Standing up for Canberra

ACT Government Loan Bill 2014

I rise today to address the House on an issue I have spoken about many times before, and that is Mr Fluffy asbestos. This is an issue causing significant distress in my electorate of Canberra and throughout the ACT and New South Wales. The lives of around 1,000 Canberra households and some 4,000 Canberrans have been completely turned upside down this year as these Canberrans have had to come to grips with the legacy of Mr Fluffy. Perhaps some members who are not from Canberra or the capital region do not realise how serious the Mr Fluffy crisis actually is because the name 'Mr Fluffy' is quite misleading. It does not portray the absolute devastation this substance has brought.

Mr Fluffy is a type of loose-fill asbestos that was used in the ACT in the late sixties and seventies. A small business called D Jansen & Co Pty Ltd—known as Mr Fluffy—pumped crushed raw blue and brown asbestos insulation into about 1,100 homes in Canberra and Queanbeyan. I am pleased to see that the member for EdenMonaro is here in the chamber today because I understand that there are about 20 or 30 houses in Queanbeyan that have been affected by Mr Fluffy. I understand that work is being done by the state government on trying to get an understanding of the level of contamination in those houses and I also understand a task force has been established. The member for Eden-Monaro is nodding his head and I trust that he has been very active in this space and will continue to advocate on behalf of those families that have been affected by this Mr Fluffy crisis.

Mr Fluffy was a cheap and effective form of insulation, pumped into the walls and roof cavities of homes, to provide protection from our extreme weather conditions in Canberra—and we are all very familiar with the extreme weather conditions in winter. The uptake was quick, and Mr Fluffy was installed in homes across more than 70 Canberra suburbs, with the highest uptake rates in the Canberra suburbs of Curtin, Pearce, Kambah and the Weston Creek area.

At this time, the ACT did not have self-government and was governed entirely by the Commonwealth. Mr Fluffy was installed in the ACT on the Commonwealth's watch. I want to make that point again: Mr Fluffy was installed in the ACT on the Commonwealth's watch. This is an important point, and I will come back to it.

The ACT gained self-government in 1988, and, that same year, the Commonwealth government initiated a $100 million program to remove affected homes, in order to protect families and the broader community from the serious health risks posed by this particularly toxic form of asbestos. A survey was conducted of every house in the ACT to determine whether it was a Mr Fluffy house. Over 1,000 homes were identified and, over five years, the Commonwealth removed asbestos from more than 1,000 Canberra homes. Homeowners were issued with a certificate of completion on asbestos removal, and, for a while, we thought we were rid of Mr Fluffy.

Houses were bought and sold. Families grew up and moved out, and new families moved in. Houses were extended and renovated. The underneath of houses were dug out for studies and garages and storage areas. Countless trades people did countless jobs. In many cases, the certificate of completion of asbestos removal was lost, and families did not know they were buying or living in a Mr Fluffy home. Families new to Canberra did not even know what Mr Fluffy was.

At the end of last year, that all changed. A report by Robson Environmental on a Mr Fluffy home in Downer was published late last year—and it was at this point that the community started to realise that the Commonwealth's remediation program may have failed. The report found that the home at 25 Bradfield Street in Downer presented with 'extensive' contamination—was, in fact, uninhabitable—and the house was subsequently demolished.

Following this report, which was released to the public under Freedom of Information laws, the ACT government wrote to 1,049 Canberra householders in February, reminding them that their homes had been included in the removal program more than two decades ago. This came as a shock to hundreds of homeowners who had absolutely no knowledge that their homes had been tainted by Mr Fluffy almost half a century earlier. In the letter, the ACT government recommended that residents did not disturb any internal wall or subfloor spaces and that they get an asbestos check by a licensed assessor to ensure fibres were not migrating into their homes.

As these checks were conducted, it became apparent just how serious the situation was, as a significant number of Mr Fluffy houses were found to contain residual asbestos fibres at dangerous levels. In many cases, these fibres had made their way into the living areas, into cupboards, and into the heating and cooling vents of the houses, putting their inhabitants at extreme risk.

The CEO of the Australian government Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, Mr Peter Tighe, raised the alert in April this year, putting to bed any doubt over the seriousness of the problem. He called for the demolition of Mr Fluffy homes due to the unacceptable health risks they posed to residents and the community.

For the families who own these homes, the situation is dire. It is devastating. Over the past months many families have been living in limbo, awaiting the federal government's response. They have been grappling with costs in the tens of thousands of dollars for testing, removal, temporary accommodation, new clothes, new toys, new teddies, new baby cots, and new cars.

And all of these issues are secondary to the biggest concern of all, and that is the potential health impact. Exposure to this type of loose-fill asbestos has potentially fatal consequences, as it increases the risks of asbestosis, other non-malignant lung and pleural disorders, lung cancer, mesothelioma, and other cancers. More than 10,000 Australians have been diagnosed with mesothelioma since the early 1980s, and up to 25,000 Australians are expected to die from mesothelioma in the next four decades.

The only safe way forward to solve the Mr Fluffy saga once and for all is to demolish the affected houses. In June, the ACT government set up the Asbestos Response Taskforce to provide assistance, information and advice to those affected. However, ultimately, both the installation and the remediation happened on the Commonwealth's watch, and so the Commonwealth needed to come to the table. The ACT Chief Minister, Katy Gallagher, met with employment and public service minister Eric Abetz a number of times during the year to try and establish funding from the federal government. In October, the chief minister and the minister announced that the Commonwealth would provide a $1 billion loan to the ACT, enabling it to buy back and demolish these houses. This bill provides the appropriation mechanism for the provision of $750 million, in the form of a concessional loan, to the ACT government to deliver this demolition program.

