Imagine if in Parliament on Thursday, Scott Morrison passed a broken chunk of asbestos – instead of a hunk of coal – and yelled at the across the chamber “this is asbestos — don’t be afraid, don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you, it won’t hurt you.”
The families of the 641 people who died from mesothelioma in 2014 alone – a rare cancer caused by asbestos exposure – would probably take issue with the suggestion that it won’t hurt you.
Imagine if then that his colleagues – the men and women who purport to represent the Australian people – passed around that hunk of asbestos like some of perverted show and tell. Imagine they marvelled at it, like they did the black lump of coal on Thursday, as if it wasn’t responsible for the painful, premature, suffocating deaths of so many people.
Mr Morrison went on to yell at his opponents, “it was dug up by the men and women, dug up by men and women who work and live in the electorates of those opposite.”
Asbestos was dug up by men and women too who lived in the electorates of our members of parliament. Asbestos was mined from the ground in Wittenoom in Western Australia. Wittenoom doesn’t exist as a town anymore. It became so dangerous and so contaminated that it was effectively wiped off the map by the Western Australian Government. As far as we know, only three people live there now and the government plans to forcibly evict them soon. They breathe air that is filled with asbestos particles. They walk on pavements that were made from asbestos. More than two thousand people who lived or worked there have died from asbestos related diseases.
On Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce waved around the lump of coal as if it was a trophy. Nearby to the township of Barraba, located in Mr Joyce’s electorate, asbestos was mined from the Woodsreef mine before it was abandoned in 1980s. Most of the asbestos mined there was sold to James Hardie, the company that exposed its workers to lethal substances and then ran away when they – sick, and cancerous and dying – demanded compensation.
Coal and asbestos are not dissimilar – not when you contemplate their capacity to cause illness and death. Not when you contemplate the power wielded by the massive corporations who profit from their sale. And not when you look at the inaction and complicity of politicians who show themselves time and time again willing to condemn the people they are meant to serve to secure their short term political futures.
Every year approximately 600 people are diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma in Australia, and as of 2009, 6,492 people had died from it.
Right now, every year 3,000 Australians die from air pollution – not all air pollution is caused by coal, but most is. Extreme temperatures, fuelled by dangerous climate change, will contribute to the deaths of more than 1,000 people over the age of 65 every year. This will only get worse. The amount of mosquito borne disease is set to increase, as is the number of heatwaves, bushfires, floods, droughts and extreme storms – all of which kill people when they occur, and continue to kill people, destroy property and affect lives in their aftermath.
This is a joke to our government.
Perhaps the most sinister part of Thursday’s crass show and tell, is that we have seen this all before.
As late as 1976 James Hardie and the asbestos industry were claiming outright that asbestos posed no harm to the people who came in contact with it. In 2015 the Minerals Council launched it’s ‘Little Black Rock’ campaign – trying to sell one of the most dangerous, destructive and polluting products in the world as a low-emissions energy essential for the future.
Federal government policy sent migrant workers into communities like Wittenoom where they were exposed to deadly asbestos, and where many of them died. Both the federal and state government subsidised the mine, as we subsidise the coal industry now, and propped an industry that – again, like coal – was barely profitable.
The big, lethal businesses that exposed the men and women who worked for them, and their families who lived around them, to such unacceptable risk relied on the inaction of governments to get away with it. After community members, legal services and the media became aware of the deadly and devastating impact of asbestos on people’s health; James Hardie began to plan how it would get away with murder.
They explicitly say in their board paper which assesses the risks the company faces, and the best way for them to minimise liability and maximise profit that ‘the easiest practical option for the NSW Government would be to “flick-pass” the issue to the Federal Government and ask that they deal with it as an issue of Corporations Law’. In a table they set out their analysis what motivates each relevant political stakeholder – potential future liability of the government, political exposure, media risk, ties with the union etc.
Could we not do the same with our current political leaders — the ones who pass coal around the People’s House and make a mockery of the thousands of lives that are going to destroyed by this government’s reckless indifference to human life?
Thursday’s spectacle was not just unedifying, it is terrifying. It is a gross demonstration of everything we should be afraid of. These are the actions of a government that has sold out entirely, and will continue to sell all of us out as long as we let them. If we care about our futures, and the futures of those who come after us, we must not accept it.