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Education and Employment Legislation Committee
04/03/2020
Estimates
ATTORNEY-GENERAL'S PORTFOLIO
Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency

Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency

CHAIR: Welcome. Do you wish to make a brief opening statement?

Ms Ross : No.

CHAIR: Okay. We will go to questions from the Labor Party.

Senator SHELDON: Firstly, I would like to commend the work of the agency. It is obviously extremely significant and important to the country. Asbestos in this country is a scourge and presents an enormous health and safety risk to millions of Australians who literally, as we know, still live with its presence in our built environment. I refer to the recent review of your organisation. Several of the submissions expressed a view that you're not adequately funded to deliver on your objectives. Would you care to comment on those comments?

Ms Ross : Yes, I'll comment on the review. The review made several recommendations. Our funding wasn't the subject of a recommendation. The government has accepted those recommendations in principle, and I support those recommendations. In terms of funding, for this year we have managed within our resources. Of course, we would like more funding so we can do more, but we're able to perform and fulfil our functions within our current appropriation. With the new strategic plan, there are a number of targets, and there's a big piece of work around identifying data sources to enable analysis of progress against those targets. That is one area, I think, where with additional funds we would get some better outcomes.

Senator SHELDON: The review of the ASEA recommended clarification and expansion of the agency's role. The government agreed to this and other recommendations in principle, which you've broadly mentioned. What steps have been taken to implement those recommendations?

Ms Ross : That is actually a question for the department.

Senator SHELDON: Thank you. Department?

Mr Hehir : Sorry, Senator. I was looking for a brief, so could you please repeat the question.

Senator SHELDON: That's alright. The review of the ASEA recommended clarification and expansion of the agency's role. The government agreed to this and other recommendations in principle. What steps have been taken to implement these recommendations?

Ms Anderson : There have been a number of steps taken to date. Obviously, the review was tabled in both houses of parliament on 27 November. Coinciding with that, as you noted, the Attorney-General issued a media release accepting the review recommendations in principle and committing the department to consult with key stakeholders on options to implement the recommendations. As part of these consultations, the department met with the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Council on 29 November, presenting the review recommendations and seeking views on possible options for implementation. The members of that council represent state, territory, local government and Commonwealth jurisdictions, as well as those from industry and employer groups. We've also met with ASEA to take forward the recommendations as well. So work is progressing on those recommendations.

Senator SHELDON: Is there legislation that's been drafted to implement those recommendations?

Ms Anderson : Not at this stage, no.

Senator SHELDON: Are there draft discussions about legislation?

Ms Anderson : Some of those recommendations will require legislative change, so the consultations will involve discussions about that. As I think Mr Hehir mentioned earlier in the day, we have formalised consultation processes once we develop legislation as well, and we'll go through those.

Senator SHELDON: This may be to Mr Hehir: is there a time line where you perceive that you'd have some draft legislation? Obviously you're going through these steps, as you outlined earlier today, in other legislation.

Mr Hehir : It's possibly too early in the process to have a time line. Really I think the key thing in terms of having the detailed discussions with the key stakeholders on what those options look like is the first step, and then it depends on what the consultation puts forward—the level of complexity and also advising the minister and seeking his views on which approach to take. It's probably a bit early to have a time line around drafting. My recollection is that the report was tabled on 27 November last year. We are progressing it. We'll shortly commence consultation with the key stakeholders. So we're working on it. I'll take on notice whether we've got an estimate of the time line but, given the complexities of some of the interrelationships, without having had those first detailed discussions it's probably a bit early.

Senator WALSH: I'd like to take you to the issue of the recent bushfires and the relationship of those fires to asbestos risk. How would you characterise the additional risk of exposure to asbestos that would have been created by the recent bushfires?

Ms Ross : How we're characterising the risk is: you have to break it into three phases. There's the risk actually during the fire. There's the risk of exposure when residents may return to their home just to assess the damage and then there's the risk during the clean-up stage. We regard, and we have provided issued advice, the greatest risks as being during the clean-up stage, because that's when materials are being moved around—broken pieces—and the greatest chance that fibres may be released.

In relation to that, there is quite a good process in place. We know in the case of Victoria and New South Wales that they do send in assessors, and they're the first lot of people that go in. They mark where asbestos-containing materials might be, where debris actually might be, and then there's a proper removal of those materials and disposal. Disposal facilities are also taken into account.

