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Thursday, 20 June 2013
Page: 3548

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (12:53): I too support the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency Bill 2013 and commend the government for introducing it, but I share the reservations Senator Abetz has raised in relation to what appear to be funding cuts to this agency. This is an important bill. I also should declare that I have been, for many years, a patron of the Asbestos Victims Association in South Australia. I was a co-patron with a number of other people, including former South Australian premier Mike Rann. I was very happy to be part of that, and I still am. I want to pay tribute to the selfless voluntary work of Terry Miller, who received an Order of Australia medal, and his team over many years to support victims of asbestos, to advocate for changes in the law. I was immensely proud to introduce legislative changes in the South Australian parliament back in November 2005 that were eventually passed with bipartisan support to significantly improve the compensation payable to asbestos victims. I want to pay tribute to Melissa Haylock, then a relatively young woman—in her early 40s—who suffered from mesothelioma and who has since, sadly, passed away, and to her family. I pay tribute to her courage in speaking out. She was instrumental in changing the law in South Australia.

This bill is important. It is important to acknowledge how serious an issue asbestos is in this country. I note from the information provided by the Asbestos Victims Association of South Australia back in 2005 that with a latency period of between 20 and 50 years post exposure, mesothelioma cases and deaths are not due to peak in South Australia until 2020, with up to 2,000 South Australians dying from mesothelioma and up to double that number dying of other asbestos related diseases, including asbestosis and asbestos related lung cancer.

So this is a serious issue, and this is something that could have been avoided in the sense that we have known about the dangers of asbestos for many years now. But it was still being marketed and still being sold up until the late 1980s. That is why the book Killer Company, about James Hardie, was quite illustrative of the problem of there being knowledge yet the product is still being sold.

I share with Senator Abetz the concerns raised about the funding cuts. Also, if we are spending money on promoting, for instance, the National Broadband Network, in a huge advertising campaign—and it is something that the coalition has done perhaps even bigger and better with campaigns in the past, and Work Choices comes to mind—then I think that is not a good use of money; it should be spent here. And the other issue is that asbestos victims' groups and research groups around the country actually need the money to push research that could end up saving lives. Gene-splicing therapy has been tried in the United States with some mixed success. But we need to get a breakthrough, because at the moment mesothelioma is almost invariably a death sentence.

That is why I would like to think that this council will provide that research role. And my question to the parliamentary secretary representing the government is: to what extent does the government see the research role of this agency being important? And I do not just mean in preventing exposure: if someone does have an asbestos related disease, what role does this council play in advocating, in pushing for research, for if not a cure then at least medication or treatment that can prolong life in an appreciable and significant way? Right now, some of the experimental treatments may prolong life by a few precious months, but at the moment it is largely a death sentence, usually within nine months, to be diagnosed with mesothelioma.

Having said that, I support the legislation. I would like to think that this is part of a broader effort to reduce significantly the impact of asbestos in this country. I note the controversy recently in relation to the NBN and Telstra and the questions of asbestos exposure. It is an issue that has been brought to my attention by a number of constituents in South Australia. I think this is an issue that will not go away, and it is important that we do not have that next wave of mesothelioma sufferers or other asbestos victims in the next 20, 30, 40 or over 50 years time. That is why it is so important that we get it right now. But it is also important that we have enough funding, enough research to actually find a cure—or at least something that will extensively prolong the life of mesothelioma sufferers. I support this bill.