Speaker: Singh, Sen Lisa
Source: Senate

Date: Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (19:16): I was fortunate to have been invited to represent Australia at the International Day for Asbestos Victims recently, a conference organised by the French national association of asbestos victims,ANDEVA, and held in Paris at the senate building in October. More than 250 scientists, activists, asbestos victims, researchers, parliamentarians and medical professionals from 20 countries had travelled to attend the conference, which included a day of keynote addresses, a working roundtable and finally a march through the streets of Paris with more than 5,000 workers, unionists, victims, politicians, medical professionals and anti- asbestos advocates participating—marching together ‘For a world without asbestos’.

ANDEVA organiser Marc Hindry had invited me to share Australia’s asbestos story—our long and dark legacy with asbestos, as well as the positive work now being done in tackling this insidious carcinogen under the leadership of the Gillard Labor government. Listening to the range of speakers, it soon became clear that Australia is leading the way on asbestos management. Many of the speakers and participants were interested in the work of our government and especially the work of our Asbestos Management Review, which, under the chairmanship of Geoff Fary, handed its report to Minister for Workplace Relations, Bill Shorten, earlier this year. I believe this document will definitely become a blueprint for other nations as they look to tackle the full brunt of the asbestos legacy.

From the roundtable session came two documents, the first an appeal to the Brazilian Supreme Court, calling on it to expedite the judgement regarding the unconstitutionality of the federal law permitting the mining, sale, use and transport and export of asbestos. Brazil’s Supreme Court is currently hearing opposing cases brought by those who support the continued use of asbestos and those in favour of banning it. The arguments made by each side are based on constitutional law. Those against the use of asbestos ask—given the Brazilian constitution acknowledges a citizen’s right to life and to health, and the dignity of labour—how the use of a known carcinogen could be allowed. Those arguing for the continued use of asbestos say that laws pertaining to trade and interstate commerce reside in the constitution and that laws banning asbestos would revoke Brazil’s controlled-use policy which underwrites the commercial exploitation and use of chrysotile asbestos. The international community continues to await its finding, and there is great hope that the Brazilian Supreme Court will find in favour of a ban on asbestos, putting an end to the use of 15 per cent of the world’s asbestos usage.

The second document signed by conference delegates was a letter to newly appointed Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, congratulating her on the courageous position taken by her government in withdrawing the financial assistance promised to the Jeffrey asbestos mine in Canada.

Last November, the then Leader of the Australian Greens, Bob Brown, and I successfully moved a motion in the Senate against the Canadian government, expressing the Australian Senate’s disappointment in the Canadian government and its continued stalling around the listing of chrysotile asbestos in the Rotterdam convention on prior informed consent. This motion also called on the Canadian government to recognise the profound global implications of Canada’s continuing export of asbestos, most notably to developing parts of the world such as India. I would like to take this opportunity to add my personal congratulations to Premier Marois, as I believe it was her leadership on this issue, along with pressure from unions and NGOs worldwide, which ultimately led to the Canadian government’s announcement in September that they would no longer oppose the listing of chrysotile asbestos on the Rotterdam convention when it comes up again next year.

The march made me realise just how worldwide this carcinogenic substance is and how it has affected so many thousands of people’s lives. As people marched, they carried photographs of their loved ones who had died from asbestos related disease and placards in various languages asking for an end to asbestos, for a world without asbestos. I met a man from Belgium, Eric Jonckheere, who grew up very close by to the Eternit asbestos factory in Kapelle-op-den-Bos. Eternit is the fourth largest producer of asbestos in the world. After 11 years of litigation, last year his family finally won a civil case against Eternit. Eternit promptly announced it would appeal the verdict. His mother had died, his father had died and his two brothers had died from asbestos related disease and, yes, he also has an asbestos related disease. Yet there he was with a smile on his face, proud to be marching alongside so many others just like him who had lost their family, marching to end the trade and use of this deadly substance.

The courage displayed by so many people from across the globe at this rally was inspirational. I learnt that all the efforts that have been made in Australia by trade unions, support groups and governments are shared by so many others just like us in countries right across the world. That is the nature of this issue: asbestos is everywhere. Too many companies like Eternit have lied, deceived and lobbied to continue using asbestos, all for the purpose of making profits off other people’s misery, sickness and death.

In Australia we had our own version of Eternit in the James Hardie company, which dominated the market from the 1940s until the 1980s, selling asbestos products despite clearly knowing the dangers of asbestos from as early as 1935. I spoke about Hardie’s attempt to shift their assets overseas to the Netherlands in a bid to avoid liability. The fight to hold them accountable, by people such as the late Bernie Banton, ABC journalist Matt Peacock, the AMWU, especially Paul Bastian, the ACTU and, notably, Greg Combet, and the Asbestos Disease Foundation of Australia, was courageous and fierce to say the least.

Last week, some of you may have seen the telemovie Devil’s Dust, based on Matt Peacock’s book Killer Company : James Hardie Exposed, which was aired by the ABC over two nights. It received rave reviews while also helping raise vital awareness in the community. Ironically, while Devil’s Dust was being aired on our screens the NSW Court of Appeal handed down the final judgement in the long-running court battle with former James Hardie non-executive directors and shamefully reduced their penalties. In May, the High Court had fined them $30,000 each and disqualified each from serving on boards for five years for misleading the Australian Securities Exchange. However, last week, the NSW Court of Appeal reduced these sentences to fines of $25,000 and to a disqualification from serving on boards for just two years. This decision has been condemned by many, as it should be, and I too share their sheer disappointment in the decision of the NSW Court of Appeal.

I have spoken about asbestos in this place on several occasions. Following my time in the Tasmanian parliament as a minister on this issue I now am proud to be a part of the Gillard Labor government, which is tackling the issues associated with this carcinogen at the national level. The last decade has seen significant inroads in the fight against asbestos, and with Asbestos Awareness Week upon us next week it will be timely to take stock of where we are at as a nation.

At the second ACTU Asbestos Summit, held in Sydney in August this year, Minister Bill Shorten responded decisively to the Asbestos Management Review and announced for the first time the establishment of a national Office of Asbestos Safety, which is to commence work on a national strategic asbestos management plan, due to be completed by 1 July next year. This is so important for us as a nation. Australia currently has the highest reported per capita incidence of asbestos related disease in the world, and an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Australians will be diagnosed with an asbestos related disease in the next 20 years. So we continue the fight, particularly the call for a global ban on asbestos. Together and with perseverance we will achieve exactly that. Of that, I am confident.