I know there was some media a few weeks ago about some residents down on the south coast of New South Wales expressing concerns about the opening of a dump that would accept some asbestos waste. Our understanding is that it used to accept asbestos waste in the past and then it stopped that process, and now they're opening it back up. I think we support that, again, in terms of: you don't want to be carrying this waste large distances and you want to make the process of disposal as easy as possible because that's another risk period.

Senator WALSH: You mentioned in that answer advice that you've provided. Did you provide advice to the minister about the risks of asbestos in the bushfires?

Ms Ross : No. The agency was set up to coordinate the implementation of the national strategic plan. The implementers themselves are the states and territories, and they have issued lots of advice about what to do in the case of fire—not just bushfire, but also a building or home fire. We collated that information from around the country and then published it on our website. We also run an asbestos safety hotline, so we have the public calling us seeking advice on these matters. We liaised with relevant state and territory—mainly state—counterparts in environmental protection agencies about the risks.

Can I just add something: what we've discovered during this process is that there is actually a lot of information and good advice out there. One of the learnings for us is probably that this information is not communicated, say, before the bushfire season or a storm season. You see a lot of concern expressed in the media, but there is a lot of information out there and there are quite good processes that seem to be in place to manage the risks.

Senator WALSH: Thank you.

Senator SHELDON: The CSIRO report commissioned by your agency in 2018 called Asbestos safety futures outlined one of the key megatrends impacting on asbestos related work over the next 10 to 20 years as climate change and natural disasters. The report said:

Climate change degrades ACMs—

asbestos-containing materials—

more quickly and brings the risk of more frequent and intense natural hazards that could release fibres into the environment.

Did you provide the minister with a briefing on that report at the time?

Ms Ross : No, I don't think we did. It's not normal for us to provide the minister with a briefing. One of our functions is to commission asbestos safety research. Over the five, six years or so since the agency has been established, I think we've got about 33 or so—it might be 34—published research reports, and once we do that we don't then brief the minister on the findings.

Senator SHELDON: Obviously a copy of the report goes to the minister formally?

Ms Ross : I don't think that that has been standard practice. Maybe some of them have. I can certainly check what the process has been.

Senator SHELDON: That would be good, thank you. The process and what reports have been and when they've been sent to the minister's office would be great. Are there any decisions in response to the recommendations of the particular report that we're talking about?

Ms Ross : No, there hasn't been any response in relation to the recommendations of that report. In fact, some of the recommendations in that report probably just mirrored other recommendations, because it was almost like that report did an assessment of some of the previous research the agency had commissioned. Some of the recommendations in that report just repeat earlier research recommendations. At the moment, we are going through a process of going through all of our reports that have been commissioned and looking at each one of those recommendations to see whether they have been implemented and, if they haven't been implemented, setting a path forward for their implementation.

Senator SHELDON: Given the likely impact of climate change on our environment and in the context of the report that was carried out by the CSIRO, what steps are the agency planning on doing or what steps does the agency take in raising awareness regarding building damages and asbestos, in particular the clean-up phase following a natural disaster?

Ms Ross : There are a few things. As I think I've mentioned already, there is the National strategic plan for asbestos awareness and management. There are a few strategic actions that are listed in that plan. One of them is ensuring that the revision of emergency and natural disaster planning. One action that we will take forward with our state and territory colleagues post this bushfire season is to make sure that those processes are reviewed. As I said before, even just from us looking around and looking at the information that's around, there's a lot of consistency, but there is difference as well. To us, why are there differences between the information that's produced or the procedures that are followed? We want to try to achieve more consistency in that area.

There is also one project that we're embarking on, which is getting a better indication of where asbestos may still be in the residential sector. We're producing using the CSIRO's National Map, where you can gather data and then plot different things on the National Map. We're looking at where asbestos-containing materials are still located in the residential sector. I think we all know that there's a lot still in that fibro belt down the east coast of Australia, but we're trying to get a better indication of that, because the number that we give that one in three homes in Australia contain asbestos-containing materials has been used now for many, many years. So we've been trying to find the source of that, and that probably goes back 25 or 30 years. We think that that number is probably still accurate, but, coming out of the bushfires on the New South Wales coast, they're saying that 40 per cent of the buildings contained asbestos. Coming out of, say, Kangaroo Island, it's 10 per cent, which seems to make sense to us in that you would find newer buildings that were built post ban.

