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Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Page: 89

Senator WONG (3:00 PM) —My question is to Senator Coonan, Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts and Minister representing the Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer. Does the minister agree that the refusal in recent months by the James Hardie board to fully fund the company's liabilities to asbestos victims and their families is reprehensible and an indictment of the current Hardie board? Does the minister also agree with Dennis Cooper, the Director of the Medical Research and Compensation Foundation, that yesterday's announcement of further funding for the foundation is only a temporary and insufficient measure? Will the minister join the opposition in urging James Hardie to agree upon a fully funded settlement arrangement for asbestos victims?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —Thank you, Senator Wong, for raising a very serious question. I am sure we have all been following this issue and the impact of the claims on the victims of asbestos. The arrangements entered into to fund those claims have been inadequate and are recognised as inadequate by the board and the inquiry conducted by Mr Justice Jackson. Rather than condemn the board, I would think that most Australians would want to see urgent action taken to ensure that these claims are properly funded into the future, because they have a very long tail. The board, no doubt, is looking at how to do that. Whilst we support the claims of the victims—I do not think anybody seriously doubts that those claims should be entertained by the company and paid where appropriate—it is not just a simple matter of snapping your fingers. You have to be able to fund these claims, you have to be able to bank these claims and you have to be able to continue to run the company in order to pay the claims. So it is important that we see the board move to making appropriate arrangements for victims.

I think I heard Senator Conroy say at some stage that the board should be sacked. That will not deal with the issue. Continuity of the board and attention to the very complex issues that surround these claims are paramount. These matters are critical to properly funding the claims and putting in place a fund that is able to deal with them. I do not think there is broad community disagreement, nor would I think there would be much disagreement between the government and the opposition, that the company move to fund the claims, but I do caution the opposition from being strident about it. If you put this company out of business, there is certainly not going to be any means to pay these claims. So I think we need to be tempered in our approach to it. I do think that it is important that the union, the board and Ms Hellicar, who is the chair, continue their discussions. I would certainly hope that this matter can be resolved at the very earliest possibility.

Senator WONG —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Is the minister aware that the James Hardie board that determined its current and totally inadequate course of action includes Mr Donald McGauchie, a current director of James Hardie and the government's choice as Telstra chairman? Given the inexcusable corporate practices engaged in by James Hardie, how does the minister justify the government's pick for Telstra chairman acting so blatantly against the interests of injured Australian workers and their families?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —That is an extremely disappointing supplementary from Senator Wong, who raised a legitimate question that I have endeavoured to deal with in an appropriate way. I think it is a very low act to pick on one member of the board and try to extrapolate from a board such as James Hardie to the chair of Telstra. Once again, the Labor Party clutches at straws and draws very long bows. There is no argument on this side of the chamber that victims should be properly compensated and that the board should attend to it at the earliest possibility. (Time expired)

Senator Hill —Mr President, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.