Ministerial Statement - Update on the ACT Government response to the issue of Mr Fluffy loose fill asbestos

 

Madam speaker, I take this opportunity to provide a formal update to the Assembly on the government’s response to the issue of Mr Fluffy loose fill asbestos.

Obviously events have moved very quickly in the past few days and it’s important to place on the record the full state of play.

I also recognise the homeowners and residents who have come to the Assembly today.

We are conscious that this week has been extremely tough for many of you – as have the past few months.

I hope that as more information has followed Tuesday’s announcement and the media attention has eased, you have had the chance to look more closely at the framework for the proposed buyback program and what it may mean for you.

I accept that while some people are happy and relieved, some remain anxious. Others are angry.

Throughout the course of the past few months, as the government has refined our response to the taskforce report into Mr Fluffy homes, we have been very conscious of the distinct and different views of the families, owners, tenants and residents of the 1,021 homes, including:

-         those who want to go

-         those who want to stay and rebuild

-         those who want to stay in their home as it is.

We have sought to accommodate these wishes – which are very strongly held – into the framework which we have now made public.

But it is impossible to ensure everyone's wishes and circumstances are dealt with entirely.

Today we are sending more information to homeowners about the proposed buyback and demolition scheme and soon we will be able to announce public meetings where questions can be asked and answered.

I want to be clear on how the government’s decisions have been informed.

Our state of knowledge has grown rapidly since February this year when the Work Safety Commissioner wrote to affected homes.

The advice of the taskforce report – contributed to by leading experts from around Australia – is unequivocal that the 1,021 homes affected by the Mr Fluffy legacy cannot be made safe.

Our only option, however distressing, dislocating, difficult and costly, is to act to demolish and dispose of these houses.

This position is confirmed by the 600-odd assessments which have been conducted this year – the unavoidable facts they have presented and we have faced up to.

We make this decision with homeowners in the front of our minds as we seek to provide an outcome that is fair and reasonable.

We also have the future of the city it our minds – it is in all Canberrans’ interests to be rid of this 50-year legacy.

I am disappointed that we will receive no contribution to the net cost of this program from the Commonwealth, particularly as they are so deeply entwined in the history of this issue.

But with the circumstances we have found ourselves in, the government has made the decision to act comprehensively and expeditiously with the program we have announced.

We believe it is the right decision.

We have sought to balance fairness for homeowners with a scheme which the ACT Government and community can afford.

The buyback offer will be at an independently-determined market rate, as if no loose fill asbestos were present.

It will allow repurchase of an equivalent, Mr Fluffy-free home.

We will undertake the complex and expensive processes of demolition, disposal and block remediation.

We will waive the stamp duty on the purchase of a new home, or the re-purchase of the block, to the value of the duty that would be payable on the buyback price.

All families who leave their homes before the settlement will have access to the emergency assistance of $10,000 for interim accommodation and contents, with additional support for children.

I am also making representations to telecommunications companies, utility providers, banks and insurers to seek their support and compassion for Mr Fluffy owners and residents relocating in the coming months.

We believe this is a fair and ethical position.

I acknowledge it is not what everyone wants.

I am conscious of the concern among owners around their options to re-purchase their land.

We will work with those who want to do so, including facilitating access to land rent schemes, but we cannot afford to replace old with new.

This is not about profiteering. On the contrary, our community is absorbing a major cost.

We have preserved our options around the future treatment and resale of these blocks only to lessen the budget impact and make the scheme possible.

I also want to touch on the issue of contents, which I know is causing concern for some.

Through the taskforce, the government has released further information this morning on contents which makes clear it is not the case in most homes that all contents will need to be disposed of.

For many homes, they will be able to keep the majority of their possessions.

Human impact

Madam speaker, the ACT Government is acting to support people in our community who have been through an enormous ordeal.

In some ways their experience has been that of a natural disaster.

In other ways, it has been more silent – more hidden.

Some have dealt with it all on their own for fear of the stigma associated with Mr Fluffy.

I’d like to quote from some letters sent to me in recent weeks, from owners and residents dealing with the effects of this problem.

From one homeowner:

  • ‘Emotionally, it is difficult to admit to your social circle that your home is a Mr Fluffy house. Reactions vary from horror to sympathy and people who visited in the past choose not to socially interact with you in your home. It is a difficult situation to live with...’

From another:

  • ‘We have always been able to help ourselves, have been fully employed in the workforce in the ACT for over 30 years, raised our three children and always paid our way. That is why the situation we now find ourselves in is out of our control and so distressing.’

And a third:

  • ‘We didn’t think this would have much effect on our son being two years old, however when we are discussing “Mr Fluffy” or the situation we are in he keeps coming up to us both saying “Sorry Mummy” “Sorry Daddy” and rests his head on our lap as if he can sense the heartbreak in our voice...’

