Questions Without Notice - Mr Fluffy Asbestos


Senator SESELJA (Australian Capital Territory): My question is to the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Abetz. Can the minister inform the Senate what the Commonwealth government will do to provide certainty for the homeowners and residents of more than 1,000 houses in Canberra affected by Mr Fluffy loose-fill asbestos?

Senator ABETZ (Tasmania—Leader of the Government in the Senate, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service and Minister for Employment) (14:25): Can I acknowledge Senator Seselja's longstanding interest and advocacy in this matter and, in sending a bouquet to Senator Seselja, I will also send one to  Senator  Lundy  and  to  the two members of the House of Representatives who represent the ACT, along with the ACT Chief Minister, for their very cooperative approach in seeking an outcome that will be of benefit for the 1,000-plus Mr Fluffy homeowners in the ACT who clearly want and need certainty and the assurance that there is a way forward.

So I am delighted to inform the Senate that earlier today I was joined by the Chief Minister of the ACT to announce that the Commonwealth would assist the ACT in its task by providing a concessional loan of up to $1,000 million, to deliver a program to buy back and demolish houses in the ACT affected by Mr Fluffy loose-fill asbestos. This facility will allow the ACT to borrow up to $1,000 million at the Commonwealth interest rate for a period of 10 years, allowing savings of approximately $32 million over the life of  the loan. This in-principle agreement will provide certainty for the Mr Fluffy homeowners and residents in the ACT and will assure them that help is on the way and that a program set up by the ACT government will shortly commence. The loan will ensure that the ACT is in a position to deliver a well-structured remediation program over coming years. The ACT will be responsible for the program and its administration. Can I finish where I started by acknowledging the very cooperative approach of all representatives from the ACT in this matter.

Senator SESELJA (Australian Capital Territory) (14:27): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Can the minister advise the Senate when he expects the buyback program to commence?

Senator ABETZ (Tasmania—Leader of the Government in the Senate, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service and Minister for Employment): I can indicate that, from the Commonwealth's perspective, we now have to settle the exact detail of the loan agreement between the ACT and the Commonwealth. We will then, in both parliaments, need to progress urgent legislation and I am sure that all senators and all members of the House of Representatives will assist in that regard, with the hope that this program will be able to commence in January 2015. It is important that this program gets underway as soon as possible and in regard to the detail of the program, as I indicated, that will be a matter for the ACT government to determine. But we have indicated our willingness to provide technical assistance and expert advice from our departmental officers to the ACT to assist them in their endeavours, to ensure that we get a good outcome.

Senator SESELJA (Australian Capital Territory): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Will the minister outline to the Senate the basis on which the Commonwealth has offered assistance to the ACT government on the Mr Fluffy issue?

Senator ABETZ (Tasmania—Leader of the Government in the Senate, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service and Minister for Employment): I can indicate to the honourable senator the basis on which the Commonwealth approach this issue. The issue is clearly one within the province of either state or territory governments. It is their responsibility to deal with this issue. However, we were very mindful of the fact that the ACT government, being a relatively small government, did not have the financial wherewithal to easily obtain a loan of $1,000 million. To do so would have attracted a higher interest rate than that which the Commonwealth can command and also may well have had an adverse impact on its credit rating and therefore interest payments in relation to existing loans. So we as a Commonwealth have come to an agreement with the ACT to ensure that a loan facility, under the name of the Commonwealth, is made available at a cheaper interest rate, which will assist the ACT in this issue.