Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency Bill 2013

20 March 2013

Mr SHORTEN (Maribyrnong—Minister for Financial Services and Superannuation and Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) (10:09): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Ensuring the health and safety of our citizens is a fundamental role of government—and of this parliament.

But there is a clear and present danger today to workers, tradespeople and to our domestic and public safety. I speak of asbestos. Asbestos is the worst industrial menace and it will go on killing for decades.

Based on International Labour Organization figures, every five minutes someone around the world dies of an asbestos-related disease.

This bill marks an historic step in Australia becoming the first nation to progress towards the ultimate elimination of asbestos-related diseases. Our aim needs to be to remove this menace once and for all, in tandem with local, state and territory governments, industry, unions and the community. We are working to rid the legacy of 50 years of asbestos use, a substance that was known even then to kill people; miners, workers, tradespeople, even householders.

We lead the world in mesothelioma rates. Today we have the chance to lead by action. The European Parliament has just this month resolved to eradicate asbestos by 2028, calling for the implementation of a coordinated strategy to remove all asbestos.

Australia was one of the highest per capita users of asbestos in the world until the mid-1980s. Approximately one in three of all homes in Australia built between 1945 and 1987 contain asbestos products. Materials containing asbestos were used in a wide range of manufacturing products.

It would surprise many people just how widely used asbestos has been.

There are literally acres and acres of asbestos around our nation, thousands of kilometres of asbestos cement pipes still delivering water, acres of Super Six corrugated roofs, whole factories riddled with asbestos, hospitals and hospital labs, hundreds of schools riddled with asbestos. Crushed masonry containing asbestos fibres is being reintroduced into the community as asbestos-containing product that has the potential to harm current and future generations.

Even though the mining and industrial use of asbestos has all been banned in Australia, asbestos still exists in our workplaces, public buildings and homes.

In 2010, 642 Australians died from mesothelioma. But for every death attributed to mesothelioma, it is estimated two more people will die from lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Over the next 20 years, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Australians will be diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease.

Until the Gillard government established the Asbestos Management Review in 2010, there was no coordinated or consistent national approach to handling asbestos beyond our workplaces.

The review makes it clear that we must act quickly to prevent further Australians from being exposed to asbestos. We must diminish and prevent a third wave of asbestos deaths, particularly as a result of people exposed to asbestos in their homes.

To do so, the review recommended the development of a new national strategic plan for asbestos eradication, awareness and handling.

The review also recommended that a new asbestos agency be established to have responsibility for coordinating and implementing the national strategic plan.

Stopping exposure to asbestos is the responsibility of all levels of government. While some jurisdictions have taken steps to minimise exposure, this is the first time a national approach to asbestos removal, management and awareness is being pursued. A 'business as usual' approach, the shield of risk assessments and codes has not resulted in a decline in asbestos-related deaths. Whole forests of trees have contributed to documents intended to control asbestos, whilst materials containing asbestos in our workplaces, homes and public buildings are getting older and more fragile.

The establishment of a new agency is an essential part of the Labor government's commitment to reduce exposure to asbestos.

It will pave the way for a national approach to asbestos eradication, awareness and management in Australia, by taking responsibility for coordinating a national plan for action.

My department has already started working with all government counterparts and industry partners to develop the national strategic plan for asbestos awareness, management and eradication. This plan is due by 1 July 2013.

This input will be crucial to make sure the plan is practical and comprehensive in addressing:

the identification of the presence asbestos containing materials (including in commercial and residential properties)

asbestos removal, handling, storage and disposal

asbestos awareness and education; and

ways to achieve a coordinated approach across all levels of government.

In developing the plan, the recommendations and their implementation of the review will be considered.

Today, I introduce a bill which practically demonstrates and cements Labor's commitment to stop exposure to asbestos.

This bill establishes the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency as an independent body. It will be comprised of a Chief Executive Officer, supported by staff, who together will form a statutory agency. The body will be subject to Commonwealth governance regimes and will be a prescribed agency under the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997.

The new agency will provide a focus on issues which go beyond workplace health and safety to encompass environmental and public health issues. It will ensure asbestos issues receive the attention and focus needed to drive change across all levels of government.

The functions of the new agency will include advocating, coordinating, monitoring and reporting on the implementation of the national strategic plan.

It will review and amend the national strategic plan as required by the plan or at the request of the minister.

And it will provide advice to the minister about asbestos safety.

The bill outlines the reporting arrangements for the new agency. It provides that the minister approve the new agency's annual operational plan to support the implementation of the national strategic plan.

Further, the minister will be required to table the agency's annual report in parliament.

To support efforts to improve asbestos health and safety and successful delivery of the national strategic plan, an Asbestos Safety and Eradication Council will be established.

The council will have the functions of providing advice to the agency's CEO, including through written guidelines, and providing advice to the minister.

The council will consist of a chair, one member representing the Commonwealth and two members representing state, territory and local governments.

There will be four other members appointed by the minister with knowledge or experience in asbestos safety, public health, financial management or, very importantly, the representation of people with asbestos-related diseases and their families.

The bill establishes the operational arrangements to support the agency as well as provisions relating to the nomination, appointment, and terms and conditions of council members, conflict of interest issues, and procedures relating to the conduct of meetings.

And this bill enables the CEO to constitute committees to draw upon a wide range of expertise and experience to assist the agency or the council in the performance of their respective functions.

With the passing of this bill, the House can help prevent exposure to asbestos, so that we can ultimately eliminate the tragedy of asbestos-related disease and death.

There are children not yet born who will die of asbestos related diseases. We owe it to future generations to finally come to grips with the blight of asbestos in Australia.

As we debate this bill let me reinforce that it is an issue for all levels of government to tackle.

It is an issue that has been championed by unions, by individuals and families touched by asbestos related diseases, by asbestos advocacy groups, by the lawyers representing the victims, by health and safety activists and specialists and by some crusading journalists and by many of my colleagues here in parliament. To them I say thank you.

Many lives are counting on us.

Debate adjourned.