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Thursday, 18 November 2004
Page: 151

Senator MARSHALL (6:39 PM) —I rise this evening to bring to the Senate's attention that next week throughout Australia is Asbestos Awareness Week. Asbestos Awareness Week is held to highlight the health and social implications of and the political issues surrounding asbestos and the diseases it causes in Australia. The week is also an opportunity to again honour and remember all those who have painfully lost their lives to asbestos-related diseases. Of particular note in this regard is a commemoration service to be held at Melbourne's the Edge Theatre, at Federation Square, next Friday, 26 November, from 12.30 p.m.

One year ago, I rose in this place to raise in the Senate the issue of asbestos and to promote last year's Asbestos Awareness Week. Since then much has happened on the asbestos front. Following my speech last year, I received a letter from the Executive Vice-President, Corporate Affairs, James Hardie Industries, Mr Greg Baxter, who sought to refute numerous claims made by me in my speech at that time. My speech last year referred to a number of quotes made by Mr Peter Gordon, from the law firm Slater and Gordon, in an advertorial featured in the Herald Sun on 25 November last year. In his letter Mr Baxter argues:

Mr Gordon also claims that James Hardie set up a company with “clearly inadequate funding to deal with compensation...” This is also incorrect. The Foundation that was established by James Hardie was vested with all of the assets of the two former subsidiaries that had manufactured asbestos containing products, as well as an additional $90 million beyond any legal obligation owed by these subsidiaries. This additional amount, enabled the Foundation to be established with assets that actuarial advice indicated would be sufficient to meet all expected future claims.

What a joke of a claim that has been proven to be. In February this year, the New South Wales Carr Labor government launched the Commission of Inquiry into Medical Research and Compensation Foundation, the James Hardie asbestos victims compensation foundation. At page 7 of his report, under section 1.4, Commissioner Jackson QC stated:

The Foundation's funds are being quickly used up in the payment of current claims against Amaca and Amaba—

The two subsidiary companies referred to by Mr Baxter in his letter to me—

In my opinion, they will be exhausted in the first half of 2007 and it has no prospect of meeting the liabilities of Amaca and Amaba in either the medium or the long term.

So was Mr Gordon correct after all? It seems so. Mr Baxter's letter, full of mistruths and disingenuous statements as it was, did indeed make one fair point. In closing Mr Baxter wrote in his letter:

We believe it is not only important that the facts about James Hardie and asbestos are widely known and well understood, we think it is also imperative that a comprehensive solution is developed to address the broader issues now confronting the wider community.

Well, indeed! Thank goodness the Carr Labor government set that train on course. Let us hope that eventually James Hardie comes to the party and commits to the spirit of Mr Baxter's letter to me last year. Over the past 75 years, millions of Australians have been exposed to asbestos at work, at home, at schools and at many other public places around the country. Sadly, more than 2,500 asbestos-caused deaths occur in Australia each year now. Due to the long latency period between the exposure to asbestos fibres and the manifestation of asbestos disease, which is often up to 30 years or more, the epidemic of asbestos-related diseases is yet to peak in this country. It is expected that this will occur in around 2023, so according to this figure we will have another 20 or so years until we have hit the peak of the problem. As many as 45,000 persons, it is expected, may die from asbestos-related diseases in Australia over the next two decades if effective medical treatments are not found.

Asbestos is the known cause of numerous diseases which include, but certainly cannot limited to, the following: lung diseases, including asbestosis, pleural plaques and lung cancer; mesothelioma; cancer of the gastrointestinal tract; cancer of the larynx; and cancer of the bowel. From time to time other organs and systems are believed to be the sites of malignant change due to asbestos as well.

Over the years, more than 3,000 asbestos products and their uses have been identified. Most Australian homes contain asbestos products in one form or another. Asbestos has been used in fencing, asbestos pipes, thermal insulation, fireproofing, paints and sealants, textiles such as felts and theatre curtains, gaskets and friction products such as brake linings and clutches. During the peak building years—the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s—asbestos found its way into most public buildings, including hospitals, schools, libraries, office blocks and factories. Workplaces such as ships' engine rooms and power stations were heavily insulated with sprayed limpet asbestos.

As such, asbestos diseases are no longer contracted by the miners of asbestos exclusively. Occupational exposure to lethal asbestos among former workers in the asbestos manufacturing industry, government railways, electrical commissions, wharves and the building industry, and Defence personnel in the Navy, Army and Air Force, is now producing lung cancers, mesothelioma, asbestosis and pleural diseases of significant proportions. Tragically, asbestos diseases not connected to occupation are also now emerging among those in the broader community.

Companies like James Hardie, CSR and Wunderlich manufactured most of the asbestos products that have been used in thousands of commercial and private buildings in Australia and, regardless of what is said in the face of prospective litigation, all knew about the effect these products would have on the health of employees and on members of the wider community. Unfortunately, these companies shirked their social and corporate responsibilities and continued to produce and make massive profit from asbestos and its related products. James Hardie defended its first asbestosis death case in Sydney in the 1930s. However, it was not until 1978, years after other companies had done so, that James Hardie put a warning on its asbestos products. As I said last year—and I reiterate here—this company is an absolute disgrace.

In conclusion, I would like to take this opportunity to pay special respect to all of those who work and volunteer to promote the issues around asbestos and the diseases related to it and with the victims of such diseases. I should also take this opportunity to recognise the hard work of the trade union movement in furthering this issue over the past few years. I am proud to be a member of a political party that refuses to take blood money from a company such as James Hardie. I was very pleased that Labor, under the leadership of Mark Latham, committed all funds received from James Hardie since 2001 to go directly to asbestos victims so that they can further their fight against this corporate menace.

I finish tonight by reminding the Senate and those listening on radio, particularly those in Melbourne and Victoria, that the commemoration service to remember those who have lost their lives to asbestos related diseases will be taking place next Friday, 26 November, from 12.30 p.m. at the Edge Theatre in Federation Square. I encourage everyone and anyone who can to go along and support Asbestos Awareness Week and the victims of James Hardie and asbestos related diseases.