The NSW government must be clearer about its position on asbestos claims, according to shadow attorney-general Paul Lynch.
Mr Lynch was commenting on the fact that James Hardie Industries is seeking a Supreme Court judgment that would allow the organisation to pay asbestos victims compensation in instalments from 2015.
James Hardie was a key player in Australia’s asbestos manufacturing and mining operations in the 20th century, becoming one of the country’s largest distributors of building materials containing the deadly material. As a growing number of people died from asbestos-related diseases in NSW, such as silicosis, mesothelioma and asbestosis, the firm set up the Asbestos Injuries Compensation Fund (AICF).
However, the AICF recently admitted that its contributions would not cover the amount of compensation being offered to victims, encouraging the fund to seek incremental payments rather than lump sums.
Mr Lynch described the situation as “obscene”, arguing that James Hardie continues to make “massive profits” despite its claims of not having enough cash to supplement the fund.
Furthermore, the Sydney Morning Herald quoted the shadow attorney-general as saying the NSW government must be more transparent about its stance on the matter.
“They should be telling victims groups the very minute any approach is made to them about a Supreme Court application,” he said.
James Hardie seeks bailout
This is not the first time the AICF has sought to pay asbestos victims through instalments – a similar situation arose four years ago as the world struggled through the effects of the global financial crisis.
At the time, the Keneally and Gillard Labor governments agreed to a $320 million bailout package financed with a government loan. The federal government agreed to pay 50 per cent.
Ms Gillard argued that phased payments would mean many sufferers of asbestos-related diseases would not live long enough to benefit from compensation.
According to a spokesperson for NSW Attorney-General Brad Hazzard, while the AICF has made it clear it will request instalment payments, an application has not yet been received.
NSW Treasurer Andrew Constance is said to be reluctant to offer more government assistance to James Hardie Industries, particularly as the company’s primary market – the housing industry – has since recovered.
“The NSW government does not see it as a merely procedural action to provide further loans to the AICF, given less than half the payments from the AICF go to NSW residents,” a spokesperson for Mr Constance added.
“The former Labor government has exposed us to a situation where NSW taxpayers are supporting victims in other states.”