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Friday, 28 June 2013
Page: 4518


Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (15:28): I rise to speak on adjournment for the last time in this 43rd session of parliament. I think I am the last speaker to speak in this 43rd session of parliament, a parliament that has been one of the most constructive in the nation's history. Among the many achievements of this parliament have been its victories for the environment, from putting a price on carbon pollution to the declaration of the world's largest network of marine parks.

One of the processes initiated in this term of parliament and government reached its culmination only this week. On Monday, 24 June, UNESCO recognised over 170,000 hectares of Tasmania's old growth forest as among the world's most special places. In supporting the Labor government's nomination of these forests for world heritage status, UNESCO has declared that they are the common estate of humanity and deserving of the highest protection. These forests are the legacy of the ancient landforms of Gondwana, and hundreds of thousands of years of nature uninterrupted. They include the Styx Valley, only 70 kilometres from Hobart and home to some of the tallest hardwood trees in the world, stretching over 25 storeys into the air and five metres wide at their bases. The Styx-Tyenna area contains the greatest concentration of these trees in the world. It includes the unique biodiversity in the Upper Florentine, Huon and Picton, and includes areas from Cockle Creek in the far south of Tasmania to Cradle Mountain in the north-west. Habitats for rare and threatened species, such as the endangered wedge-tailed eagle, the white form of the grey goshawk, and the Tasmanian devil are also included in the new boundaries for the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. Geology that tells the history of our world is also included—places that exhibit evidence of glacial movement along the Walls of Jerusalem and Central Plateau millions of years ago.

I have walked along these rock faces and among these giants, and they are some of the most beautiful and moving places on earth. There is no doubt in my mind that they are worthy of protection. But declaring these sites of shared significance is no simple decision. Common human heritage requires common human understanding about the meaning of these places, and for at least the last 30 years Tasmania's forests have been the subject of bitter community conflict. This declaration has been made possible by traditional protagonists from the conservation movement and the forestry industry being willing to sit down together and negotiate together. Through the community-driven process concluding in the Tasmanian forests agreement, both parties were able to focus on the best results for the future. And when they had reached that agreement, they were supported by the federal Labor government.

There are not only conservation gains in this agreement, though. The agreement is underwritten by an understanding of the value of Tasmania's forests to industry and to families that depend on forestry jobs. Importantly, the Tasmanian forests agreement provides greater certainty for Tasmanians working in the forestry industry, giving industry players certainty and providing space and resources to restructure in a way that can build a better future and assure jobs. One of our most important job providers in the state, Ta Ann, whose capacity underpins the success of many operators, will be able to access $26 million to restructure their business in response to market changes and the changing face of Tasmanian forestry. Economic diversification projects, new and innovative developments in affected parts of the state, and structural adjustment programs to allow people to transition or exit out of the industry are just some of the outcomes of this agreement which will benefit workers.

Ultimately, what will be facilitated by this agreement, including the World Heritage Committee's decision this week, is the end of community division over Tasmania's forests. Tasmania's forests have always been important to Tasmanians—to those who were awed by their transcendent beauty and to those families who were sustained by their bounty. Preserving the precious value of our forests is a joint aim now. Now, with the extension of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, it is the aim of our nation and our world as well.

I want to turn my attention now to the new National Asbestos Exposure Register. Firstly, I want to commend Minister Bill Shorten, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, for setting up the register in the wake of community concerns after asbestos was found in Telstra pits during the rollout of the National Broadband Network. Residents near some of these pits have expressed fears that they might have been exposed to potentially deadly asbestos fibres, and at least one family in Sydney moved to a hotel after asbestos was found on their front lawn after it was removed incorrectly from a Telstra pit. The parents feared that their children might have brought the asbestos into the house on their shoes.

There are around two million pits across Australia; they are in almost every footpath. It is estimated that asbestos is in around 10 per cent of these pits. Telstra owns these pits and has accepted responsibility for pit remediation work. Telstra is also working with NBN contractors to ensure that all workers are trained in the removal and handling of asbestos in pits and pipes—trained adequately and properly. In this aim, they are providing 200 experts to oversee the work across Australia.

I am pleased that Minister Shorten moved so quickly to address community concerns regarding asbestos removal from the underground pits and to set up the National Asbestos Exposure Register. The minister convened an urgent meeting of Telstra, union representatives, contractors and asbestos support groups and created a task force to develop a new training standard for asbestos removal. Telstra and NBN Co. have confirmed that they are working with the unions and Comcare to ensure that all Telstra and NBN employees and contractors are trained in the safe removal and handling of asbestos from Telstra pits. With this National Asbestos Exposure Register, anyone who is exposed can register where and when it occurred. We know that it can be up to 20 years before any asbestos related disease comes to light, so it is essential that anyone who thinks they may have been exposed to asbestos puts their name on the register.

The register has been established by the government's Office of Asbestos Safety, with assistance from the Chief Medical Officer. In Australia we have a national approach to asbestos, including establishing the national Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency and the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Council. This historic legislation passed the Senate last week.

On the day the legislation was introduced into the House of Representatives a truck driver in Sydney was caught on CCTV dumping asbestos outside a childcare centre. This illegal dumping of waste carries fines of between $750 and $1 million and up to seven years imprisonment. The local Sydney council spent $13,000 cleaning up the area after the alarm was raised, but the council says finding the person who dumped the asbestos is like 'trying to find a needle in a haystack'. Dumping of asbestos continues to happen and is putting people at risk. It highlights why we need a national approach to dealing with asbestos and its safe removal. After the media coverage of the asbestos in the Telstra pits, my office in Hobart had a call from a man who was worried about dumping of asbestos in the Hobart Domain. However, incidents of dumping near childcare centres and the concern with Telstra pits again highlight just why we need a national approach and a national agency and council to try to eradicate asbestos from workplaces and public buildings.

Australia, unfortunately, has one of the highest rates of asbestos related deaths in the world and this will continue to rise if we do not safeguard our community from asbestos. Removal of asbestos should be above politics—the health and safety of Australians are too important to see it politicised. Therefore, I commend the government for establishing the first National Asbestos Exposure Register as well as the national asbestos agency.

Senate adjourned at 15:37