While I acknowledge that this will provide some relief to the 1,000 or so households who are victims of Mr Fluffy, particularly those who have been forced into emergency accommodation, it is disappointing that the Commonwealth is not taking a greater financial responsibility. I have said many times that this crisis is a legacy of the Commonwealth's, and the fact that the Commonwealth has not come to the table with a better offer will leave many Mr Fluffy homeowners worse off.

Since the problem came to light at the start of this year, I have met with or spoken to scores of families struggling to come to terms with the legacy of Mr Fluffy. I have met with families who have been forced to leave their homes, leave behind their children's toys, leave behind their clothes, and start from scratch. They have gone in, the assessment has been done, say, on a Friday, and they have been told to get out of the house immediately— immediately. So they have spent the weekend trying to retrieve as much as they can but, quite often, they cannot actually take the toys, they cannot take the cot, they cannot take the blankets, they cannot take their clothes; they leave in the clothes that they are standing in.

This issue does not discriminate. It has affected Canberrans across a diverse cross-section of the community, spanning all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. But one theme is consistent—they have all been placed under emotional, psychological, financial or health-related stress. The stories are heartbreaking. That is the only word you can use to describe them—they are absolutely heartbreaking. There are stories I have heard from the many, many Canberrans I have spoken to about the fact that their children's friends won't come to their house because they too scared to enter the house. One family have teenage children and the girlfriends just sit in the car when they are going out for an outing. They sit in the car while she runs outside to go off to the outing because her friends' families do not want them to come into the house. There are parents who do not know how to tell the children, not wanting to scare them. There are parents who have been told that their children's bedroom or study contain dangerously high levels of asbestos. Can you imagine being told that your child's bedroom, that your child's toys, that your child's cot, that your child's blankets, that your child's pillows, that your child's clothes contain dangerously high levels of asbestos. There are families who homes are so contaminated that have been told to drop everything and leave immediately. There have been families who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating their homes, building their dream home for their children to grow up in—their forever after home—who will now have to see that home demolished, that investment lost. There are homeowners who have worked on their homes themselves, worked in the roof space, in the underfloor, exposing themselves to this toxic and potentially fatal substance. There are tradespeople who have worked on homes having no idea they were contaminated. There are homeowners who are scared that they will be liable for the exposure tradespeople and visitors have had in their homes. I have had phone calls from people who have run businesses out of their homes who are too scared to even say their name on the phone for fear of the devastating repercussions for their business and their livelihood.

There is one woman, a single mum, who is not only living in a Mr Fluffy home but she is also battling with the fact that her son has some mental health issues. He has been hospitalised or put in and out of high and low levels of care and she is battling with this Mr Fluffy crisis. I spoke to another woman who had just finished paying off her house. She is in her late 50s on the verge of retiring. She had this black humour in her response. She had just finished paying her house off, great excitement, and had taken about a month's leave to paint and tidy up her house. She was told that her house was going to be demolished. She said, 'Well, at least, Gai, I don't have to go out to Bunnings and get the paintbrushes. I have a month to sit around and do I do not know what but at least I won't be painting.'

There are some other messages I have received. This one is from Katie: Our report came back positive on all six samples with a high reading for asbestos fibres. The assessors informed us that we were no longer to enter the house. We have since done the heartbreaking task of telling our family and friends that they have been exposed to asbestos fibres whilst helping us renovate and that we are so sorry for putting them in this situation where their health might be at risk in the future.

This is from Jenny: Our home was purchased in good faith in 1992 when I was pregnant with my first child. I now have four children. I love the area and home. The only concern around the original purchase was "leaky taps". Now I feel shattered for our family's health (particularly my husband who spent time under the sub floors digging out space for storage), tradespeople, friends and of course my children. The financial concern is overwhelming as our retiring asset is now worthless.

This is from Ellen: We are now effectively bankrupt and living in a home that is a danger to our children.

I worked very hard over the last six months to advocate for these homeowners and residents, and other affected Canberrans. I listened to their concerns, I have cried with them, and I have supported them in any way I can. I have advocated to both the ACT and Commonwealth governments, and I have spoken in this place many, many times. So I am pleased that we are at this point now, which will allow many homeowners to move on.

As I mentioned earlier, this provides the appropriation mechanism for the provision of $750 million—in the form of a concessional loan—to the ACT government to deliver this buy-back and demolition program in the ACT to the affected Mr Fluffy homeowners. The bill provides for the authority for the Commonwealth to enter into an agreement to make the loan to the ACT government for an amount not exceeding $1 billion.

While I acknowledge that without such a loan arrangement, the ACT's capacity to deal with this issue would have been significantly reduced, I do see the Commonwealth as having some responsibility for this crisis due to the fact that the remediation took place on the Commonwealth's watch.

These families deserve support, they deserve compensation and above all they deserve certainty. While some homeowners are elated to have a way forward, others are disappointed. But this bill will give residents confidence that the buyback will go ahead.

I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the bravery of Mr Fluffy homeowners. They have faced the last year with enormous courage. They have supported each other and they have truly a proven that in times of adversity our community is at its best and it comes together.

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