This is a small glimpse into the human impact of this issue.

Today I will table the group impact statement of the Fluffy Owners and Residents Action Group.

It contains hundreds of accounts like this over more than 300 pages – all of which are heartfelt (often heart-breaking) and very moving.

They illustrate the way this issue has affected the full spectrum of our community.

I know the process of writing has been very important for many owners and residents in dealing with the distress and upheaval of recent times and I hope that this tabling today provides the acknowledgement they have sought.

Many of the stories contained in this statement paint a picture of the shock and grief for many learning they lived in a Mr Fluffy home – and what that meant.

Stories of the guilt from potentially exposing infants, children, loved ones and friends to the risk of exposure to Mr Fluffy asbestos are powerful – peoples’ selfless reactions show that for most, the greatest fear is for their families.

There are stories of newborns coming home from hospital, children playing as renovations were carried out, generations of families enjoying those times together over many years.

The statements also tell of the social isolation and guilt that has come with learning of the risks of living in a Mr Fluffy home

-         friends that no longer visit

-         play dates and sleepovers which are such a normal activity for most households, stopped suddenly.

Cherished memories and favourite pastimes which, with new knowledge, turned to images that haunt and upset.

Madam speaker, after reading all of these stories, one thing is clear: Not one of these people dealing now with such anguish knew of the risks present in these homes. No one did anything wrong.

I genuinely hope that by having a way forward, the distress which fills these pages can be eased and the upset and worry which so many speak of can be calmed.

I acknowledge today the advocacy of those who have stood bravely to argue their case, to make governments listen – often having to share their most difficult times publicly.

They are the heroes of this painful Canberra story. And I thank each one of them today.

Madam speaker the decision to demolish 1,021 houses is a big call. But I cannot see any other way through this.

We cannot let this legacy continue - it has plagued this city now for more than half of Canberra's history. It must end and it will with the buyback scheme being put in place this week.

Canberra is a kind and caring city. This is part of what makes it a great place to live. We have seen it over the years that when some are struggling or suffering, the community rallies to support them and do what we can to help.

This is the approach that I have taken as Chief Minister when considering the options before us. Some have argued that we should not do anything, others that we haven't done enough.

What we have done - which sets this government apart from others - is to make our decisions based on evidence and to do what is right. Not the easy thing - the right thing.

We have set out to make good (as much as we can) mistakes of the past. For us, doing nothing was simply not an option.

Madam speaker, given the upheaval which still lies ahead for Mr Fluffy residents, it’s vital they continue to take care, particularly to look after their own mental well being and that of their partners and families.

There are good services and skilled clinicians available to support people should they need it - no one needs to deal with this by themselves.

In terms of next steps, I have mentioned the public meetings which will soon be announced.

The Community and Expert Reference Group, which will meet later this morning, will also carry out important engagement with the Mr Fluffy community.

Dr Sue Packer as Chair, and other CERG members, have extensive expertise in recovery from such difficult situations and I do urge owners to engage with these forums and drop-ins as they happen.

The dedicated call team at Canberra Connect will continue to offer assistance by phone – and has already taken more than 2,500 calls since July.

The taskforce will continue to provide information and answer questions – both in person and online.

In partnership with the ACT Medicare Local, the government will continue to cover the cost of families accessing psychological and emotional support.

Longer term, the Chief Health Officer is well advanced in preparations for a detailed health study which the government decided to conduct following discussion with the community in July and August.

This will seek to quantify the risk of disease compared with the risk in the general population and identify potential sub-groups that might be at higher risk.

I will provide information on this important work as it progresses.

Just as this issue has been a major struggle for more than 1,000 families in our community, it has been – and will continue to be – a major undertaking for the ACT Government.

Again, I acknowledge the work of Taskforce Head Andrew Kefford and his team. They deserve recognition for their professionalism, commitment and tireless efforts to individually support the affected homeowners.

The work of those who advised the government to respond so proactively to the lessons of the Downer House deserve special commendation. Fearless and frank advice from the public service to ministers and Cabinet is essential to good government.

Those officers successfully argued their case up to their minister at the time, Mr Corbell, and through him to the Cabinet table late last year, which led to the mail out of that February 18 letter.

I am eternally grateful for their efforts. At the right time their achievement will be recognised more formally.

I also recognise the bi-partisan support shown by the opposition and in particular by Mr Hanson, and I look forward to continuing this approach.

To the homeowners, I thank you for the patience and resilience shown as you have come to terms and dealt with this great challenge.

Our decision to rid the city of Mr Fluffy once and for all, however difficult it is now, is without doubt in the long term interests of the entire Canberra community.

Madam speaker, as Chief Minister of the ACT I now table the brave stories of many of the Mr Fluffy homeowners and I commit myself to continuing to work alongside them in the days, months and years ahead.