HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [5.40 pm]: I rise to speak about the opening of the official memorial at Solidarity Park for the victims of Wittenoom, which I attended on Saturday along with a number of members of the ALP, including some ministers, and my colleague Hon Tim Clifford. I note that you, Madam President, spoke at the event and played an official role.
Wittenoom is often described as Australia’s greatest mining disaster. I felt that it was a moving ceremony. We heard from a number of family members who had been at Wittenoom, some of whom had lost huge numbers of members of their own families and had tragic tales to tell about the legacy of that mining disaster. Western Australia’s history of asbestos mining is horrific.
Asbestos has been used in Western Australia since the 1920s, primarily in the building and manufacturing industries. In fact, in 1937 the late Mr Lang Hancock commenced blue asbestos surface mining and used mainly Aboriginal people—the Banyjima people—at that mine. From 1943 to 1966 more than 20 000 people lived and worked at Wittenoom. The gorges had regular visitors and various school excursions were held. Notably, Hale School had its own allotted camping area. During that time, thousands of Western Australians attended and lived in that area. Apart from being mined, the asbestos fibre was shipped off with not a great amount of care. It was loaded onto and off ships, which exposed a lot of workers at port Samson and Fremantle port to asbestos fibres. Over the years many of those workers developed asbestos-related diseases.
It has been known since the beginning of the twentieth century that asbestos dust is capable of causing asbestos-related diseases, particularly among those who work with asbestos. The causation of asbestos-related diseases was recognised in England as early as the 1900s. James Hardie Industries, in particular, has a shameful history. As far back as 1938 it defended the first asbestosis case in Sydney. Indeed, the state government had knowledge of the danger of asbestos dating back to 1935. As I said, the history of addressing the tragedy of asbestosis in this country is one of great shame. Thousands of people have died of asbestos-related diseases; it is a painful and excruciating death. It is so widespread. Even when I worked at the State School Teachers’ Union of WA, we had members who were teachers who died from asbestos-related diseases as a result of being exposed to asbestos in the school environment. That is how far spread this issue is. We are now dealing with generations of people being exposed to asbestos and the likelihood of asbestosis and asbestos-related diseases as a result of renovations. This is a legacy that will stay with us for generations.
I am aware that there has been quite a lot of work happening behind the scenes to try to ensure that victims of asbestosis and asbestos-related diseases are able to get a better deal, and I am aware that this was a subject of quite a lot of debate within the thirty-ninth Parliament. I draw members’ attention to the Law Reform Commission of Western Australia report, “Provisional Damages and Damages for Gratuitous Services”, which I am aware arose as a result of a referral from the previous Attorney General, which again arose as a result of a bill that I understand was your bill, Madam President, that had come into this Parliament. The report makes very interesting reading. It was revealed as part of speeches on Saturday that the report is with the Attorney General at the moment for his consideration. I note that the Law Reform Commission has given in-principle support to a number of reforms around provisional damages and also for gratuitous services. I really hope that the Attorney General gives proper consideration to this report in a timely way. I urge the Attorney General to specifically focus on the effects on the victims of asbestosis. I recognise that a broader range of people in the community potentially need to look at similar sorts of damages, but right now we have a very real issue of people who have been specifically affected by asbestos. Considering the very tight time frames we are talking about for people who need support and that we have a tight physical environment, there is an argument to be made for the Attorney General to swiftly focus on what can be provided for the victims of asbestosis. I really hope we see some positive reform in this space. I am aware that this is an issue that the Labor government has spoken about a lot in the past, so I feel quite hopeful that we will finally see some form in this space. It is an issue that I am particularly keen to progress.
I want to acknowledge the extraordinary and ongoing work of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia. I have been attending its functions and have been in contact with it over a long time. I particularly need to acknowledge the president, Robert Vojakovic, who is just a stalwart. He is a former Wittenoom miner himself and he is the absolute backbone of this movement and has just continued, obviously along with his wife. It was so wonderful to see his daughter, Melita Markey, who has also played a key role in ensuring that this particular memorial has come about. What an extraordinary powerhouse of the family they are. I just wanted to draw members’ attention to the fact that that memorial is in Solidarity Park. I think it is marvellous that it has come about. It is of great importance, particularly to people from Wittenoom, whose lives have been directly affected and continue to be directly affected. There are practical and tangible things that this government can do and that this Parliament can support for these people and their families, both now and in the future. Unfortunately, we are looking at an enormous legacy and we need to ensure that we support the victims of asbestosis and they get some justice.