Senator SHELDON: Before I hand over to Senator Walsh, I have a quick question. The funding was increased in 2017-18?

Ms Ross : Yes.

Senator SHELDON: The report for the CSIRO was delivered in 2018?

Ms Ross : Yes.

Senator SHELDON: So the funding wasn't as a result of that report?

Ms Ross : No.

Senator SHELDON: We've had a series of events. We've got a very important CSIRO climate change impact report—the impact on asbestos, impact on the environment and impact on serious areas that you have responsibility for. We've had substantial bushfires and, of course, those impacts. Going back to that question about resources, it seems to me that there's been more of a requirement and expectation on resources and updates from the ASEA than ever because of the public's awareness of these events, with the CSIRO report and, of course, the bushfires. If you received additional funding, would that assist you in dealing with what I would consider—but you can correct me here—an extra load or a higher expectation on the authority?

Ms Ross : Yes, as I mentioned before, particularly in the area of data and being able to get a better picture of where asbestos-containing materials are still in the built environment. The plan also has an action of prioritised removal, which means removal based on risk—whether the asbestos-containing material is presenting a high risk or a low risk. We remove the high risk first. In terms of planning and helping the states and territories to do that type of planning, I think that's where the agency can really play a role in collecting that data and being able to present that information. I think where we can also really play a role is in relation to that awareness function and getting that consistency of message across government and non-government as well, as a national agency.

Senator SHELDON: Thank you. I just want to go to another point that was in the CSIRO report, regarding gig economy workers. It raised the concern about itinerant workers with low investment in skills and training. It particularly mentioned that Airtasker type platforms may increase entry into such casual or contingent work by people with little training or experience. Of course, the gig economy is currently perceived as being, and is, more lightly regulated—some would argue, in some circumstances, not regulated in the sense of employment relationships. The CSIRO report also draws attention to another megatrend, and that is the increasing number of gig workers operating in the handyman and home service market, reaching customers through popular online platforms. How serious would you say that risk is?

Ms Ross : Those comments are often made, but there are work health and safety laws out there that regulate the work performed by those workers. I think that that is making comment about perhaps unlicensed removal of asbestos. Outside of the ACT, an unlicensed tradesperson can remove up to 10 square metres of asbestos-containing materials, but that area is still regulated. The work health and safety laws still do apply to them. Another area that we're focusing on in the plan is those compliance regimes and making sure that regulators have in place the appropriate compliance programs which would apply in the case of a gig worker or your normal tradie. I find it really difficult in this to work out when a gig worker just becomes a normal tradie.

Senator WALSH: Thank you. I've got a couple of questions about the National Asbestos Exposure Register, where people can record, via a simple form on your website, that they think they may have been exposed to asbestos. Can you just advise us what you do with that information.

Ms Ross : We store that information. That's what we do. It's a record for the future. That's the value of it for the individual. We are still actually conducting a review of how we can use that data beyond just storing it—I guess in terms of being able to inform policy. We have in the past done some analysis of it, and we do that now. We produce those stats in our annual report. I think what is of more use to us—what we're uncovering—is that we could probably use it to confirm what we're seeing in terms of trends as well. But we'd like to see whether we could use it to inform future policy and particularly future awareness activities as well—so where we need to target our action and resources.

Senator WALSH: Yes. You may be able to assist me with this question: on your website you publish the annual reports that you've just referred to, with summaries of the register, and it just seems that there are no reports from the last couple of years on the website—the years 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Ms Ross : Of the annual report?

Senator WALSH: Yes, apparently. Have you got any explanation of that, for the exposure register annual report?

Ms Ross : We've always included details of the exposure register, I'm pretty sure, in our annual report. I have my annual report in front of me, and I know there are details. I can just show you.

Senator WALSH: Is what you're holding up the same as the National Asbestos Exposure Register in your report?

Ms Ross : Maybe it's because we incorporated the data within our annual report and we now publish it in our annual report and that's where it's contained, so you can't find it separately.

Senator WALSH: So you can't find it separately on the website anymore, but it may be contained in your broader annual report. Is that what you're saying?

Ms Ross : Yes.

Senator WALSH: I think that's all the questions that I had.

CHAIR: If there are no further questions for the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, you are released. Thank you very much for coming along today.