ACT Government Loan Bill 2014

Senator SESELJA (Australian Capital Territory) (13:05): I also rise to support the ACT Government Loan Bill 2014. I thank Senator Lundy for her comments and her contribution. I endorse the sentiment behind Senator Lundy's contribution and acknowledge at the outset that Senator Lundy has worked in a very straight-down-the-line, bipartisan way on this issue. I appreciate the way that she has handled it on behalf of the Labor Party in her role as senator for the ACT.


As Senator Lundy has acknowledged, this issue has touched over a thousand families in the ACT, but it has also touched so many more people, because everyone in Canberra knows someone who owns or lives in a Mr Fluffy home. Many people have formerly owned Mr Fluffy homes and many have been through them over the years. This is something that has a very significant impact in the ACT on many people but, of course, primarily and most devastatingly on those who have lived in these homes for a long time and those who have raised children in these homes. So, as we debate this bill and see it passing through the Senate today, we acknowledge that significant impact and trauma—which is impossible to undo, regardless of anything that is done either in this place or in the ACT assembly.

This has been playing out over many years but particularly for the last year or so. Over 1,000 households in Canberra and also, of course, in neighbouring Queanbeyan have had to deal with the trauma, uncertainty, stress and anguish of learning that their homes had Mr Fluffy insulation installed during the sixties and seventies and that traces of asbestos remained on their properties. This news was devastating for these Canberrans. Not only were their houses unsafe now and unsuitable to live in; they had been that way for a long time, in many cases, without their knowledge. Words cannot express how stressful such a discovery must be—to know that this has been the case for, perhaps, many years for people in homes where they have raised children, built a career and hosted a countless number of guests. These were years when asbestos materials in your home were putting at serious risk your health and also the health of those who came through your home. These Canberrans who owned or lived in these homes come from all walks of life. They are families with young children, older couples and young people entering the housing market for the first time. They are people from all over our city and people of a range of financial means. They are all people who have had to deal with the fact that the place they call home has put them at risk.

The residents and owners of Mr Fluffy homes know that the presence of asbestos is not just a matter of the financial value of their homes, as important as that is. This is a matter of their health. This is a matter of the health of themselves and their families. As the impact statement tabled by Senator Lundy and me in this place last week showed, these are people who, every time they come down with an illness or feel an illness coming on, may wonder if this might be because of what they have been exposed to—loose-fill asbestos in their homes here in Canberra. Indeed, some of the affected residents already wonder if illnesses they are dealing with today might have been caused or worsened by their choice of home.

This is not a tragedy of their own making. This is not something that any reasonable homeowner could have known. They were told that, in fact, their homes were safe. So due diligence would not have helped them because, unfortunately, all of the information simply was not available to people as they purchased these homes and moved into them. There a couple of stories from the impact statements I want to share. Mr and Mrs W talk about how they were looking forward to shortly having their home paid off but now potentially need to start from scratch. They talk about how they want to stay—they love the location—but there is stigma of being in a 'pariah' home. They go on: 'How many people have we put at risk of contracting asbestos related illness?' As Senator Lundy touched on, that guilt—which is not fair or reasonable but is real—is there for these homeowners and residents. We all feel that, don't we, when we may have inadvertently had our children put at risk or others put at risk. I say to them that it is not their fault. It is not because of their actions. People can only act on the best information that they have, and I know that these people did.

Ellen from Charnwood said: 'We are now effectively bankrupt and living in a home that it is a danger to our children. I have lost countless nights of sleep thinking about this and have suffered horrible anxiety. I feel sick at the thought of having friends around, particularly if they have children.' Again, we see those themes coming through. There are the financial issues and the financial fears. What is very important and what can be dealt with, to the maximum extent possible, through this process and through what the ACT government is doing are the financial issues. That is a significant part of the burden—there is no doubt about it.

Some of the detail of that, of course, is still being worked through. It is not easy. We all get approached at the various functions that we go to in the ACT by Fluffy residents and owners. They talk about outstanding issues, such as certain goods that they cannot take out of their homes and how that will be compensated for. There are all sorts of things that are deemed unsafe like soft-fibre couches and the like that simply cannot be taken out. That is an ongoing issue. Obviously, the financial burden is one significant part—it is a massive part, but it is not the only part, as we have discussed. As we deal with these processes, we will be broadly dealing with many of these financial issues. But, obviously, those emotional issues and those health issues are a different question again and cannot easily be dealt with. The health issues, of course, are what have forced the drastic action—the demolition of these homes. Those are a couple of the stories, but there are many more. I encourage people to read through that impact statement. You can turn to almost any page of that document to find stories just like those which I have just mentioned—filled with uncertainty and sadness, yet also resilience in the face of the tough hand they have been dealt.

There is, I think, some hope here as well. Today, we are discussing and debating a way forward. Hopefully, it is a very positive way forward in the midst of great difficulty. People can have the opportunity to get on with their lives and in many cases take the buyback from the ACT government and move on. That is not a perfect circumstance—it is a far-from-perfect circumstance for many, and there will be much discussion and negotiation about what is the best for individual families and individuals—but it is a significant improvement on what could be the case if we did not have this fund, if we did not have this low-interest loan and if there were not the ACT government.

Senator Lundy acknowledged the way it has been handled in the assembly. There are all sorts of issues members of the community are raising about this, but I think I have seen from both the Chief Minister and the opposition leader a desire to actually work together to get a solution here. So, in paying tribute to the ACT government and Katy Gallagher, I also pay tribute to Jeremy Hanson and the Liberal opposition. People can play politics with big issues like this, but I have not seen any evidence of that. I have seen a desire to get solutions which I think is very positive, which is likewise the way Senator Abetz has dealt with this issue.

The bill does present a significant way forward: $750 million now, $250 million to come. It is a low-interest loan, so it is subsidised. It does allow the ACT government to maintain its credit rating, so as it borrows for other projects it does not place a significant extra burden. This of course will not fix the issue. It will not fix those other issues we have talked about—the health issues, the emotional issues, the issues around displacement—but it is a significant step forward. I join with Senator Lundy and others in this place in commending this bill to the Senate.