Any Canberran with a friend or relative dealing with the stress and uncertainty of owning or living in a house with Mr Fluffy loose fill asbestos will know the impact this issue is having. I have met many of these people, read their letters, heard about their financial stresses and their fears of asbestos-related disease. Had the history of this almost 50-year saga played out differently, these families would be spared the trauma they are going through and the community would be spared the large financial cost of making right this sad chapter in the ACT's history.
Instead we find ourselves now with the need to find a solution. The ACT Cabinet has received an initial report from the Asbestos Response Taskforce which provides the first evidence based, comprehensive expert analysis of the 2014 status of the more than 1000 Mr Fluffy homes. This advice will inform negotiations currently underway with the Commonwealth. We know that the decisions that flow from this advice must deliver a fair outcome for affected families, a sustainable solution for the taxpayers of the ACT and the Commonwealth and one which ends the saga once and for all. I appreciate the frustration of those affected in having to wait for more information, but forcing this process is not an option. The history of the issue binds our two governments together and a permanent solution can only be a shared one.
Inevitably, the legacy of asbestos in Canberra will be picked through and the actions of both levels of government over many years will come under the microscope. My own role in the story has been a feature this past week.
It is already a matter of public record that very little occurred in relation to asbestos management in the ACT from when the Mr Fluffy removal program ended in 1993 until the national ban of 2003. In 2004, a wide-ranging asbestos review was commissioned and of its 25 recommendations, all have been implemented. That is why you now find advice regarding asbestos in sales contracts and building files, why you have to advise regulators when renovating, why tradespeople are educated in asbestos safety, why our schools and commercial buildings have asbestos management plans and why our community is well-educated on the need for caution around asbestos. It's also why the ACT has the toughest asbestos laws in the country, so tough in fact that during the national harmonisation of Work Health and Safety laws in 2008 other jurisdictions refused to adopt our laws which they saw as excessive, but did allow us a special dispensation to keep them operating here in the ACT.
What the 2005 report and the review that followed in 2010 did not foresee was the specific threat of loose fill asbestos fibres penetrating living areas of Mr Fluffy homes. The advice had always been – and continues to be in NSW – that if the ceiling structure is sound and undisturbed, these houses are safe to live in. When the ACT Government discovered a house missed by the removal program, we again acted on the advice of public servants who had the foresight to recommend the forensic demolition of this house to better understand loose fill asbestos and how it moved within a house over time. The report of this exercise in late 2013 showed the extent of contamination which had occurred not just in the ceiling but throughout the wall cavities, under the floor and in the soil. We alerted all Mr Fluffy homeowners and urged them to consider getting an up to date assessment. The 400 or so assessments completed to date have led to the distressing conclusion that this contamination is uniform across the board.
From this point on, the priority needs to remain on securing a long-term solution. All our effort, attention and resources are focused on this. There will be plenty of time to rake over the coals, but for the health – both physical and mental – of owners and residents, for their financial futures and the future of our city we need to see this through in a systematic way and support each other whilst that happens.
Katy Gallagher is the ACT Chief Minister.