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Wednesday, 27 June 2012
Page: 4757

Senator URQUHART (Tasmania) (19:20): Every day Australians are being exposed to asbestos fibres—through a parent drilling into a wall to bury a hook and hang a picture, through a full refurbishment of a bathroom, when the fibro walls are ripped off the joists, or through a full demolition, when the skip may be filled with asbestos which has been hidden at the bottom to avoid extra tipping costs. Every day, everyday Australians are being exposed to asbestos fibres. A devastating statistic is that more Australians have died of asbestos related disease than were killed in World War II. These everyday Australians have died because, through no fault of their own, they have inhaled microscopic asbestos fibre fragments which can enter even the smallest air passages in the lungs, where they embed in lung tissue. The fibres are highly resistant to removal by the lungs' natural cleaning processes. Over time, embedded asbestos fibres irritate the lung tissue, causing a number of diseases. The incidence of these diseases has not yet peaked in Australia and it will continue to increase unless action is taken now. We must decrease and eventually eliminate all exposure to asbestos.

On 29 October 2010, the then Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Senator Evans, announced the establishment of a national review into the management of asbestos. The review was tasked with assessing current activities and research in the area of asbestos management and to make recommendations for the development of a national strategic plan to improve asbestos awareness, management and removal. Senator Evans said that 'it's time that we took a long-term, strategic approach to these important issues'. Well, the work has been done by the review. It reports later this week.

Today I hosted some members of the Asbestos Management Review group: Paul Bastian, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union National Secretary; Lindsay Fraser, Assistant National Secretary, Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union; Michael Borowick, Assistant Secretary, Australian Council of Trade Unions; and Tanya Segelov, Managing Partner of the Adelaide office of Turner Freeman Solicitors. Importantly, they brought with them to Canberra Serafina Selluca, an asbestos disease sufferer. Their message to members of parliament and senators from all sides of politics is to support the forthcoming recommendations from the review.

I acknowledge Serafina's courage and honesty in sharing her story with us today. It was April 2007 and at only 37 years old—having never worked with asbestos in her life, having never cleaned the clothes of a partner who worked with asbestos and having never to her knowledge been exposed to asbestos—Serafina was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Serafina said that around this time she felt well apart from a nagging cough. Her doctor thought she had active pneumonia and did some tests. The doctor was sure all would be okay. It was not.

Her doctor told her it could be cancer. But it did not appear to be cancer. After more tests and a biopsy, Serafina, aged 37, as I said, and the mother of four young children, was diagnosed with mesothelioma. She asked her doctor what that was—she was unaware. Her doctor explained that mesothelioma is a cancer of the pleura; that it typically grows quickly and spreads widely before symptoms appear, making its early diagnosis and effective treatment very difficult; that there is no cure; and that the average survival time after diagnosis is only six to 18 months. Serafina's treatment involved chemotherapy and an operation to remove one lung followed by 30 treatments of radiotherapy. All seemed well until two years ago, when Serafina had a recurrence. Another tumour had appeared. More chemotherapy was required before the tumour was able to be removed, along with some of her ribs, last year.

As I said earlier, Serafina had never worked with asbestos and to her knowledge had never been exposed to asbestos. Her only recollections were from her childhood in Sydney's suburbs. Around 1977, when she was just seven years old, her dad built a fibro garage at the family's Randwick home. With her two brothers, Serafina played around in the offcuts while her father was building the shed. It was 1977 and he was oblivious to the dangers, as were the children. When the family moved to Sutherland and lived in an old fibro house, the kids did as kids do—played around the house, in the yard and in the shed. The shed was also made of fibro, and there were bits of the wall that were broken off—lots of fun for kids to pull and poke at. Her dad relined the inside of the shed, with no idea of the dangers he was working with or exposing his precious family to. It is these situations, these innocent exposures as a child, which are probably to blame for Serafina's mesothelioma. Her two brothers and mother have both tested clear for any asbestos related disease. Serafina told of how she had received compensation from James Hardie. But, with sadness in her voice, she then went on to say that that would not change her outcome but that it gave her some comfort to know that her children will be able to be looked after and that her husband will not have to struggle as much if a time comes when she is no longer here.

Importantly, I was not the only one Serafina was able to share her story with today. This afternoon, the Prime Minister made time to hear Serafina's story. Flanked by the members of the review I mentioned earlier, this was Serafina's chance to share her struggle. And it was her chance to urge the Prime Minister to act swiftly and move to enact the review's recommendations. The findings and recommendations will be reported to government later this week. The review has built on work already being undertaken at the Commonwealth, state and territory levels. It seeks to complement the development of harmonised workplace health and safety laws, including regulations and codes of practice relating to asbestos management and removal in the workplace, as well as the Tasmanian government's response to the 2010 report, Improving asbestos management in Tasmania. And its final report will represent a once-in-a-generation opportunity for this Labor government to implement a national asbestos authority.

The National Asbestos Summit was convened in June 2010 by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, by my union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, and by the Cancer Council of Australia. It was unanimously agreed at that summit that a national asbestos authority should initially be established as an independent authority with the appropriate powers to coordinate and enforce the removal of asbestos-containing materials from our built environment: at work, at home and in public and commercial buildings.

In the discussions with the delegation today, it was argued that the authority would work best as an independent body, as a statutory authority. This would allow for the family home, the local footy club, office buildings and the local village hall to be covered under its auspices. The activities of the authority could be overseen by a board of management consisting of representation from key stakeholders: from unions, the community, asbestos disease support groups, health groups and government. Crucially, it was raised that the authority must be given powers to educate and raise awareness amongst the community; audit and plan removal from government premises; require disclosure of asbestos-containing materials in the residential sector; manage waste disposal; and make workplaces safer. That is because we know that asbestos-containing materials remain prevalent throughout Australia. Prior to its phasing out in the mid-1980s and ban in 2003, Australia was one of the highest users of asbestos in the world. The unfortunate circumstance arises when materials that are cheap to mine and manufacture are used without analysis of their environmental affects.

The incidence of mesothelioma has not yet peaked in Australia. Australia has the highest per capita incidence of mesothelioma in the world. There is no threshold of exposure to asbestos for the causation of mesothelioma. Increasingly mesothelioma is being diagnosed in persons whose only exposure was through home renovations, just like Serafina. This review is the culmination of many years of struggle by asbestos related disease sufferers, by their unions, by their supporters, by their lawyers and—crucially with a terminal disease—by their family and friends. I thank members and officials of my union, the AMWU, for their strong leadership in seeking to take Australia towards a safe asbestos-free environment. I strongly urge the Prime Minister to favourably consider the recommendations in the review, in particular the proposal for a national asbestos authority whose work will ensure that fewer—or, preferably, no—everyday Australians are exposed to asbestos fibres.