EDITORIAL MONDAY 26.10.09.
Despite the fact that the battle has been won, the war goes on. After many years of hard fought negotiations James Hardie Industries was forced to set up the Asbestos Injury Compensation Fund to provide for the needs of those who suffer diseases caused by the products manufactured by that company for decades. Despite the large numbers of people already diagnosed and predictions of many more victims to emerge in the years ahead, the company made very clear representations that the fund would be more than adequate. Those promises may have been made in good faith at the time, but they were made without taking into account the effects of the Global Financial Crisis, and now it is clear that the fund is on the brink of drying up.
Of course, no one could have been expected to foresee the financial crisis, but the result is that the Hardie has not been sufficiently profitable for it to be compelled to make any payments into the fund for two of the last three years. Legally, the company has been honoring the terms of the agreement, but that is no comfort to victims who will not live long enough to see their families properly cared for. Ethically, many people believe that the company should be doing more to honor the spirit of the agreement, and make at least some sort of contribution to keep the fund afloat. Nobody may have seen the GFC coming, but the shortfall in the fund has been recognized since April, but so far nothing has been done to fix it.
Part of the problem is that nobody seems to want to take responsibility for dealing with this new challenge. It has been suggested that both the state and federal governments should play a role in underwriting the fund so that victims continue to receive assistance even while the company is experiencing difficult times, on the understanding that when it returns to normal levels of profitability it can repay the government. One suggestion points to the $150 million collected from Hardie by the federal government in back taxes as a way of financing such an underwriting, with the government putting up the money now, and getting it back again later when Hardie is once again in a position to meet its commitments.
The trouble is that none of that is going to happen if there isn’t somebody driving the process to seek an outcome. In the original negotiations that role was undertaken largely by the A.C.T.U. along with the New South Wales state government. Greg Combet was secretary of the A.C.T.U. and was instrumental in winning the original battle and achieving a satisfactory result. The same sort of thing needs to happen now, and whether it is the unions or either the state or federal government doesn’t really matter. What matters is that they all stop waiting for somebody else to take the lead and just get on with the job of facing up to the shortfall.
Until then, the war of words will go on, even though the battle was supposed to have been won years ago.