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Education and Employment Legislation Committee
Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency

Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency


CHAIR: Minister, do you wish to make an opening statement?

Senator Seselja: No, I don't.

CHAIR: Mr Tighe, do you wish to make an opening statement?

Mr Tighe : No, I don't have a statement either.

Senator MARSHALL: I just want you to confirm these figures and then, if you can confirm them, comment on them. I understand that this time last year for the financial year, the Australian Border Force made 40 asbestos detections, which was a three-fold increase on the previous year, and to date this year they have made 61 detections, which is a 50 per cent increase. But these detections have been made despite the number of consignments tested for the financial year to date being just 328, which compared to 602 tests for the same time last year, which was a 45 per cent decrease. Now, I look at those figures which say, detection is going up, with less detection going on, which would lead me to the conclusion that more and more asbestos products are entering the country?

Mr Tighe : In relation to your question, we don't get the figures directly from Australian Border Force; but I think some of your suppositions are probably true. I think there is a much more focused process at the border than there has been in the past. We work with Australian Border Force through the heads of Safe Work Australia's Inter-Agency Asbestos Management Working Group, which Border Force and the regulators sit upon. It's about dealing with imported products and dealing with imported products when they have been identified in Australia itself. The intel that comes out of those discussions would give Border Force a much more focused area to concentrate their policing arrangements on in relation to the customs acts and regulations.

Senator MARSHALL: How much involvement does your agency have with Border Force in terms of compliance? It's because my next question is actually about some comments made in estimates earlier in the week about their inability to, or the difficulties they have in, issuing infringement notices? It may be a question that I'm wasting my time asking if you don't have that sort of connection.

Mr Tighe : Our interrelationship is to work with them when we get information from stakeholders about products that might be in the market that they're concerned about. We flag that with Border Force to assist them in relation, as I said, to their overarching policing of the borders. If there are issues raised in relation to different building products or products that are brought into the market, then we would pass that information on. Recently, we had one concerning a pressure vessel that had been brought into Australia where the transport gaskets were an asbestos-containing material. Now, that's something we hadn't sighted before. It was only for the purposes of transport, but that has been flagged with ABF so that, when they look at manifests, that's the sort of product that can come under scrutiny. That's the sort of interrelationship there is.

Senator MARSHALL: I'm just wondering whether you or your advisory committee has—well, I'll just firstly read this quote from Mr Michael Outram, who is the Commissioner of the Australian Border Force. In the context of talking about infringement notices to companies that have brought in asbestos-containing materials, he said: 'If companies show they have taken some steps at least to inform overseas suppliers that Australia has a zero tolerance policy for asbestos, it pretty much defeats the prosecution avenue for us.' Again, to me, it sort of indicates that if people want to bring in asbestos-containing products, or they don't care, then the fact that they have advised their overseas supplies that we have a zero tolerance effectively exonerates them from prosecution. Is there any feedback that you've got on that?

Mr Tighe : We're going through a process of awareness with all of those people in the supply chain in relation to asbestos-containing materials to make sure they understand their responsibilities. Right from the design aspects to the principal contractors and subcontractors to customs and forwarding agents, it is to ensure that anyone who is bringing in a product understands the concept of zero tolerance in relation to asbestos-containing material. Part of that exercise is an awareness exercise. Border Force participates in some of the seminars that we've been involved with. However, the issue of enforcement and breaches of regulations of the customs acts are in the hands of Border Force. Our job is to lift the level of awareness. I suppose, on that basis, that people should be aware of their responsibility.

Senator MARSHALL: Does your agency have no regulation enforcement powers?

Mr Tighe : The agency, no, not at all.

Senator MARSHALL: You're purely education and policy?

Mr Tighe : Coordination, education, letting people understand what the overarching policy is and implementing our national strategic plan, which talks about the identification and awareness of asbestos products.

Senator MARSHALL: I was just interested in those questions. They're probably better for us to follow-up with Border Force. Let's go to the national strategic plan. Where is that now? What is the status of that?

