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Thursday, 20 June 2013
Page: 3547

Senator ABETZ (TasmaniaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (12:45): The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency Bill 2013 establishes a national agency known as the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, as recommended by the Asbestos Management Review. The coalition indicated its support of the Asbestos Management Review and its recommendations very early on. Now that we as a community are fully aware of all the dangers of asbestos and the effects that it has on people exposed to it, it makes good sense for all sides of politics and for unions and employers to join together to try to overcome the legacy issues that are clearly out there. Those legacy issues will remain with us as a country for at least another 30 years.

We in Australia have the highest reported per capita incidence of asbestos related disease in the world. It is estimated that by 2020 there will be 13,000 cases of mesothelioma in Australia. A further 40,000 Australians will contract asbestos related cancer. Mesothelioma and asbestos related cancer differ in the way that they affect families. These cancers do not affect you today or tomorrow but 10, 20 or 30 years or even longer after exposure. Over the years, we have all seen and heard of too many cases of people who have passed away or who are living with a disability because of exposure to asbestos. These are the stories of cases that not only cripple the families and friends but impact entire communities.

While Australia has had a nationwide ban on the production, importation and use of asbestos since 2003, we still have many serious legacy issues, as exposed by the recent NBN debacle. Many buildings in Australia still have asbestos or asbestos products within them, which put at risk do-it-yourself homebuilders and renovators in particular. Regulation of asbestos issues is vital and is a matter for all levels of government in Australia. The prevalence of asbestos in our built and natural environments also means that asbestos regulation spans multiple areas of government, including health, environment, urban planning and workplace health and safety. The involvement of multiple governments across these diverse areas means that efforts to date to address asbestos issues have been fragmented and duplicative.

Turning specifically to the bill, the coalition identified a number of issues with this bill and I recognise that Minister Shorten and Labor took steps to ensure that our concerns were addressed through certain amendments that were passed in the other place. One of those concerns was that, despite a clear recommendation from the management review that all states be involved in the council, the government sought to restrict membership to only include two representatives from the states and local government. We welcome the minister's decision to expand the membership of the council. It is our view that in order to ensure that the council works well and that all levels of government work together across the nation you need to have everyone at the table. The one-size-fits-all approach does not usually work. Direct input of each state will give direct purpose and direct responsibility to each state. We welcome the step in the right direction that are the amendments in the other place put forward by the minister, but we believe that it would be advantageous to have everyone at the table. Nonetheless, we recognise that the government did take a step in the right direction.

We also urge the expansion of the powers of the council so that its deliberations could be more broad-reaching within the confines of asbestos related issues and not limited by the minister of the day. I might also point out that the coalition is disappointed that the agency funding has been slashed. On 20 March 2013 Mr Shorten introduced the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency Bill, which pledged, on page 2 of the explanatory memorandum, under the financial impact statement heading:

The cost to establish a new statutory agency will be $12.3 million over the forward estimates.

Yet in the budget just weeks later, on 15 May, we have this:

The Government has introduced legislation and will invest $10.5 million over four years to establish the agency.

And that is on page 18 of the education, employment and workplace relations portfolio budget statement.

So, in just six weeks, Labor has cut $1.8 million from its own asbestos regulator before it is even established. I invite the minister, in the summing up, to explain the cut and detail the services that might not be available as a result of this cut. This cut needs to be explained, especially in light of the NBN asbestos debacle—an issue the coalition and I personally raised at Senate estimates over two years ago. The issues, the problems and the debacle were foreseen and warned about yet foolishly ignored in what appears to be the priority being given to the government's political NBN agenda over the health and wellbeing of Australian workers and Australian citizens. And, as is typical with this government, they always have money for their political agendas. They will have $22 million for the NDIS advertising campaign. They even found $10 million out of the normal budget process to fund the ABC's hopelessly biased and compromised fact checker before the election. They found that money. And how did they find it? They found it by cutting the asbestos agency. That says everything anyone ever needs to know about this government's funding priorities, and it is not pretty.

Nonetheless, the coalition supports this bill. To conclude, I will say that I commend the Australian trade union movement, which has taken a very proactive role in dealing with the issues of the hazards of asbestos. It would be fair to say that, without their active campaigning, things may not have progressed as far as they have and as quickly as they have. The coalition commends the bill to the Senate.