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Thursday, 30 May 2013
Page: 4700

Mr SHORTEN (MaribyrnongMinister for Financial Services and Superannuation and Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) (16:31): I thank the member for Banks for his contribution and, indeed the member for Farrer's contribution before that, which I had the privilege to listen to. I acknowledge the honourable members for their contributions on this important debate about the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency Bill 2013.

I think it is moments like this, with cross-party support, when we hit a high note in the performance of the parliament. Whilst it might not attract the same degree of media attention, it should give some optimism to Australians who expect that parliamentarians will set aside differences in the greater interest of the nation—which I think they do more often than is recognised. This bill is certainly the beneficiary of that attitude. This bill delivers on the government's commitment to introduce legislation to implement the key recommendations of the Asbestos Management Review, ensuring that the health and safety of our citizens is a fundamental role of government and this parliament.

Asbestos is a clear and present danger to workers, to tradespeople, to our domestic and public safety, to home renovators and to the families of people who may risk exposure to asbestos fibres. There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos. Asbestos is arguably the worst industrial menace that we have seen, and it will go on killing for decades. Recent incidents of potential asbestos exposure from materials containing asbestos in Telstra pits demonstrate very clearly why we do need a national approach to asbestos awareness handling and eradication and that this need is urgent.

It has been almost a decade since asbestos was banned in this country, and still we see the dangers of this silent killer remain. Based upon International Labour Organization figures, every five minutes someone around the world will die of an asbestos related disease. This bill is an appropriate and significant step by Australia to become the first nation to progress towards the ultimate elimination of asbestos related diseases. Our aim, our goal, our aspiration and our ambition should be to remove the menace once and for all and to do it over time by working with local, state and territory governments, industry, unions and community. We are working to rid the legacy of 50 years of asbestos use—a substance which we must acknowledge was known to some to be deadly all those decades ago—by miners, workers, tradespeople and householders. We sadly lead the world in per capita mesothelioma rates. Now we have the chance to lead by action.

Until the Gillard government established the Asbestos Management Review in 2010, there had been up to that date no coordinated or consistent national approach to handling asbestos beyond our workplaces. The review made it clear that we must act quickly to prevent Australians from being further exposed to asbestos. We must diminish and prevent that third wave of asbestos deaths which the member for Banks referred to, particularly as a result of people exposed to asbestos in their homes as they renovate.

To do so, the review recommended the development of a new national plan for action on asbestos eradication awareness and handling. The review also recommended that a new asbestos agency be established to have responsibility for coordinating and implementing the national plan. The establishment of a new agency is an essential part of the Labor government's commitment to reduce exposure to asbestos. It will pave the way for a national approach to asbestos eradication awareness and management in Australia by taking responsibility for coordinating a national plan of action.

I can inform members of the House that since the bill was introduced the Office of Asbestos Safety has been working with government counterparts and community partners to develop a national strategic plan for asbestos management and awareness. This first plan is ideally due by 1 July this year.

Also since the introduction of the bill, the government has continued to listen to and to consult with various stakeholders, including state, territory and local government representatives and union and industry representatives regarding the provision of the bill, and also with victims groups and the families of victims. The government has also taken careful note of the issues considered by the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee in its report of May 2013.

It is worth reiterating for the benefit of the House what this bill provides. It will establish the asbestos safety and eradication agency as an independent body—it will be comprised of a chief executive officer supported by staff—and an asbestos safety and eradication council made up of representatives with expertise in asbestos safety. The new agency will ensure asbestos issues receive the attention needed for a coordinated national approach. The functions of the new agency will include advocacy, coordination and monitoring and reporting on the implementation of the national strategic plan. It will review and amend the national strategic plan as required by the plan or at the request of the minister and it will provide advice to the minister about asbestos safety.

I want to flag for the benefit of members that the government will shortly move a number of agreed amendments to the bill. These are designed to ensure that the bill better aligns with the recommendations of the Senate inquiry and the Asbestos Management Review, and that the agency operates as intended. The amendments take into account the feedback the government has received from governments and stakeholders.

The amendments that the government will move fall into four categories. The government proposes an amendment to provide for an object for the bill. The object will be to establish the agency to administer the national strategic plan, which has as its aim:

… to prevent exposure to asbestos fibres in order to eliminate asbestos-related disease in Australia.

The government will also propose a new section to provide for a detailed definition of the national strategic plan, setting out its aims and providing further detail as to its priorities.

The government proposes amendments regarding the council, including one to ensure the council has appropriate representation by increasing the number of representatives of state, territory and local governments from two to four, and providing for representation by national bodies that represent employers and workers respectively.

There will also be a small number of minor technical consequential amendments, including one that would allow the CEO of the agency to delegate their functions.

In conclusion, this bill establishes the first nationally coordinated approach to handling asbestos beyond our workplaces. It gives effect to the key recommendations of the asbestos management review, putting measures in place to prevent further Australians being exposed to deadly asbestos fibres.

Let me once again remind the House that this is an issue for all levels of government to tackle. It is an issue that has been championed by unions, by individuals and by families touched by asbestos-related diseases, by asbestos advocacy groups, by the lawyers representing victims, by health and safety activists and specialists, by some crusading journalists and, indeed, by many of my colleagues here in parliament, on both sides of politics. To them I again say thank you, and I commend this bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.