Home Building and Duties Amendment (Loose-Fill Asbestos Insulation Affected Premises) Bill 2015

Dr HUGH McDERMOTT (Prospect) [10.26 a.m.]: I speak in support of the Home Building and Duties Amendment (Loose-fill Asbestos Insulation Affected Premises) Bill 2015. I note the comments made by the member for Monaro. Loose-fill asbestos has affected many people in his electorate. This legislation is a credit to him and to the Government. Asbestos-related issues are among the worst crimes to have been committed against the people of New South Wales. Very few people, if any, have gone to prison for it. Asbestos has affected thousands of people. There will be thousands more affected by asbestos-related diseases because of James Hardie, Mr Fluffy and others who sold their products knowing full well that they could injure people. The popularity of do-it-yourself renovations means that future generations may be affected by asbestos-related diseases. Thousands of victims are yet to find out that they are affected. It is terrible.

I am pleased that the Government has introduced this legislation. Many have died slow and painful deaths because of asbestos. Many families have suffered as a result of weak safety and building regulations in the past. There are many people who are unaware that they have an asbestos-related disease or will soon be affected by one. In the late 1960s a Canberra-based entrepreneur called Mr Fluffy began to sell loose-fill asbestos insulation. The product was never industry standard or supported by the building and insulation industry. Mr Fluffy sold it cheaply and convinced young families to put it into new homes.

I shudder to think how many children have been affected by this loose-fill asbestos going through their homes and into their furniture and clothes, as has occurred in cases of asbestos poisoning. The asbestos used by Mr Fluffy was shipped from South Africa and did not undergo any bonding process to stabilise it. It was just loose and the fibres were in the air to be breathed in—by the workers who installed it, by the families who lived in the houses, by other workers and tradies who worked on the houses and, of course, by the emergency services personnel who cleaned it out from the houses. They were all exposed to the asbestos.

If those affected houses had caught fire, asbestos particles would have become airborne throughout the street and the area and would have been breathed in by members of NSW Fire and Rescue and other emergency workers. As I have mentioned, even today a person entering a roof cavity containing asbestos can disturb the asbestos and cause the occupiers of the house to become victims of this hazardous substance. Some years ago the United Kingdom had a similar problem when a small number of asbestos workers filled their ceilings with leftover fibres from a processing plant where they were working as a cheap and makeshift method of insulating their homes. Those workers, in turn, suffered asbestos poisoning.

More than 1,000 homes in Canberra were affected, plus an unknown number in regional New South Wales. I wonder how far the installation of this asbestos spread throughout New South Wales. The results have been disastrous. What seemed to be a cheap solution became a hazard, as the asbestos was found to leak into the living areas of homes. Health inspectors in the Australian Capital Territory attempted to ban the Mr Fluffy business after they found that unsuspecting workers had been breathing in the substance. Unfortunately, at that time evidence of asbestos-related diseases was only beginning to become publicly known, even though companies such as James Hardie and their boards knew decades before about the effect of asbestos. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission and other investigations into James Hardie found such evidence and other companies also knew that this asbestos was not a safe material and could kill people.

By the late 1980s, the Australian Capital Territory Government ordered a complete audit of Canberra homes in search of the substance. The estimated cost of treating affected homes was up to $60,000 per building. In many cases it was cheaper—and the only safe option—to demolish the entire home. In some cases couples with a couple of kids had put all their savings towards a mortgage to buy their house only to have it taken away from them as a result of Mr Fluffy and the threat of asbestos poisoning. Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of the loose-fill asbestos insulation was the poor record keeping. We simply do not know how many homes contain the product. We do not know what happened to the low-wage workers who handled the product. We cannot confirm who used the product in Sydney. It could be throughout parts of the western suburbs, on the North Shore and in the eastern suburbs. It could be anywhere and it is a matter of real concern.

Further, without testing by experts, we do not even know what the product looks like. The colour may have been changed or it may have been put into different products or bagged differently. I am pleased that the Government is acting on this issue. The New South Wales Government has provided a system whereby warning signs must be displayed at premises where loose-fill asbestos insulation has been identified. That is a good start to the asbestos removal process. However, in some cases warning signs are simply not adequate and more needs to be done. The Opposition supports the amendment to the Duties Act. Where a home has to be acquired and demolished by the State the owner should not have to pay tax on their replacement home. The member for Monaro made mention of the stamp duty concession, and I also believe it is a very good idea.

