Bill's Speeches

ADDRESS TO THE ASBESTOS SAFETY AND ERADICATION SUMMIT - MONDAY, 27 NOVEMBER 2017

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Good evening everybody.

Some people say timing is important, I actually think timing is almost everything, so it was very fortuitous timing, courtesy of the Prime Minister, that some of my scheduled meetings fell through today and I had some extra time in the diary.

I couldn't think of a better place to be than at this very good conference, following National Asbestos Awareness week.

It is very important what you're doing, I understand how important it is.

Before I get to how important I think what you're doing is, I would first of all like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land upon which we meet and pay my respects to their elders both past and present.

I'd like to acknowledge the CEO Peter Tighe. Yours is not an easy road at the moment. But the agency and people in the community, are fortunate to have your leadership.

You're all distinguished guests, it's great to see so many different people here and I'm looking forward to catching up with you in the course of the evening.

I should acknowledge Matt Peacock. Matt has, like a whole lot of people here, been at the forefront of the advances made against asbestos. And I think if we could channel in the Parliament some of Matt's relentlessness, some of his doggedness, some of his respect for the truth, I think we'd make even more progress on more issues.

I also want to mention a very good friend of mine who has been part of my journey and understanding of the fight against asbestos, Yossi Berger who some of you will know. He's currently doing it very hard at the moment, and I'm greatful to Geoff for keeping me informed.

Being here tonight is one little way I can also pay my respect to Yossi who taught me so much about occupational health and safety. In fact, he's forgotten more about occupational health and safety than parliaments of Australia will ever learn. So he's in our thoughts tonight.

Ten years ago I got elected to Parliament on November 24, and I think just about the first national matter I went to, even before I attended the Parliament, was of course honouring the memory and the passing of Bernie Banton.

To Karen, who again was showing leadership and some of the comments which got covered today about national uniform standards: Bernie's legacy lives on.

That's really the first of the points I wanted to make to you tonight.

You mightn't be aware, but on the hill behind us, tucked-in the shadow of the new parliament, is a very modest memorial.

It's a plain slab of dark stone. It was placed there by the RSL and it's dedicated to all those who have served Australia in conflict.

I pass it every time I go for a jog – and if you’re moving at my speed, you can read the inscription and re-read it.

This memorial simply says:

If you want to know what they believed in, look around you.

‘Look around’, it says, this is what they fought for: a peaceful, prosperous, democratic nation.

Coming down here I was thinking about those words and Bernie Banton. And I was thinking about the union movement as well.

If you want to know what Bernie believed in, and if you want to know what I believe modern trade unionism believes in – look around you.

This is a grand old room, but look around this grand old room. It is filled with people who care.

Every one of you self-selects. You're here because you care:

  • You and others have fought for fair compensation
  • You've stood on the frontline and taken initially unpopular positions
  • You've stood up for people who suffer with asbestos-related diseases.

You have stood against sometimes very deep pocketed corporations, very sharp lawyers representing these large corporations. You've seen every cynical trick in the book and then some, to deny justice to people at death’s door.

You know how far you have come, and you know there is more to do:

  • to eradicate asbestos from our built environment
  • to educate people about its dangers
  • to eliminate this cause of death and disease
  • to tackle the scourge of illegal dumping and illegal importation

So, earlier tonight I started talking about the invitation on the slab to look around. In fact, you don't need to look around you already are.

And you know that this is a problem which can actually be solved.

One of the reasons I wanted to be here with you tonight, is that in all of the side shows in politics, in all of what passes for debate in this nation, I just want to reassure you who are working, have worked and will continue to work, that I and my Labor Party share the same priority you place on this issue. On this problem.

It’s fitting that we’re meeting here in the Old Parliament.

Because when you think about it, when Ben Chifley and Robert Menzies walked these floors, Australians were busy building whole new post-war suburbs with super-six corrugated roofs and fibro-cement walls.

And the first wave of miners and manufacturers and tradies were being afflicted with diseases which actually stretched back thousands of years.

What we fight now is something that dates back to when the Romans would weave asbestos into cloth for use in clothing and serviettes.

When the fabric was dirty you just threw it on the fire, the food-scraps would burn away and the cloth would be whiter than before. The Romans called it 'amiantus’ the unpolluted.

