Asbestos Awareness Week

Deputy Speaker,

I’m pleased to be able to support this motion.

Last week was Asbestos Awareness Week and I urge all Australians to be aware of the danger lurking in our homes. Around 700 people a year are diagnosed with deadly mesothelioma, which is only caused by asbestos.

Over 3300 other cancer deaths a year are attributed to asbestos. The victims are tradies, manufacturing and construction workers, power and utility workers and many other occupations. But increasingly they are home renovators or kids playing in contaminated yards. Many suburban homes still contain asbestos.

Last week at our Parliamentary Friends event I learned that asbestos doesn’t discriminate. Sadly, one Liberal MP in the room has recently lost a long serving staff member to asbestos disease. A Labor staffer present has also been diagnosed with mesothelioma.

I pay tribute to the bipartisan work of the member for Monash, Russell Broadbent, along with the Member for Bendigo, Lisa Chesters, as co-chairs of the parliamentary group on asbestos.   However, for too long it has been left to unions, to victims groups and law firms to raise awareness of the dangers of asbestos and to force change.

Raw asbestos was still imported in bulk in the mid-2000s. It was only the action of members of the Maritime Union of Australia, who finally refused to unload any more of this deadly cargo that brought the trade to a complete halt. Their action wasn’t legal, but it was moral and necessary. Governments had failed workers and after seeing many of their own members succumb to asbestos related disease, the MUA had had enough.

In 2004 and 2005 it was only unions and victims groups which forced James Hardie to leave money in trust in Australia to meet their obligations arising from negligence actions against them. You will recall that they had restructured their business to set up in Europe and to remove all assets from our shores. 

In my own electorate of Corangamite in one large workplace, now closed, literally dozens have died because of raw asbestos used to channel molten metal as it flowed from furnaces. And I note that the youngest recorded victim of mesothelioma was only in his early 20s, despite the very long latency period of this disease. As a three year old he played in the dust as his parents sanded down the asbestos walls of their house for painting.

Of course, thanks to the Gillard Government, we now have the national Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency. Last week the Agency released its National Strategic Plan for asbestos awareness and management. It has four key elements:

  • Improve asbestos awareness to influence behavioural change.
  • Identification and effective management of asbestos
  • Safe prioritised removal and effective waste management; and
  • International collaboration and leadership

In a bipartisan way we must give the Agency every support we can. They have produced a great householder awareness kit and I urge all Members and Senators to promote it in their social media.

On Priority 4 – the international leadership and collaboration – I want to mention two issues.

The first is that together we should be working to list chrysotile or white asbestos as a hazardous substance under the Rotterdam Convention.

That listing is being blocked by Russia – a major asbestos exporter. They argue that white asbestos isn’t dangerous – but we know it has caused  mesothelioma and cancer here and it is recognised as a carcinogen by the World Health Organisation.

Russia and Kazakhstan use the fact that white asbestos isn’t listed under the Rotterdam Convention to argue that it is therefore safe to importing countries.  I urge the Morrison Government to support the listing.

Secondly, Asia is now using huge amounts of asbestos – about the same amounts as Australia used at the peak in the early 1980s. Asian countries will face a tsunami of deaths in the coming decades, unless they ban its import and use.

I commend the Agency and APHEDA Union Aid Abroad for the leadership they are providing in Asia on this issue. They have had several wins in the last year.

The Government of Vietnam announced in 2018 that they would ban the use of asbestos in cement sheet by 2023. And the Bandung provincial government in Indonesia has also legislated for bans on asbestos.

These countries need enormous support to identify and test for asbestos, to conduct air testing, set up registers and a range of other functions that we take for granted.

Asbestos is still a killer. Only by working together can we defeat it – both here and in our region.