Statement: Asbestos Awareness Week

27 November 2019

Senator Patrick: 

Firstly, I'd like to thank Senator Dean Smith for ceding his time to me today. He was very generous and willing to do so, noting the topic of my statement and the fact that it is Asbestos Awareness Week.

Today we're joined by some special guests in the gallery from South Australia, Catherine Wegener and Lesley Shears. I met Catherine last year at a memorial for asbestos victims. Catherine was brave enough to share her story of her husband, Rex, who died in 2017 from mesothelioma. Catherine and Rex's story is sadly one of the many tragic tales to emerge as a result of the deadly dust known as asbestos. So, during Asbestos Awareness Week, and in honour of Rex and all the other victims of asbestos related diseases, I would like to share with the chamber the speech that Catherine delivered last year. Catherine's husband, Rex Elliot Wegener, died in 2017 at the age of 75 of mesothelioma.

I would like to tell you the story of a life of a man who went to work and died because of it. He grew up in Mannum, and, like most boys, rode his bike around the town, a friendly boy who the locals knew as Snowy. He learnt to swim in the river and consequently became a very strong swimmer. At eight, he joined the local boys' club and excelled at gymnastics. His other great love was rowing, and he joined the rowing club at the age of 12 and was a member of the winning crew state junior eights. He kept a lifelong interest in both gymnastics and rowing.

At 17, he was fortunate enough to get an apprenticeship with the PMG, now known as Australia Post. While doing his apprenticeship in Adelaide, he continued his gymnastics for the next four years. He joined the Goodwood Saints Football Club, but found he was the wrong size for the big boys' elbows and, after being wrapped around the pole twice, he decided football wasn't for him. He was awarded apprentice of the year and was given a set of tools from the Lions Club, which he kept and treasured all his life.

On completion of his apprenticeship, he moved from Adelaide to Woomera, to Broken Hill, to New Zealand, and to Melbourne, where he settled. That was where he first came into contact with asbestos. At that time, it was the go-to product, and no negative information was known or imagined by the workers. He continued carpentry and building houses all over Melbourne. He loved his work and he took pride in his good name. He played golf and tennis. He was community-minded.

They moved to Goolwa 13 years ago. He liked to keep fit and walked three kilometres each morning before breakfast. One day he returned saying, 'I found it too hard to breathe in the last km.' He cut his walk down to two kms. Then he didn't have enough breath for one. This was a man who had been healthy and active all his life and had never had to go to the doctor with health problems. But the breathing was becoming a problem. He had to sleep sitting up in his chair, and all the time his health and energy were being slowly sapped away by a disease that was unknown to him.

Eventually, he went to the doctor. When told he had fluid on his lungs, Catherine and Rex had no idea what a terrible journey they were beginning. Finally, when the diagnosis of mesothelioma was given, they were ignorant of what that meant, how to spell it—and, like me, how to pronounce it!—or what lay ahead. Their life was dominated by doctors, blood tests, X-rays, hospital visits, operations, chemotherapy, radiation, and so much more. There were so many specialists that sometimes they had no idea to whom they were speaking. But none of them ever helped Rex and Catherine to understand the disease or the path it would take. It was Kat Burge, president of the Asbestos Victims Association SA, who answered their questions honestly and gently. They began to realise a little of what was ahead.

Kat suggested a visit from two volunteers, and Maxine Williams and Lesley Shears came to Goolwa. Rex was in so much admiration of these two women, who both had lost their husbands to mesothelioma but were there to help Rex and Catherine. They remained a constant presence throughout the ordeal. Rex's lung was being drained each day by the South Coast District Hospital nurses, until one day he told the nurse he had lost the energy to walk. When she suggested hospital, he said he wanted to stay at home. Her answer? 'That's all right, Rex; we'll bring the hospital to you.' And they did. He never left the bed and went down very quickly. The palliative care nurses took over, and Catherine and Rex were grateful to them. The pain was intense and the morphine patch with the highest dose available was not enough, so liquid morphine was added, plus other drugs to help.

This is a most dreadful disease, and Rex died of it because he went to work. Catherine is appealing to those of us in positions of influence and responsibility—senators and members, governments, employers, unions and anyone in the general public—to have the courage to speak out and seriously commit to safeguarding the workers of Australia. It's been said that for Australia to be asbestos free is a big task. Well, Catherine says she went to a conference on asbestos and heard these words: 'How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.'

That story shows what many families face, right across Australia. I am privileged to have been able to share this story on behalf of Catherine and Rex. Before I conclude, I'd also like to thank the volunteers of Asbestos Victims Association SA. They're a community organisation, run entirely by hardworking volunteers who offer support, information and advocacy for people with asbestos-related diseases and for the wider community. I'd encourage all my colleagues in this place to support their local asbestos victims association by taking out a membership and taking part in the important information, seminars and events they offer to the community.

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