But even back then, the famous Roman writer Pliny the Elder wrote that slaves sent into the asbestos mines suffered and died from ‘diseases of the lung’.

All these years later, asbestos still remains in our schools and hospitals, it’s still in asbestos-cement pipes which carry water around our nation.

You all know that asbestos materials are in one out every three homes built between the end of the Second World War and 1987 - and even more of the extensions and the sheds and the additions. 1987 was, of course, the last year the parliament sat in this building.

And as more and more of us watch The Block or Grand Designs, imagining ourselves as weekend warriors, extending and re-designing and renovating we face the very real risk of a ‘third wave’ of new exposure to asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer, peaking as late as 2030.

It is remarkable that I can attend an auction - well, I sent someone on my behalf and we didn't get the house…but I was the only bidder who asked for an engineering report, at my wife's prompting.

And everyone else, there was no requirement of the real estate agent to say that there was asbestos sheeting in the shed and the garage, or in two ends of bungalow that has asbestos and the hot water system had asbestos. There was no obligation on the real estate agent to reveal that.

Remarkable.

And I wondered, what do people with perhaps less information than I, do in these circumstances?

So I just think that at that very real level which affects everyone, the ongoing work of the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency is so important.

Asbestos isn’t just the unfortunate legacy of a less-informed age, it’s not just a historical hangover we somehow have to contain and destroy. It is a clear and present danger:

You understand better than me that over the next 40 years, it’s predicted that around 25,000 of our fellow Australians will die from an asbestos-related disease.

Asbestos is being illegally brought into this country from Russia and China and India – in quantities we don’t know about, in products as diverse as crayons, kid’s chemistry sets and cladding.

And asbestos is being dangerously and illegally dumped, by companies and people unwilling to pay for its safe disposal.

These are serious, widespread problems. We hear a lot of talk about our border security yet we have very little idea what is being imported through our border.

And I believe a political party’s commitment to eliminating and eradicating asbestos cannot be confined to a few nice sentiments at an official occasion or two, with a few platitudes here and there.

I understood that when we established the agency, it was a very modest start.

I do not stand in front of you and pretend that was some dramatic breakthrough.

I’m very proud that when I was the Minister, I was able to help establish this agency. And by the way, we did that when we were a minority government who always turned up to parliament.

If I have the privilege to serve you as Prime Minister, let me state very clearly: your agency will be secure.

Your cause will always be held close to the heart of my government. Not relying on the courage of the public servants working in the agency, hoping they will get some ministerial buy-in. Tackling asbestos must be a front-line primary obligation of government.

I think back to the day in 2013 when we announced the creation of the agency.

I stood alongside Serafina Salucci, a mother of four.

When Serafina was just 7 years old, her Dad built a new garage for the family home out of cement-sheet.

Serafina explained, as a very little girl she helped her Dad, watched him work, played frisbee with the off-cuts and used them like chalk to draw on the footpath.

By the time she was 37, she’d been diagnosed with mesothelioma.

And I am afraid to say that it took this dinner for me to prompt myself to check-up and see how she was.

She’s had chemo, radiotherapy and a lung removed, but she’s hanging in there – for her husband, for her kids.

On that day back in 2013, Serafina said the toughest thing to deal with was being told mesothelioma was incurable.

She said that is why she hoped the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency could help prevent others from suffering from her disease.

Years ago, the system failed Serafina, her family and tens of thousands like her.

I feel very keenly the obligation that if Labor was to form a government, not to fail her, our brothers and sisters, our neighbours, our kids and our loved ones again.

You know that we owe it to them to succeed. I too understand we owe it to them to succeed.

I think we owe it to our sense of Australia, the country we want to see in the mirror.

We talk a lot about Australian identity and the media canvass it a great deal.

But I do believe in our sense of identity - the nation we want to see in the mirror and we want our kids to see.

I do believe at its core is that notion of the fair go, that we are still a nation which reaches out a helping hand, where we offer kindness in someone else's trouble.

I understand fundamentally the right of Australians to not just safe workplaces, but to be safe in their own homes. And safety comes in many different forms.

But what I understand is that if we can do more with you; your knowledge and your efforts, then we can help fulfil that notion of a fair go, the right to Australians being safe and the very legitimate aspiration of mothers like Serafina to grow old and watch their children grow up.

Thank you very much.


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