My ministerial statement on loose-fill asbestos

I rise to update the Assembly on the Government’s response to the needs of the more than one thousand families in our community whose current homes are known to be affected by Mr Fluffy loose-fill asbestos insulation, and those of the many more who have lived in affected homes since the 1960’s.

Members would be aware that asbestos containing materials were routinely used in the construction of Canberra homes before 1990, and are commonly found in areas including eaves, roofs, wet areas, fences, and pipe lagging. However, there is a subset of Canberra homes that are additionally affected by a particularly dangerous form of asbestos: pure, raw asbestos pumped into roof spaces between 1968 and 1979 as insulation by a firm known as “Mr Fluffy”.

The enduring legacy of this activity – which took place while the Commonwealth Government was responsible for Canberra – and the ultimately unsuccessful attempt at remediation under the removal program in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s presents a continuing threat to affected families and a complex challenge for the ACT and Commonwealth Governments to solve.

The ACT Government has acted decisively to tackle these legacy issues, and is committed to providing an enduring solution – we need to fix this once and for all.

There is nowhere else in Australia that is experiencing the effects of loose-fill asbestos insulation in such a large number of homes as is the case in the ACT.  We know of a handful of homes in neighbouring New South Wales. There is, we understand, a limited number of similar cases in the United Kingdom.

The pressing need to deal with the legacy of Mr Fluffy asbestos led the government to establish the Asbestos Response Taskforce on 25 June this year.

The Taskforce reports to me in my capacity as Chief Minister and is led by Mr Andrew Kefford who was, until this appointment as Coordinator-General, the Commissioner for Public Administration.

The Taskforce was established to provide a coordinated and compassionate response to the needs of affected families, and is focused on three key streams of work:

  • responding to the needs of families – some of whom have found out only recently – who are living a home affected by loose-fill asbestos insulation, by administering the Government’s financial assistance package;
  • building an information base to share with affected families and the broader Canberra community; and
  • preparing advice on a sustainable and practical long term solution to the continuing threat posed by the presence of loose-fill asbestos insulation in homes.

In creating the Taskforce, expertise has been drawn together from across the ACT Public Service including staff:

  • with experience in managing the impacts of asbestos in our community;
  • who understand our planning system and can guide assessments and building and remediation works; and
  • with hands-on experience supporting the community through times of crisis.

Since the Taskforce was set-up a register of more than 2,000 current and former homeowners, tenants, trades professionals, real estate and other professionals, and the broader community, has been established.  This register is enabling the Taskforce to develop a better understanding of the individual circumstances of the affected families, and allowing it to provide tailored advice and assistance.

Current home owners and tenants who have registered with the Taskforce are being assisted in:

  • arranging asbestos assessments for affected homes;
  • understanding the ramifications of asbestos assessments;
  • organising remediation work;
  • accessing the Government’s Assistance Package; and
  • liaising with other Government agencies and industry.

I take this opportunity to acknowledge the outstanding work of all members of the taskforce. There have been many late nights and weekends worked in order to get the information and financial support flowing to those affected.

The taskforce is the frontline in our response and they have responded with absolute commitment and professionalism to the extensive needs and hardships of those affected by Mr Fluffy asbestos.

These statistics give members an idea of the assistance being provided by the taskforce – they are current as of last Friday 1 August 2014:

  • 1,800 people are registered with the taskforce
  • More than 400 homes have been assessed
  • 27 families have been displaced
  • Approximately 80 assistance payments have been made to a total value of approximately $140,000 - many more are in train
  • 850 registered post receipts have been returned and the taskforce is now working to reach the remaining owners who have not yet registered.

In addition to the practical support and advice the Taskforce is providing affected families, the ACT Government has also agreed to an emergency support package for those who are forced to leave their homes following advice from an asbestos assessor.

The emergency support package is a grant of up to $10,000 per household for those people advised by an asbestos assessor to leave their home.  The package cap is increased by $2,000 for each dependant child residing in the home.

The purpose of these funds is to cover costs of emergency accommodation and other necessities, such as food and clothing, as well as immediate remediation work. Assistance payments are already flowing to affected families and I hope this is providing them with some financial support during this period of financial hardship.

For those people who have left their home on the advice of an assessor, the ACT Government is also deferring rates for the period of time the owners have had to vacate.

And for households still residing in the house but who, following the advice of an asbestos assessment, have been required to destroy contaminated items such as clothes and soft furnishing items, $1,000 is available.

In addition to the practical impacts on affected families, the government is very conscious of health impacts – both physical and emotional.

While many people may adapt to this initial emotional distress, and manage it with the support of family and friends, there are times when extra help and support is needed.

That’s why the Taskforce has been working closely with the Chief Health Officer, the ACT Medicare Local, and ACT Health to ensure that people are provided with up-to-date information about health risks and how to access support services.

Members will be aware that as part of the ACT Government’s emergency support package, I announced a partnership between the ACT Government and the ACT Medicare Local to ensure there are no out of pocket expenses for affected families accessing psychological and emotional support.

This support includes:

  • access to the NewAccess Program to offer support from trained coaches for those who are experiencing mild anxiety or depression; and
  • access to the HealthinMind Program through family doctors, with any ‘gap’ fee for the GP visit reimbursed to those registered with the Taskforce.

It is worth noting that there is no specific research available that addresses the health impacts of loose-fill asbestos insulation in homes on the health of residents.  This is why ACT Health is currently looking into ACT specific data to try and understand more about the links between affected homes and asbestos related disease with the intention that this will flow into a formal academic study.

