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Monday, 13 February 2012
Page: 925


Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (20:10): I second the motion.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The House notes the interest of the member for Corangamite as well.

Mr CHESTER: It is a pleasure to join the debate this evening. I commend the member for Page for her motion on National Asbestos Awareness Week and also for her advocacy work in issues associated with safety surrounding the handling of asbestos products and the possible spread of asbestos related disease. I recently had the opportunity to witness the member's advocacy work firsthand when she was in Sale as the Chair of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works, which was looking into opportunities to expand the Sale RAAF base. She took the opportunity to question the officials from the Department of Defence about ensuring that whatever work was going to take place there would be safe in protecting of the workers and subcontractors on the site as well as the service personnel there. She has a very real commitment and I admire her passion and determination in this particular area.

The motion is quite an extensive one, as the previous speaker indicated. I will focus my comments tonight on the key points as they affect Gippslanders. As a bit of a personal perspective, from my dealings with people in my community and also with my own family, the issue of asbestos related disease is very real for many people in Gippsland. From my own experience, my father was a plumber, and he often used to tell the story about how, as a young bloke and an apprentice, he and his mates would bundle up the loose product and throw it at each other. It was a bit of fun after work, I think, for the boys, the young apprentices, on the job, not knowing of course the risks that they were exposing themselves to. My own father died of lung cancer four years ago, and I cannot help wondering whether some of that was related to his exposure. It did not help that a lot of young boys in those days smoked a lot. We now know the risks associated with smoking and with exposure to asbestos, and it could not have helped those young fellows.

At an industry level, the exposure to asbestos is a key concern for workers rights across the Gippsland and La Trobe Valley area. We have many people who are currently employed, or who were previously employed, in heavy industries, particularly associated with the power sector. We are fortunate in Gippsland to have a group known as the Gippsland Asbestos Related Disease Support Group, which I will refer to more extensively in a few moments time.

With these factors in mind, I have no hesitation in supporting the motion as put to the House tonight by the member for Page, nor in supporting the Parliamentary Group on Asbestos Related Disease, which the previous speaker also referred to and whose launch coincided with National Asbestos Awareness Week. I congratulate Senator Lisa Singh and my neighbour in Gippsland, the member for McMillan, Russell Broadbent, for co-chairing that group. The group is designed to raise awareness of asbestos related disease, and on the evening of its formation Mr Broadbent commented that Australia has one of the highest rates of asbestos related disease in the world, with nearly 10,000 recorded cases of mesothelioma since records began in the 1980s. He also indicated at the time that there is an increasing rate of diagnosis in women, as we begin to experience what they are describing as a third wave of sufferers from the home renovation era, which the member for Page also referred to. I quote one thing that Russell Broadbent said on the night:

Too many lives have been affected by asbestos related disease and together we must work together to address the asbestos-related issues. PGARD aims to be a conduit between the local community and the parliament on asbestos related issues.

I congratulate Senator Singh, Mr Broadbent and the member for Page for taking that bipartisan approach to what is a very serious issue in our community.

The scale of the problem facing Australia and the rest of the world should not be underestimated. The motion before the House recognises that Australian citizens suffer one of the highest rates of asbestos related disease in the world, and the widespread use of these products has been described to me by people in my electorate as something of a ticking time bomb on industrial sites and in residential homes throughout the nation. Even tonight, as I was watching the ABC evening news, there was reference to asbestos being found today on the foreshore at Kingston. In this case it was bonded material, and the authorities are very confident that it can be disposed of effectively and efficiently, but it indicates that this is an ongoing issue that we are going to be dealing with for many years to come.

