under the principal act, to transfer common law liability to Comcare. If I were somebody who might be making a claim some time in the future, I would like to have the comfort that Comcare, with its virtually bottomless pockets backed by the taxpayer, was an appropriate place to go. The explanatory memorandum—and this is the matter that I really came to this House to raise—indicates that the taxpayer funded operation, which is quite necessary for workers compensation, anticipates claims in the order of nearly $1 billion over the next 50 years. So it is a very significant cost and it is a very significant issue.

I have spoken in this House before on asbestos and have attracted some criticism as to my views on it. Asbestos remains in my mind as a wonderful product which served the community well but which was eventually proven to be unsafe to people who might be in contact with it in various ways. I am interested to know, as compensation under common law progresses, at what stage the Commonwealth might be held responsible for the regulations it requires on brake parts on imported vehicles, which until quite recently had brake linings containing asbestos. They are wearing parts and quite clearly asbestos fibres must have been found in any busy intersection where vehicles stop for red lights. So one can only worry. But this bill deals typically with workers compensation, although I am not sure that is entirely so. If I remember correctly, there is a list in the explanatory memorandum which is more extensive than just covering the role of a worker. It covers properly spouses and others. I think it also talks of secondary causes that might arise.

I chose to come here to speak briefly on this issue because I think it is a classic example of government accepting responsibility and creating an opportunity for compensation to be paid. I sincerely hope that will be compensation for appropriate losses, although it seems that some of the common law claims will not be for clear losses—the loss of a breadwinner and people of that nature, which is frequently not the occurrence with asbestos related diseases. They typically occur in later life at a time when, for instance, one’s dependants have gone their separate ways. It is one of those things that can be judged on that basis. It is clear from looking at the people on the list that there can be claims other than in relation to employees. The explanatory memorandum for the prime bill, the Asbestos-related Claims (Management of Commonwealth Liabilities) Bill 2005, says:

Apart from claims in relation to employees (or former employees) it is predicted Comcare would manage ARC common law claims from:

  • former waterside workers;
  • contractors and sub-contractors;
  • tenants of Australian Government owned and/or constructed premises;
  • family members of employees who were themselves exposed through contaminated clothing or other means;
  • visitors;
  • bystanders; and
  • dependants of persons in any of the above categories.

I think my example of brake linings is quite significant when one reads that list. It is a hysterical approach to occupational health and safety when state governments, egged on by unions, talk about putting directors in jail. Given the role of this parliament and state parliaments in imposing the regulatory requirements—for instance, brake linings—would there be a case, if that were taken to the nth degree, for members of this House, as the directors of ‘Australia Inc.’, to be called upon to show cause why they should not go to jail because of their negligence? It is a form of negligence that is totally beyond the capacity of the people and/or company directors to know or to understand. Asbestos is a classic example. The debate about James Hardie probably focuses on that intervening period after it became apparent that their product could deliver these outcomes. However, for many years asbestos was considered to be not only benign but very valuable. Even in this town of Canberra, which was technically a remote area, I would imagine that thousands of houses were built out of asbestos and weatherboard.

I think we have allowed this issue to go a little too far. I have said publicly many times that, if somebody with young children loses a supporting spouse as a result of an asbestos related disease, clearly there is a role for compensation. I am not sure that I agree with compensation being awarded after a person is deceased which then passes to quite healthy relatives. That is my criticism.

In closing, the Commonwealth has admitted that it has a liability under various acts associated with its employment—for example, the construction of buildings and the operation of ports. It is expected to cost nearly $1 billion, which the taxpayer must provide. The legislation quite sensibly transfers future liabilities for common law claims to Comcare. It makes separate arrangements for Defence, which is quite a significant area. In the Navy, huge amounts of asbestos were used so as to avoid other injuries, such as very severe burns—albeit unwisely, as we now know. This is an excellent piece of legislation in that regard. However, when we had an understanding of a product’s safety and we did not believe it presented a risk to others, I think it would be very unwise to revisit the issue and suggest negligence was involved. I make that point because of the occupational health and safety penalties that are constantly proposed by state governments. There are some very large businesses, and to talk about the role of directors or senior management in a workplace that could be quite remote from their point of operations is silly and unfair. If that is going to be concluded then this is a classic example of how everybody in this House would be liable in that regard, and I do not think any of us would think that is a good idea. I support this legislation. The repeal of the other legislation is sensible, particularly when one considers that the only function that councillors have had for some years was dealing with a matter they will no longer have to deal with—in fact, the levy support they had for other purposes has been redundant for several years.