The implementation of these reforms will be challenging and care must be taken that owners of dwellings containing loose-fill asbestos fibres are not disadvantaged. I am pleased that the Government has accepted the advice of the Loose Fill Asbestos Insulation Taskforce and will offer free legal support and counselling to affected homeowners. I also am pleased that the consideration of asbestos will be excluded from the valuation on these houses. This is a good measure that attempts to put those affected families into the position they would have been in if their homes had not been subjected to the asbestos.

The bill provides for a register of affected premises. Sadly, this register is 45 years too late. I fear too many workers and their families already have been gravely affected from their exposure to loose-fill asbestos insulation. Exposure to fibres by a worker can have a knock-on effect for the entire family. We have heard of women suffering asbestos poisoning as a result of washing their husband's work clothes and the fibres have come off the clothes and been inhaled into their lungs. However, the advantages of a register are significant. It will allow transparent access to information that building industry workers need as well as act as advance warning to emergency service workers attending a site.

As I said, effective signage is also important. Many people need access to a building but only a few experts can identify loose-fill asbestos insulation. It is essential that a two-tier warning system, comprising both the register and signage, is implemented in order to increase the safety of tradespeople and visitors to an affected building. Precautionary measures also must be extended to tenants. I am pleased that the Minister has shown his intention to amend the Residential Tenancies Act to introduce protection for tenants who may be affected by loose-fill asbestos insulation. I urge the Minister to take action as soon as possible, as families affected by loose-fill asbestos insulation in rental properties will require the same legal advice, counselling and financial support as homeowners in the same situation. [Extension of time agreed to.]

I note the irony in that the Baird Government has introduced this bill, a good bill, only months after abolishing the Workers Compensation Dust Diseases Board. It is ironic that the Baird Government is willing to pay to demolish fewer than 100 homes, perhaps more, across New South Wales which may be affected by loose-fill asbestos insulation but at the same time is willing to strip protections from the workers who installed it. I also note the actions of the former O'Farrell Government which, to quote the member for Cessnock, "took workers compensation five steps backward".

Apart from this bill, the Baird Government's attitude towards asbestos has been appalling. In its short time in government, the Liberals have abolished a well-run and independent board which for more than 100 years provided justice to sufferers of dust diseases. I have no doubt that this board may have assisted workers exposed to loose-fill asbestos insulation and supported widows and families affected by this insulation. Since this bill was tabled, the Opposition has sought advice from Unions NSW, the Asbestos Diseases Foundation and Local Government NSW. All these organisations have a strong history in curbing the irresponsible use of asbestos.

I particularly note the work of Unions NSW for its commitment to supporting the victims of asbestos diseases and for bringing the dangers of asbestos into the national spotlight. It is only through the hard work of the union movement over a number of decades that justice has been brought for thousands of asbestos workers. Further, I commend the work of the Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia, which has contacted me on a number of occasions regarding its campaigns. The foundation is tireless in its work, which is essential to thousands of innocent victims who have been ignored by companies such as James Hardie. I commend the Asbestos Diseases Foundation.

Each year, more than 300 people in New South Wales are diagnosed with dust diseases. Sometimes workers can be diagnosed up to 20 years after initial exposure. We do not know how many may be affected by these asbestos-insulated homes. However, it is essential that the Government is prepared to care for the tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of people who have been exposed to loose-fill asbestos insulation. Sadly, many of these people—possibly the vast majority—may not be aware of their exposure. It is imperative that the Government provides support and awareness programs so that those affected do not have their lives cut short through no fault of their own.

Taking the proactive measures to right the wrongs of a tragic scam and a crime committed in the late 1960s that has placed tens of thousands of lives possibly in danger is a responsibility that this House must address. As I said, it is unfortunate that these reforms came possibly 45 years too late. It is exceptionally unfortunate that a few suppliers of loose-fill asbestos insulation were permitted to trade for a number of years. Almost half a century later, thousands of families are at risk of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases as a result of the recklessness shown by a small number of questionable businesspeople. It is important that the implementation of this bill is as effective as the Loose-Fill Asbestos Insulation Taskforce report and as the Minister intends. I commend the bill to the House.

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