The biggest risk, and the member for Page referred to it, is the home renovation sector, and in particular the ignorance of the potential threat that is out there. I am concerned that many Australians will be putting their own health at risk and the health of their families, their neighbours and their work colleagues if they are unaware of the potential risk posed by asbestos in the workplace or at home. We have made some massive improvements in the past decade and beyond in the identification of asbestos in the workplace. The OH&S laws that have been brought into place have been useful in that regard, but it is in the home environment that I think the biggest risk lies for us. If a home was built or renovated in the years leading up to 1985 it is most likely that it will contain asbestos somewhere. I understand that if it is left undisturbed it does not normally pose any health risk to anyone, and apart from monitoring it and perhaps painting it to make sure it remains in a stable condition there is no cause for homeowners to be alarmed. But where it does pose a significant health risk is in circumstances where it is disturbed during renovations or in demolition of houses where the asbestos fibres can be released into the air and inhaled. That can lead to asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

When I was a young fellow my father was one who used to occasionally take on contracts to demolish homes. As young boys we would go out there and join in the demolition. It was great fun getting the sledgehammer into the walls, the AC sheeting and everything else. I am sure that we should have been wearing more safety equipment than the gloves and the pair of old boots that we were issued with for the job. It is these sort of things where, through ignorance, well-meaning people who do not understand the risks they are taking have perhaps participated in jobs—in my case a bit of home demolition work, but I am sure in other cases it will be people doing renovation in the future—where they do not really know what they are dealing with.

It is good that we have come a long way since those days, but I want to go back to what I referred to a little earlier about the work of a group in my electorate called the Gippsland Asbestos Related Disease Group. I am not sure that every community is as fortunate as we are in Gippsland to have a group like this working on a daily basis to raise awareness and to help educate the public about the potential risks that are out there. GARDS, as it is known, plays a very important role in my community: firstly, in raising awareness of the risk of exposure to asbestos, but also in advocating on behalf of the sufferers. The work includes GARDS volunteers offering a telephone support service and drop-in service at their office. It organises meetings where guest presenters come along and let people know what the potential risks are and providing information on support services that are out there. The advocacy work is perhaps focused more on improving health support services and compensation arrangements to asbestos sufferers and their families.

I have recently had the opportunity to meet with the chief executive of GARDS, a lady by the name of Vicki Hamilton, who was here in Canberra for the launch of the parliamentary group. She works tirelessly to represent the interests of the sufferers in my community and their families. As we all recognise, the asbestos diseases are particularly insidious and they really do have an impact on the entire family. So it is important that the work of GARDS recognises the impact it does have on families. Vicki is a lady who has enormous compassion for the people she is working with and working for, but she is also determined to make a difference and reduce the incidence of further outbreaks of asbestos related diseases. She is a very strong advocate and a fierce champion. It is fair to say you would not want to mess with a lady like Vicki Hamilton. When she gets something in her mind that she is going to do, she does it to the best of her ability. We are fortunate to have her working on the asbestos related diseases support group in Gippsland.

The important point to note as we debate the motion tonight is that there is a concern that the rate of malignant mesothelioma is expected to rise from 2012 to 2020. It is also worth reinforcing, in the opportunity I have here tonight, to anyone who may be listening, that there is no safe exposure to asbestos fibres. Part of the role that we have here in this parliamentary group, and also the role that Vicki Hamilton has in my electorate with the Gippsland group, is in educating people. There are a lot of home renovators out there at the moment. They are mainly men and it is fair to say that blokes are not always the best in looking after their own health. They perhaps have an attitude that it will not happen to them or a bit of a crash or crash-through approach to home renovation job. So it is important that the education campaign that does roll out is understood by everyone—and I mean everyone—so the wives, girlfriends and children might also encourage their loved ones to take the appropriate precautions.

There are a couple of points to remember. One is that if you do not know what the product is you are dealing with in the home environment you should always assume that it does have some element of asbestos in it and take the appropriate precautions. It is also worth reminding people that they can get a licensed person to dispose of the product or seek advice from groups like the asbestos related disease support group in my electorate, which has developed things like the 'Asbestos in the home removal kit'. That is another very positive step that other communities could take. It is an innovation from the Gippsland group which has been very well received in my community. But the best advice of all is that, if you are not confident in doing the job safely yourself, call in the experts. They come in at about the price of any other qualified tradesperson, but what price do you put on your family's health and on your own health.

Safe disposal is a very key point and there are many cases still occurring in our community of dumping of asbestos products. It is outrageous to think that someone would expose others in the community to a risk like that, but there are many cases of that. I am looking forward to continuing to work with my colleague the member for McMillan and others like the member for Page and Senator Singh to make sure we do whatever we can in this place to reduce the incidence of asbestos related diseases in the community.