Mr Tighe : The first iteration of the national strategic plan is coming to finality. The plan, whilst it doesn't expire, was from 2014 to 2018. Obviously, we are in 2018. We're in the process of putting together the next iteration of that plan, which would be put to all governments of Australia. The first iteration of the plan was about gaining information and gathering evidence about some of things that were broadly known but not specifically underpinned by good information and evidence. It's like all plans: you need to get an understanding and an audit of where you're going. The next five years, if it's going to be a five-year plan, would be about much greater proactivity. Because we actually know, I suppose, where the leaks are in relation to our problems around asbestos. It's about being proactive in that area.

Over the last five years, I think we've been successful in lifting the levels of awareness and getting the support of the jurisdictions not just in relation to occupational health and safety but in relation to health and environment. I think there is certainly much greater awareness about the process. The next steps are towards being proactive in relation to the identification and targeted removal of asbestos to lower the incidences of asbestos-related diseases. To do that, we need to bring on board the states and territories, who have certain responsibilities. I think we've been successful in getting that focus. We're now starting, if it's an appropriate analogy, to march all in the one direction. We're probably not all at the one speed, but at least we're going in the right direction.

Senator MARSHALL: Have we seen a general increase in the removal of asbestos from the built environment?

Mr Tighe : What we're seeing is some best practice arrangements where it's taking place. Some are in the private sector and some are in the public sector. We've had the governments of Australia look at different focuses. The Western Australian government is looking at targeting asbestos roof sheeting. The Victorian government has set up its own eradication agency to look at public assets. We have targeted campaigns in the jurisdictions and at the Commonwealth level. It's difficult because we know how much asbestos we had, per se, in the Australian community; but we don't know where that asbestos was used so we can't quantify the number of asbestos sheets, the number of brake shoes and the number of building materials we used that contain asbestos. We do know that one of the problem areas is the domestic built environment—that is, domestic cottages—because of the huge building impetus that took place post the Second World War.

Senator MARSHALL: From what I understand, your agency isn't responsible for this issue; but are the jurisdictions providing support, particularly in the domestic area, for people who may find themselves with an asbestos-clad house to assist in the removal of that product? I know in Western Australia, in particular, there was this whole swathe of houses, and particularly in some of the regional areas, that are just all asbestos.

Mr Tighe : Currently, there aren't any subsidies at a jurisdictional or a Commonwealth level other than the proactive arrangement in relation to the Mr Fluffy houses to removal roof installation when there was a buyback arrangement in place to facilitate that. That led to the deconstruction and demolition of those building that were affected by the Mr Fluffy product. That's not to say the appetite isn't increasing. We've got international evidence in Poland and in Holland, for instance. Holland has now made a determination to remove all their asbestos roofing by 2024. There is a subsidy to allow that to take place, although it's not a huge subsidy. The issue is: how are we going to do that in the future? Are we going to be able to come together to target areas by coming up with some sort of commercial stimulus to allow that to take place?

What we are trying to do is to put together a business case for the targeted removal of high-risk asbestos, because there is a cost in the management of asbestos. If you have it in a commercial arrangement, there are regulations and requirements under our act that you have to ascertain a register, you have to have people trained, you have to bring in a licensed removalist and, to manage it, you must oversight it. So, there's a cost associated with that. Some of the best practice cases we've been able to identify—for instance, Energy Queensland has decided it's going to remove all asbestos out of its corporate area because it believes that the business case supports that. We're trying to encourage that, but some assistance from government would be I think a positive thing.

Senator MARSHALL: When I was on the tools working with asbestos, the asbestos removal industry was what I'd describe as incredibly dodgy. It was completely unregulated, full of a lot of dodgy operators that would simply remove asbestos, generally with unskilled people and uninformed people, without the proper protection and simply dump it down at the local tip or on the sides of highways. I'd like you to give me a view of where the asbestos removal industry is now in terms of ethical operations and regulation.

Mr Tighe : I suppose like all industries there's what you'd call a cowboy element and what you'd call a genuine element. The Asbestos Removal Contractors Association sit on our construction demolition working group. They're a credible organisation. The Demolition Contractors also sit on our construction working group. But, again, there are some people—they're supposed to be licensed but they can obviously gain a licence and then move into commercial practices which are in breach of regulations—and we're still seeing, as you would be aware, instances of illegal dumping. We also have situations where some people come in and cite themselves as removalists and do not necessarily hold a licence. It's always a question about money available for compliance.

