Mr Fluffy: ACT government considering scheme to support Mr Fluffy victims

Brian McConnell would have celebrated his 77th birthday on Wednesday, probably alongside his wife inside their Giralang home. But he wasn’t there this December 2.

Instead, Marion McConnell passed the day quietly reflecting on a husband’s life cut far too short.

Mr McConnell, a respected drug-law reformer, died in June 2016, less than two years after he was diagnosed with mesothelioma.

While it was never confirmed, the couple had no doubt the disease was caused by the Mr Fluffy asbestos which contaminated the Higgins home they bought in 1971.

“It might be a funny thing to say after all of these years, but he is hardly out of my mind,” Mrs McConnell said.

“You just go about your business but he is not very far away, never out of my thinking.

“It is tough at times. That is with everyone who loses someone after 50 years .. it is hard to break away.”

Mrs McConnell spoke to The Canberra Times from her Giralang home after Chief Minister Andrew Barr revealed the ACT government was looking to establish a financial assistance scheme for people who suffer mesothelioma as a result of Mr Fluffy loose-fill asbestos.

It came after the ACT government agreed to cover up to $250,000 worth of medical expenses for Canberra man James Wallner, who was diagnosed with mesothelioma in July.

The amount, which was awarded through the territory’s “act of grace” scheme, will be divided up and paid out in two tranches, according to the Wallner family.

Mr Barr said the payment was not compensation and the amount awarded was based on the expected cost of Mr Wallner’s medical expenses.

But he said the wider scheme under consideration might cover other factors, such as loss of income. The Chief Minister said the ACT would seek funding from the Commonwealth to cover the costs of the scheme.

Mr Wallner, a 54-year-old Commonwealth public servant, had sought payment for damages and loss of income, including superannuation, as part of the application to Mr Barr earlier this year.

Mr Wallner said the payment was an “enormous weight off our mind”, with the funds to help alleviate the financial burden of the expensive treatment for the incurable disease.

He praised the Barr government’s handling of his situation, but said it wasn’t realistic, or fair, for the territory to cover future payments by itself.

It was time, he said, for the Commonwealth to finally take responsibility for a crisis born under its watch.

“I see a duty of care for the Commonwealth government, I don’t see how they can absolve themselves,” he said.

More than four years after her husband’s death, Mrs McConnell still harbours anger toward the federal government for its failure to heed warnings about the contamination in the late 1960s.

Asked if she would like to see compensation extended to people whose family members died of the disease, Mrs McConnell said: “I think it’s too late for me”. But she said financial assistance would be a huge help for those still fighting the disease, echoing Mr Wallner’s comments about the cost of treatment.

Aside from the financial support it provided to Mr Wallner, Mrs McConnell said the ACT government’s payment had sent a strong message that it acknowledged the suffering of Mr Fluffy victims.
“I just think it needs to be acknowledged that this could have been prevented if the government took the direction of the experts, as we are learning to do in the COVID-19 situation,” she said.

“There is a sort of justice element to all of this. “To have that recognised by the government that what you have gone through, that they recognise it. That this has brought a trauma and tragedy that could have been avoided. And that they recognise the horror of the disease.”

Mrs McConnell backed long-running calls for a board of inquiry into the Mr Fluffy crisis. “We can’t lose sight of the ongoing impact that this is going to have on people’s lives,”
she said.

Marion McConnell’s husband died of mesothelioma in 2016 after exposure to Mr Fluffy asbestos.

Marion McConnell’s husband, Brian.

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