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Thursday, 9 December 2004
Page: 83


Senator EGGLESTON (3:09 PM) —The whole saga of asbestos related disease is a very sad one. Nobody can feel anything but the greatest sympathy for the victims of asbestos related diseases, both those who suffer because of asbestos exposure from the products of James Hardie and those in Western Australia who worked in the asbestos mines in Wittenoom. These people, without any doubt whatsoever, suffer terrible consequences, often from quite short periods of exposure to asbestos. It is one of the problems that the companies encounter because not everybody who is exposed to asbestos develops asbestosis or mesotheliomas. While it has been known for a very long time that there are hazards associated with exposure to asbestos in terms of pathology in the lungs, it is very hard to know how to identify the people who are at risk.

The Hardie saga is very long-running and sad, but I think we have to accept that the liability that the James Hardie company have said they expected to be faced with was an honest miscalculation. The company have not denied a liability; they have simply said that when these figures were worked out the advice they received about the extent of the ongoing liability was not fully identified. The government, because of the controversy that surrounds this issue, has passed laws which will mean that the records of the James Hardie company can be examined and will not be covered by privilege. This will mean that if indeed there has been misrepresentation on the part of the company and attempts on their part to avoid paying compensation to victims of asbestos diseases then they will not get away with it. In fact, the company will be brought to a position where they will have to meet their liabilities, and the victims of exposure to asbestos from the products of James Hardie will be fully compensated. That compensation will go on actuarially until the people who are involved have passed away.

I believe that there has been agreement. Not only the ACTU but also the New South Wales government have reviewed various mechanisms of how legal costs might be reduced in processing claims through the Dust Diseases Tribunal, which is the specialist court in New South Wales that deals with asbestos diseases cases. I would have thought that Senator Wong might have preferred to tell us about the negotiations that have gone on between the ACTU secretary, Greg Combet, and the Hardie company on paying compensation to the victims of asbestos exposure under that company. I have heard that the company is prepared to put some $200 million into a buffer fund to ensure that there will be money to meet the claims for some years ahead so that time is given for the development of a better way of meeting the needs of these people. That, I suppose, is a victory for the union movement in this case. They probably deserve to be given due praise for the way they have operated in this matter. I think the New South Wales government's actions are also very praiseworthy in seeking to reduce the cost of legal claims. But the fact remains, as the Treasurer said, the Commonwealth will find a solution. (Time expired)