In addition, the Taskforce in conjunction with ACT Health has also responded to requests from the community for an opportunity to discuss health issues relating to asbestos, recently hosting two health information forums – one on the south side and one on the north side of the city.

These forums, each attended by hundreds of Canberrans, have included presentations from the ACT Chief Health Officer, respiratory, paediatric and mental health experts, and the Head of the Taskforce. My discussions with a number of affected families and individuals have demonstrated just how unique each person’s story is. There is no single answer, or simple response, that will suit everyone’s particular circumstances.

One issue that has been raised with me as a significant concern for families though is ways to support children during uncertain and changing circumstances such as this. We know that children, like adults, experience a range of emotions and behaviours, and that they can tune into parental distress and worry.

To support the children in affected households, the Taskforce and ACT Health have been working closely with the Education and Training Directorate to ensure that all schools are aware of what is going on and make sure that access to school counsellors is made available.

The ACT Government is committed to providing long term support to families whose homes are affected by loose-fill asbestos insulation.  As an extension of this commitment a Community and Expert Reference Group (the CERG) is also being formed.  This follows the valuable contribution an equivalent group made to the work of the Bushfire Taskforce in 2003.

I expect to announce the appointment of the Chairperson and membership of the CERG shortly.

The CERG will provide advocacy on behalf of the community to the Taskforce.

It will include representatives of home owners and tenants, technical experts and relevant industry and union groups.

Members will be aware that Senator Eric Abetz has been delegated by the Prime Minister to lead the Commonwealth Government’s response to the enduring threat posed by the presence of loose-fill asbestos insulation in Canberra homes.

My discussions with Senator Abetz have been constructive and I have been given a commitment that the Federal Government would work with the ACT Government to respond to the issue of ‘Mr Fluffy’ within the ACT community.

I am pleased to inform the Assembly today that since my initial meeting with Senator Abetz there have been a number of officials’ level meetings which have also been positive.

The Asbestos Response Taskforce has received significant assistance from Commonwealth agencies in preparing technical advice on the long term management of affected homes, and I am particularly pleased Safe Work Australia has agreed to second a senior official to the Taskforce to support this work.

Another tangible outcome that has come out of this cooperation is that Canberrans can now easily and specifically register any potential exposure they may have had to loose-fill asbestos in affected homes through the National Asbestos Exposure Register. The Register, managed by the Commonwealth’s Asbestos Safety Response and Eradication Agency, records details of people who think they may have been exposed to materials containing asbestos. Previously this register only listed fields to report general exposure to asbestos in the home or workplace.

I also welcome the engagement of the NSW Government. I have written to both former Premier O’Farrell and Premier Baird and discussed the issue with Minister Dominic Perrottet by phone. We have seen a growing engagement between respective officials and the ACT Government will continue to share our knowledge with NSW counterparts.

Similarly, we are working with Queanbeyan and other affected councils to assist them in their responses. I have written to all SEROC mayors explaining the situation in the ACT and, again, providing information and access to the taskforce for our regional neighbours.

Through the taskforce, the ACT Government is sharing information with these other jurisdictions in the hope that we can lead a solution for all people affected by Mr Fluffy.

I have said publically on a number of occasions that I want this issue to be resolved once and for all.

I do not want a future government to be in the situation we are in today, wishing the problem had been fixed, in the way we wish the original remediation program designed by the Commonwealth had fixed it in 1989.

Since the Taskforce was established in June the priority has been making contact with current residents of affected homes; delivering the ACT Government’s emergency support package; and arranging asbestos assessments on affected homes.

The Taskforce has also been engaging with experts nationally and internationally to provide advice to the ACT Government on long term strategies to render affected houses safe. I expect to receive this advice soon and will use it as the basis of furthering discussions with the Commonwealth.

The ACT Government will be guided by this expert advice as well as the evidence we are currently gathering about levels of contamination by loose-fill asbestos of the living areas of affected homes.

Madam Speaker, I take this opportunity to acknowledge the bipartisan support we have received in pursuing a lasting solution to Mr Fluffy’s legacy.

Firstly, to the leadership of Minister Corbell for his leadership and awareness of the seriousness of this issue as our state of knowledge has grown.

I appreciate the support the Leader of the Opposition has provided.

I welcome and acknowledge the intervention of all the ACT’s federal parliamentarians on behalf of the people of Canberra.  I look forward to continuing to work with Mr Hanson, Senators Lundy and Seselja, and Ms Brodtmann and Mr Leigh to present a united front in calling on the Commonwealth to continue to assist us to fix this problem once and for all.

I also acknowledge the dedication and advocacy on behalf of affected families by Ms Brianna Heseltine, the convener of the Fluffy Owners’ and Residents’ Action Group, and to the many brave families who have publicly shared their story.

To all the families whose homes are affected by loose-fill asbestos insulation, I am acutely aware of the distress and upheaval this issue has created.  I want each person to know the ACT Government is listening, is working to provide short term assistance, and is committed to providing an enduring solution.

In 2014, it is very clear that the Commonwealth-designed program which attempted the original removal of Mr Fluffy asbestos did not work.

Twenty years on, some Canberra families have raw pure asbestos fibres inside their homes, in their linen press, in their wardrobes, on their fridge, in their heating ducts, on their pillows and carpets, even on their children’s teddy bears.

We cannot get this wrong again, and it is time for the ACT Government and the Commonwealth Government to join forces to provide an enduring solution to this problem.

I thank members for the opportunity to provide this update and I look forward to providing more information to the Assembly as it comes to hand.