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Wednesday, 8 December 2004
Page: 133

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (6:48 PM) —The incorporated speech read as follows—

I rise today to speak to the James Hardie (Investigations and Proceedings) Bill 2004.

This Bill abrogates legal professional principle from the James Hardie Group and their advisors in respect of the investigations surrounding the James Hardie restructure.

Like most Australians, I've been personally outraged by the conduct of James Hardie as it has been revealed in the Jackson Inquiry.

James Hardie was one of the major manufacturers of asbestos products that have been used in thousands of commercial and private buildings in Australia. Like the tobacco companies, they knew about the effect these products would have on the health of employees and on members of the wider community.

James Hardie through decades of improper conduct shirked their social and corporate responsibilities whilst earning 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.

The Jackson Inquiry found that the fund established to pay asbestos claims, had, at 30 June 2004, assets of $179.2m but the estimate of future claims is about $1.5 billion in net present value terms.

The degree of impropriety of the Directors and Senior Management in separating James Hardie from the fund is still to be revealed. It seems clear that the NSW Courts have been defrauded and it is also obvious that James Hardie thought they could just walk away from their obligations without facing any sanctions. However, the Australian public and their Parliament will not let them get away with it.

We think James Hardie should fund its liabilities in full. This should be unconditional.

The Democrats will always support any legislation like this that will increase the prospect of real justice. It feels particularly important when the justice is for the victims of an insidious product like asbestos. We have all seen the terrible consequence of asbestosis. It's a horrific disease.

It puts into context the Australian Democrats record on corporate governance. We are committed to ensuring better insolvency laws so that artificial bankruptcy and company restructures can't be used to avoid legitimate debts.

In the past three years, the Democrats have participated in over 60 Parliamentary Reports and Committee Inquiries aimed at ensuring Australia has the toughest possible rules regulating corporate responsibility. The conduct of companies like HIH and James Hardie illustrates that, given the opportunity, some business people will try to bend laws and avoid their moral obligations.

By maintaining and toughening corporate governance rules the Democrats have minimised the opportunities for corporations to avoid their responsibilities. The Democrats believe that the companies that act inappropriately or illegally are in the minority. Australia's tough laws ensure that we generally have a high standard of corporate responsibility but there is more to do.”

The Democrats will spend the next three years of Parliament continuing their push for stronger corporate responsibility laws including:

passing our Corporate Code of Conduct Bill which imposes environmental, human rights and labour standards on Australian companies overseas ;

encouraging Australian companies to develop codes of ethics;

greater disclosure of, and incentives for, ethically and socially responsible investments;

greater disclosure of executive salary packages at the time they are negotiated, with shareholders given the power to veto the most excessive salaries;

further improvements in the transparency of political donations;

the requirement to declare if Directors are subject to patronage; and

better insolvency laws so that artificial bankruptcy and company restructures can't be used to avoid legitimate debts.

The Democrats corporate responsibility achievements in the Senate include:

Laws that requires companies to disclose their impact on the environment;

the toughest possible standards of corporate governance and company disclosures;

improved tax concessions for charities and the not-for-profit sector;

the promotion of family friendly work practices including paid maternity leave;

maintaining laws protecting against unfair dismissals;

laws that allows superannuation members to chose ethical investments;

laws that requires fund managers to publicly prove they are `ethical'.

Tough and responsible laws that ensure Australian companies, and their directors, are kept honest never get much publicity but, in so many ways, they are far more important than the easy task of public grandstanding and corporate-bashing.

We have affirmed they would support any changes to Federal or State laws that were identified by the report of the Commission of Inquiry into James Hardie and our intention to provide full political and parliamentary support for the victims of James Hardie to ensure they receive full compensation and justice.

The Party also decided to back this up with financial support to help the campaign of the asbestos victims. The Australian Democrats have committed to giving financial support to help the victims of James Hardie and that will occur as soon as possible. The party has debts arising from the federal election. We have prioritised available funds towards debts we have a legal obligation to pay and will make all other payments, including a donation to an asbestos victims organisation, as soon as sufficient funds become available in the new year.

The Australian Democrats have the strongest record on lifting the standards for corporate responsibility and keep the rogue elements of the business community in check, without creating unnecessary constraints on the vast majority of businesses who do the right thing,

We used our links with The Netherlands Parliament and Government to increase the pressure on James Hardie Industries to meet its obligations to the many workers affected by asbestos by having questions asked by a member of the Democrats party in the Netherlands.

This government should take up the recommendations and the findings of the Jackson inquiry in New South Wales and fix the problems in the Corporations Law that allow James Hardie to walk away from their obligations to workers and their families in this country.

The Democrats will be supporting the Bill. We have introduced a second reading amendment that calls on the Government to extend the concept of the removal of legal professional privilege to tobacco companies.