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Thursday, 29 October 2009
Page: 7632

Senator XENOPHON (2:47 PM) —Mr President, my question is to the Minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Evans, and is in relation to James Hardie’s asbestos victims. I should declare an interest in this matter as I am a patron of the Asbestos Victims Association (SA) Inc. I note the Prime Minister’s strong advocacy for asbestos victims in the past. I refer to recent reports that James Hardie’s asbestos compensation fund is running out of money. According to the Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia there will not be enough funds to pay victims this financial year based on current projections. Given the NHMRC estimates that more than 25,000 Australians will die from asbestos related diseases over the coming decades, a figure that many consider conservative, will the government takes steps to ensure the company makes appropriate funds available to ensure that no victim of James Hardie Asbestos is left without adequate compensation?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —Mr President, I thank Senator Xenophon for the question. I acknowledge his interest in the matter and I think all senators share concerns for the victims of asbestos disease. We are very determined to ensure James Hardie meets its moral and legal obligations to asbestos victims. The government has been encouraging all parties to the funding agreement to work quickly to deliver an outcome that recognises the hardship experienced by asbestos victims.

I am advised that in the past week the Minister for Financial Services, Superannuation and Corporate Law, Mr Bowen, has been meeting with stakeholders, including the New South Wales Treasurer and the ACTU. I understand these discussions have been constructive and cooperative, and the Commonwealth continues to explore the ways in which it can assist. Further discussions are expected to take place over coming weeks. In the meantime the Commonwealth has offered the fund the assistance of the Australian Government Actuary. While continuing to explore additional ways it can help, the Commonwealth has already—as you know, Senator and Mr President—provided a great range of assistance to asbestos victims and the Prime Minister has continued to advocate on their behalf. We have listed Alimta on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme for the treatment of mesothelioma, and $5 billion has been awarded towards the costs of the Bernie Banton centre at the Concord Hospital in Sydney. We have invested in a number of research projects. We are keeping a very close eye on and engagement with these issues. I understand the concerns about a potential shortfall in compensation. We are looking very much to engage with the major players to ensure that James Hardie does meet its moral and legal obligations to asbestos victims.

Senator XENOPHON —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. In addition to the matters outlined by the minister, are any other further steps proposed to ensure that James Hardie’s books are forensically analysed to ensure that James Hardie meets its obligations and it is not withholding any funds, as it has been alleged to have done in the past, given its move a number of years ago to the Netherlands?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —As I said, we have made available the government actuary to assist. As the senator would know, the fund was established in November 2007, following the amended and restated final funding agreement entered into by James Hardie, the fund and the New South Wales government. The obligation on James Hardie to pay moneys into the compensation fund is governed by the funding agreement and New South Wales legislation. That agreement requires the company to deposit into the fund an amount equal to 35 per cent of its free cash flow or an annual contribution based on periodic actuarial assessment, whichever is the lesser amount. I have been advised that approximately 85 per cent of James Hardie revenue is dependent on the US housing market, which has been in considerable difficulty. But there are signs of that market recovering and James Hardie announced in August a first quarter net operating profit— (Time expired)

Senator XENOPHON —Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question—and I would appreciate it if the minister could elaborate. Given the widespread knowledge of the devastating harm caused by asbestos for well over 50 years and the fact that state, territory and federal governments allowed James Hardie to continue to manufacture and market its product well after the dangers were known, will the government consider stepping in and filling any shortfall in funding for victims should the need arise?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —The government has made clear that it is very much engaged with the issue and very much committed to making sure that James Hardie meets its obligations. I lost a close friend a couple of years ago who worked at Wittenoom for a couple of years. I think many of us here have personal connections with people who have suffered. We are very determined to make sure James Hardie meets its obligations, and the Minister for Financial Services, Superannuation and Corporate Law, Mr Bowen, is meeting with key stakeholders. He is engaged in trying to ensure that we get a really good result. He advises me that discussions have been constructive and cooperative, and we will continue to apply any pressure or provide any assistance the Commonwealth can provide to make sure that we get a good result and that we ensure proper care for those victims of James Hardie and the asbestos that it produced.