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Thursday, 9 December 2004
Page: 87

Senator CROSSIN (3:24 PM) —I rise to take note of the answers to questions asked by Senator Wong relating to the James Hardie case and in particular the answer given by Senator Coonan. This matter has come to light significantly over the last couple of months because, of course, in recent years the devastating effect of asbestos and asbestos related illnesses have become a matter of national concern. We know that asbestos was used in Australia during the last part of the century in the manufacture of building products and we know that one single fibre of asbestos can give rise to asbestosis, lung cancer and terrible diseases such as mesothelioma.

The situation is not going to go away in relation to workplace injury and asbestos related illness or deaths. If you have a look at the reconstruction of Darwin after Cyclone Tracy, you will see a significant number of buildings—and are to this very day, in fact—full of asbestos products. This issue is not going to go away. Companies and employers taking responsibility for their workers in relation to workplace related injuries and workplace related diseases, such as this, is not going to go away. James Hardie needs to finally accept responsibility for the role it has played in this. But, even more than that, we need the federal government to have enough backbone, enough spine, to actually take it up to this company, to ensure that these workers get every single thing they deserve out of any compensation claim that they have against this company. This is not a time to be trying to defend the company or appease the people affected by this disease by legislation. It is a start, but the actions need to be much stronger.

I want to refer to the answer that Senator Coonan gave today in relation to the comments of the member for O'Connor in the House of Representatives the other day. The member for O'Connor made comments like:

... if it is reasonable for a single company because of the hysteria associated with this particular issue, it is reasonable for all companies, all individuals and anybody else.

Those comments do nothing to assist the justice which these workers should be afforded. To also say, `The fundamental issue here is where Australia is heading in the process of ambulance chasing,' does nothing to assist these people, their families with the grief they are going through and the struggle they are having for some form of decent compensation.

I was delighted, of course, to hear Senator Humphries say that the views of the member for O'Connor were not the views of this government. I think he said just a few minutes ago that those views do not represent the views of the government. That is a welcome relief. But why couldn't the minister have said that when she was asked that during question time? That is exactly what this taking note of answers motion is about: it is about members of the executive of this government not having enough courage to refute comments like those of the member for O'Connor. She had the opportunity and missed that opportunity. She could have clearly said, `That may well be what the member for O'Connor said, but they are not the views of the government. The government does not stand by those views. The government does not support the views of the member for O'Connor.' But she failed comprehensively to do that. That is what this is about.

This is also about ensuring that the government does everything possible to assist where these people need further protection. That is why we believe that, if this government has legal advice about whether there should be a treaty with the Netherlands, that advice, as Senator Wong said, should be made public. It should be tabled and that should be available for the victims, for their lawyers and for the ACTU to have a look at. This government is not about trying to do all it possibly can for these victims; this government is still about trying to defend its member's comments in the House, still trying to protect this company in some shape or other. This government is not going 100 per cent of the way to ensure that the actions of this company are fully exposed and are not supported. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.