The Federal Government’s recent Commission of Audit report has recommended the abolition of the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency (ASEA). ASEA was established on 1 July 2013 with bipartisan support. It was charged with the provision of a national focus to issues surrounding asbestos. It coordinates various asbestos safety organisations and provides a broad focus to asbestos safety. Previously, many efforts to protect people from asbestos have focused on the workplace. ASEA expands that focus to encompass environmental and public health concerns. In short, ASEA provides coherence and facilitates a comprehensive approach to asbestos safety and eradication.

ASEA was established by the Gillard Government following the recommendations of the Asbestos Management Review, a national review which examined asbestos containing materials in the built environment and received numerous submissions over an 18 month period.

Third wave victims

Australia has the highest per capita incidence of mesothelioma (the deadly asbestos cancer) in the world. The early victims of asbestos related diseases were asbestos miners. Workers who dealt with asbestos followed them. Today, many victims of asbestos related diseases including mesothelioma are those who were exposed in their home, or otherwise outside the course of their regular employment. These ‘third wave’ victims will continue to grow in number for so long as thousands of buildings across Australia continue to contain asbestos fibres. It is estimated that 2 out of every 3 houses built in Australia post World War II contain asbestos cement building products (fibro). Already, over 33,000 Australians have died from an asbestos related disease.  An estimated 40,000 have been exposed and will die in the future. It is vital that further exposures be avoided.

If the Commission of Audit recommendation is implemented, the important contribution of the ASEA will be lost. Asbestos exposure is a national problem and it requires national cooperation and coordination to end it. This approach requires a national body comprised of members of the legal, medical, scientific, and general communities such as ASEA is.

The recommendation is to abolish ASEA and merge its functions with the Department of Employment. This has caused fears that the important work of ASEA will be drowned out in the vastness of the Department. Rather than receiving a dedicated budget with dedicated officers, the project of asbestos safety and eradication will be treated as an insignificant function of a massive government department.

A number of organisations from across the country, including the Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia, the Bernie Banton Foundation, the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia, as well as a number of state-based organisations, have jointly urged the federal government to refrain from acting on the recommendation. These organisations have questioned the priority placed by the recommendation on saving a small amount of money against the priority of saving thousands of lives. They draw attention to ASEA’s ongoing work in rolling out a coordinated national approach to community education and asbestos eradication, and emphasise the value of this approach in contrast to the piecemeal approaches of the past.

The corporate giants that manufactured and distributed asbestos wove the deadly fibre throughout the Australian community and it remains widely present to this day. With the departure of organisations like James Hardie from Australian shores, it has become the responsibility of government to protect thousands of potential future victims from contracting mesothelioma, a fate of great suffering. Mesothelioma is a preventable cancer. Eliminate exposure to asbestos and you will eliminate this terrible disease. The recommendation, written by accountants and economists, entirely ignores the public health and moral imperatives of ASEA and its work. It is important that the Federal Government does not similarly ignore these considerations.