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Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Page: 26149

Senator NETTLE (2:35 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Attorney-General and it relates to the attempts by James Hardie to avoid paying compensation to the victims of asbestos related disease. Has the Australian government formally asked the government of the Netherlands to sign a treaty to ensure that Australian court judgments are enforceable in the Netherlands so that the victims of asbestos related disease will get their compensation from James Hardie?

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) —The government take this issue very seriously and the Prime Minister is on record as saying that the government do not endorse the actions of any employer which rearranges its affairs to avoid its obligations to its employees. There is an inquiry into this matter which has been ordered by the New South Wales government and we are awaiting the outcome of that inquiry. We think it is inappropriate for the federal government to be making any move whilst the outcome of that inquiry is not known.

In relation to the Netherlands, we will assist in whatever way we can. If there has been any breach of any law, we will use our good offices with that country to take whatever steps are needed. We do believe that, in relation to the inquiry into this matter, the New South Wales government's approach is an appropriate one and we should await that outcome. In relation to whether we have an agreement for mutual assistance, the taking of evidence and such, I will take that on notice and get back to the Senate with any further information if that is necessary. This is a serious issue and one which the government take seriously. We do not condone any employer rearranging its affairs to avoid its obligations to its employees. That applies across the board.

Senator NETTLE —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for his offer to take part of that question on notice. Is the minister aware of comments by the Attorney-General's spokesman that there has not been much of a response from the Netherlands government? Isn't it true that the Netherlands government cannot act to sign a treaty if there has been no formal approach from the Australian government? Will the Attorney-General clarify the misleading statement that the Netherlands government are not cooperating? Will the government formally ask the Netherlands to sign a treaty so that asbestos victims can get their compensation? Further, will the Liberal Party be putting the $100,000 that it has received in donations from James Hardie into a trust fund for the victims of asbestos related disease?

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) —In relation to the question concerning James Hardie and its affairs in the Netherlands, of course we will look at what has gone on in relation to that company. If there is any transgression of federal laws we will take the necessary action. In relation to discussions with the Netherlands government, I will take that up with the Attorney-General and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, if that is appropriate.