I think in relation to illegal dumping there's a number of jurisdictions that are really concentrating on that now. Breaches in New South Wales now—if you're a serial offender—lead to a custodial sentence rather than the fines we used to see in the past. Quite often fines to companies were not paid and then the company would go into bankruptcy and then phoenix as another company into the future and continue the same practices. I think the fact that we've been able to raise the level of awareness and work with the environmental protection agencies that look after illegal dumping, and with the industry, has lifted the standard. But there are still people out there who shouldn't be in the industry.

Senator MARSHALL: Have we reached the peak yet in terms of asbestos-related disease?

Mr Tighe : Absolutely not, unfortunately.

Senator MARSHALL: We know when that peak's going to be though, don't we? There's been a lot of statistical analysis work done, or not?

Mr Tighe : There is analysis and the original analysis said it would peak about now.

Senator MARSHALL: That's what I thought.

Mr Tighe : That's been amended. We're now saying the peak would be in the 2020s. What we're seeing now though is a change in the dynamic of people suffering from asbestos-related diseases. The original sufferers were miners, people involved in production at the major asbestos manufacturing plants and building construction tradespeople who were installing the product. What we're seeing now is those numbers starting to decrease. We're seeing what we call the third wave, and that's people who are non-occupational players in this game. They may have been the wives of a worker, they may have been involved in doing some home renovations—which is a big area—or they may have been doing minor work assisting a friend. They're the group that's continuing to add to those numbers. Mesothelioma, which is the worst of the ARDs—there's 700 people diagnosed a year and 700 people die.

Senator MARSHALL: There's no cure, is there? Once you've got it, you'll die from it?

Mr Tighe : Not for mesothelioma. For other related cancers, it is now estimated by the Global Burden of Diseases research that we have around about 4,000 cases of asbestos cancers in Australia, including mesothelioma. We're now looking at drilling down into that to get better particulars and that's one of the things the agency has a responsibility to do in the research area. That shows that it's higher than what we see in relation to deaths on our roads. The problem with asbestos is the long gestation period for a sufferer to be diagnosed with one of the ARDs. In the past it's been categorised—wrongly, in my view—as an old person's disease. I would hate to say there are some steel-hearted people out there but for someone with an ARD who's in their late 60s or 70s, the old saying in Australia is, 'Well, he had a good innings.' But now that we're expecting to live into our 80s and early 90s, I think there's a different dynamic coming into play.

Senator MARSHALL: I'm aware that the current government has continued to support the agency and in fact increased the funding, and I do congratulate the government for doing so. I think it's one of the areas where there is a good, strong bipartisan commitment, and that's good. I understand your term is coming to an end, so I'm just wondering: what is the process for the agency into the future?

Mr Tighe : My term is coming to an end. My appointment as a statutory officer finishes in August of this year. I'm aware that there has been a call for people who might be interested in the job, and I think it's even got through to the interview stage. If it's the same process that occurred with me, it's a transparent exercise. The best person will be recommended to the minister, and then I think it's, finally, a decision of cabinet. I'm hopeful it'll be someone who has the same gusto and feeling for the issue that I have and I'm sure it will be, given it's, as you said, a bipartisan policy. This agency has a lot of work to do into the future. We've only started to break the ice and we need to do a lot more.

Ms Hartland : That's correct. Mr Tighe has summed up the process exactly. It's a merit based process. In fact, Ms Parker has chaired that process. It will go through the recommendations to the minister, which will go through the cabinet process.

Senator MARSHALL: This will be your last estimates then, Mr Tighe, I suspect. Occasionally we've got to you very late at night and nearly dismissed you with hardly any questions. Your experience in estimates might not have always been a particularly worthwhile one but I certainly want to thank you on behalf of this committee—I've chaired it over many years in different forms—for your work and commitment to this area, which, until you're actually affected by it or you think you may be affected by it, is one that stays in the background and people aren't very aware of it. I think the work that you and your agency do is fantastic. On behalf of the committee, I want to thank you for your contribution to our Public Service.

Mr Tighe : Thank you for those kind words.

Senator Seselja: Can I also add the government's thanks. Thank you very much, Mr Tighe. It is a very important area, and we thank you very much for your service.

Mr Tighe : Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. There are no further questions for the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency.