Bill's Transcripts

JOINT PRESS CONFERENCE CANBERRA

THE HON SENATOR STEPHEN CONROY


Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy


Leader of the Government in the Senate


Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity


 


THE HON BILL SHORTEN MP


Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations


Minister for Financial Services and Superannuation


 


TRANSCRIPT


 

E&OE PARTIAL TRANSCRIPT
PRESS CONFERENCE
15:50 MONDAY


3 JUNE 2013
CANBERRA



SUBJECT/S: Asbestos


 

BILL SHORTEN: It's good to be here with the Minister for Communications and Broadband to talk about these latest matters to do with asbestos and Telstra.

Identification and removal of asbestos is an absolute priority for this Labor Government.  Asbestos is something that generations of the Labor movement have wished that we could un-invent, but tragically we know that we can't turn back that clock.

Asbestos is not just a Telstra challenge or a communications industry challenge, it's an economy-wide, community-wide problem.  It is estimated that one in every three houses built between the end of World War II and the mid to late 1980s contains this deadly killer.

Now because asbestos was used so widely in Australia we, in fact, have the highest per capita mortality rate due to asbestos related diseases anywhere in the world.

Now today, following the controversy and the legitimate concerns of residents in Penrith about a particular matter to do with four streets and Telstra pits there and possible asbestos exposure, I along with Minister Conroy, Minister Bradbury in his capacity as the local Member for Lindsay, and Minister Catherine King who is also in a capacity as the Member for Ballarat, met with a very high powered group of stakeholders.

It included the CEO of Telstra, David Thodey and members of his senior management team, the heads of the NBN, all of the principal contractors, trade union representatives, the Chief Medical Officer, the regulators, Comcare and the new Office of Asbestos Safety and Eradication.  Also, representatives of the victims groups of asbestos diseases.

It was a good constructive meeting.  At the front of our mind was how do we provide support and reassurance for residents of Penrith and Ballarat and other places that this asbestos challenge is being properly taken seriously and managed.

Telstra accepted at the meeting, and I might go through some of the specific outcomes which occurred. Telstra accepted at the meeting that they had ultimate responsibility to deal with asbestos containing materials in its communications pits and ducts. Telstra confirmed that it was Telstra's responsibility to ensure that subcontractors performing work in communications pits are adequately trained, properly supervised and they follow correct procedures.

All participants agreed to the establishment of a national asbestos exposure register administered by the Office of Asbestos Safety with the assistance from the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Baggoley, and state governments and state regulators, we will seek to consult them.

All participants agreed to support an independent task force to monitor the prevention of exposure, training and supervision of contracts. This task force will include senior Telstra representatives, people from the Commonwealth regulators and also we'll invite state regulators to be party to this important group, industry union representatives, Mr Barry Robson representing the Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia, and it will be chaired by Geoff Fary who was also the chair of our Asbestos Management Review.

Telstra committed to provide transparent information, support and committed to assistance to residents of Penrith and, indeed, residents in Ballarat who feel that they may have been exposed to asbestos.

Telstra reaffirmed its commitment to adequately compensate people exposed to asbestos containing materials and also people who develop, in the future, asbestos related diseases consistent with their existing practice.

Telstra undertook to report back to the Commonwealth Government in a speedy fashion on its capacity to identify all Telstra pits that contain ACMs and a program of prioritised removal of ACMs from their pits.

Today's meeting had strong stakeholder support. The breakthrough on a national exposure register which would be available not only to employees and contractors, but to residents and members of the community is breaking new ground.  Strong support from the stakeholders makes this possible.

In conclusion, everyone has a responsibility in our community to make sure that people are safe from the scourge of asbestos.  All of the stakeholders, I believe, left our meeting today with a renewed conviction and determination that there should be no further potential, possible or real exposure to asbestos containing materials arising out of the communication pits and ducts controlled by Telstra and, indeed, more generally in our community.

Senator Conroy?

STEPHEN CONROY: Yes, thanks. Well, NBN Co endorses the agreement that Bill's just outlined there and will be working closely with Geoff Fary, will be working closely with the relevant authorities to ensure that any matters that come to light are properly investigated and dealt with.

So NBN Co has from day one understood that the communications infrastructure, the pits and the ducts, have potentially had asbestos in them.  That's just a fact of life when it comes to the telecommunications industry.  They've put in place procedures, they've put in place training programs and they've put in place discussions with Comcare all along the way.

Obviously there have been a couple of instances where subcontractors to NBN Co have no followed the proper procedures and NBN Co understand, like everybody who was in the room today, the Government's position is very simple.  There are no shortcuts to be taken when it comes to dealing with asbestos.

Thank you.

REPORTER: Have you seen three more possible cases in Queensland including a worker who had sprayed a pit with a high pressure hose, hitting some of the debris splashed in their face?  Do we need a stop work ban across the country until this is sorted out on the NBN?

STEPHEN CONROY: I saw that media report just in the last probably twenty minutes...

REPORTER: Yes, it was from Queensland.

STEPHEN CONROY: I know who it's from, and I've contacted NBN Co and as far as NBN Co and Telstra are aware, they haven't been contacted yet by the Queensland Government.  So the press release went out faster than the email.

We'll be looking into those to see whether or not they're Telstra remediation pits or NBN Co work towards installing, but, at this stage, we have no other information than what you've seen publicly.

REPORTER: So do we need a blanket ban though on work?

STEPHEN CONROY: We've got an investigation underway and we should see what the findings of that investigation are.  As I said, the press release went out before the email contacting the companies that they're aware of at this stage, but they're investigating to get to the bottom of what aspect of the construction phase it's in to determine who's responsible.  But, at this stage, those are the only details we have.

REPORTER: Senator Conroy, do you think that NBN Co has performed inadequately in this regard in its whole relationship with Telstra ensuring these problems didn't happen in the first place?

STEPHEN CONROY: Telstra have put up their hand and said they have total responsibility for their own work.

REPORTER: But are you satisfied with that?

STEPHEN CONROY: I'm satisfied that Telstra...

REPORTER: Do you think that NBN Co should have done more?

STEPHEN CONROY: I am satisfied that Telstra have put up their hand and said they take full responsibility for their work.  In a couple of areas that NBN Co have had specific work for, clearly the processes haven't been adhered to and that's disappointing and NBN Co have taken responsibility for those individual instances in their South Australian example. They got a little bit of publicity last Thursday, the subcontractor was stood down, I understand, by Syntheo and the workforce were retrained to ensure that there could be none of that happen again.

But in terms of Penrith or Ballarat, Telstra have taken full responsibility for their own work.

REPORTER: Do you take any responsibility in this whole affair for anything that's gone wrong?

STEPHEN CONROY: Shall I take responsibility for Telstra who've put up their hand and said that Telstra have accepted full responsibility?  Well Telstra have accepted full responsibility.  Full responsibility.

REPORTER: Minister, there was a clear inference from the Opposition in Question Time, the letters that were tabled show an asbestos problem from 2009 and there's an inference from the Opposition that you've somehow dropped the ball on this, or should have done something about it.  What is your response to that?

BILL SHORTEN: I thought that it was a trifle strange that the Opposition tendered no evidence of their own interest in the matter, chose to try and make some political sunshine out of what's happening in Penrith.

For my whole working career, be it in the union, be it as a parliamentarian and now as the Minister for Workplace Safety, I've acted to chase down and try and challenge the scourge of asbestos.  The Opposition asked me what had I done and I was able to say as early as 2009 that I had written to Telstra on no less than three occasions saying I keep hearing reports, and this was in my capacity as a Member of Parliament, I was the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities so I wrote in my Local Member capacity, that I had heard reports that in Tasmania at that time there was asbestos containing material in pits and that the removal and remediation procedures were not safe, the protocols weren't being followed.

On one, two and three occasions I contacted Telstra, wrote to them, put it in writing, to say are you on top of this issue.  They wrote back not once, not twice, but three times to say they were.

Now again we see that despite those promises then that unfortunately there is a big difference between what may appear on a desktop audit, what may appear on the paperwork and policies and procedures of a company and what's happening in the field.

I want to be clear here, I'm not seeking to blame individual workers who are in overalls and boots digging up muddy holes, but clearly the protocols, the training, the system, the education of the local community has not been occurring in the way which Telstra has promised it would.

I just want to say though about CEO David Thodey.  It would be easy sometimes, and I've seen in other health and safety issues that I've pursued, that sometimes company and corporate CEOs take the low road.  They'll resort to lawyers at ten paces, they'll resort to PR flaks, they'll resort to denial.

Here we had CEO David Thodey showing leadership where he said we want to be open and transparent.  He said words to the effect, we accept responsibility here, we haven't fulfilled our standard that we expect of ourselves and we take responsibility. 

He was very open in the meeting to suggestions about improving the curriculum or the training, very open to having independent monitoring of the work that gets done, very open to working with us on a register.

This is what we need because asbestos is not just a Telstra issue, it's not just a communications issue.  It's sometimes hard to get health and safety issues up in the mainstream press, but I must say to you here today asbestos will kill nearly seven-hundred people this year.  There are people who have not yet been exposed that if we don't prevent their exposure, will die.

More people will die from asbestos in Australia than died in the fields of Flanders in World War I.  This is not acceptable and we do need to tackle it and we need to do it not in a partisan way but in a way which goes towards actually dealing with the scourge of asbestos.

But you do have to say we're happy to look at the track record of our Opposition when they were in government, what they did on asbestos. 

We commissioned the Asbestos Management Review which will be a national strategy.  In my time as Minister, we've received the report which was chaired by Geoff Fary, we've acted on all the recommendations and we've now set up an Office of Asbestos Safety, legislation which passed the House today.  It was bi-partisan; I'm thankful for that.  And we've put in place a budget for the Office of Asbestos Safety and we've had our regulators out there working with local residents.

REPORTER: One of the other implications from the Coalition in questioning was that you didn't keep this issue up with Telstra once you became the Minister.  So is that true?  Did you not raise it with Telstra once you became responsible for Comcare?  Should you have raised it with Telstra once you became responsible for Comcare?

BILL SHORTEN: Well when Telstra write back to you not once, not twice, but three times and say their systems are working, when we set up the Asbestos Review and implement the recommendations and the report when we've been here, we have a reasonable record.

That does not excuse what has happened, but I tell you what, I didn't trip over any Federal Liberal MPs when I went out to Penrith on Saturday.  The residents didn't say they'd been inundated with calls from the front bench of the Opposition to see how they're going.

And whilst one shouldn't point score, a search of Hansard in the last nine years shows that the Opposition Communications Minister has not mentioned the word asbestos until last Thursday.

Does anyone here seriously think that the Opposition would be tackling the issue of asbestos in the way they tried to if it wasn't for NBN Co and the politics of that?  Let's call it for what it is in Australia, the rubbish has to stop.

What worries me is people in Penrith have been exposed.  What worries me is a thirty-two-year old cable layer could spot problems with contractors and yet he's got his eleven week old son potentially exposed.  What worries me is that his aunt, a very good woman, Catherine, her husband died of asbestos, of mesothelioma. 

Now we've got the Liberals carrying on about who knew what when.  I am on the record.  We contacted Telstra.  They gave promises.  We're the ones who are driving this process.

Doesn't make it satisfactory what's happened thus now, but I think it is important that the Opposition try to resist the temptation to play politics about health and safety and look at the high ground like David Thodey did.

REPORTER: Did NBN Co out of today's meeting take any responsibility in terms of what it's going to do in cases where its own contractors are encountering asbestos?

STEPHEN CONROY: Well, as I said, we agree and support, NBN Co agrees and supports with all of the points that were outlined. And Mike Quigley made it clear on Thursday night they take asbestos issues very seriously.

In the case that was discussed on Thursday around South Australia, clearly Syntheo were a subcontractor, or a prime contractor to NBN Co and, as I said, Syntheo stood down the subcontractor underneath them and I understand from Syntheo release that that was retraining, so NBN Co ‑ so NBN Co have not sought to dodge any responsibility where it's been their work.

REPORTER: Can you explain where Telstra's responsibilities end and NBN Co's responsibilities begin? 

 

STEPHEN CONROY: When they pass the pits over to us.  I mean, let's be really clear about this; despite your and others attempts to drag NBN Co in to a Telstra ‑ NBN Co are not responsible for Telstra's own ‑ as in, they own them, and they're contracted to remediate them, and they agree to remediate them before we take possession.  It's very straightforward, David, very straightforward.

 

REPORTER: Do you understand ‑ do you think that when they remediate, that they have to have asbestos removed; is that your understanding of what the remediation means? 

 

STEPHEN CONROY: They've got to be fit for use.  But as to the legal definition, I wouldn't have ‑ I would refer you to both Telstra and NBN Co ‑ to have a discussion about the finer legal point, but in a very simple way they've got to be fit for use.

 

REPORTER: Question, Prime Minister ‑ in Question Time, the Prime Minister referred to high risk pits. Do you know how many high risk pits there are and where are they, and what assurances can you take from Telstra that it is doing all it can, when it said it cannot physically check every pit, it can only do spot checks? 

 

BILL SHORTEN: We did ask Telstra this and I've been asking since the matter started to legitimately get complained about in Penrith. There are ‑ and Telstra can't tell us absolutely, the answer ‑ that's the short answer. Telstra, by the way, are the best people to ask this question, but there's eight million pits. The numbers range, they tell us, between 10 and 20 per cent of these pits may have asbestos containing materials in them. Obviously not all of them are to be used in the NBN rollout process.  We have asked Telstra ‑ we need the best possible information.  Obviously, this is a system which has been built up over time, and so we're told that some records don't exist.  For me, it's an unsatisfactory state of affairs.  That we cannot tell residents in streets what's happening. Now, Telstra has undertaken ‑ and we take them at face value today ‑ that they want to make themselves much more transparent and open.

 

But I also have to say that we don't want to have every Australian nervous about this issue, and I think we've all got a responsibility, not to unduly create concerns which aren't there. But by the same token, this is a subtle issue, because frankly, if you've had a pit remediated in your street, or my street, and your kids or my kids might have been exposed, nothing less than all the details is acceptable. And of course, what struck me about these residents in Penrith, when I met them on Saturday, is they just don't want other people to go through this tension. 

 

You know, we get all the politics of the issues and the Libs trying to score points for whatever reasons and what have you. For me, it is not about Liberal or Labor, this issue. For me, this issue is about ‑ thinking about ‑ Matthew O'Farrell, I think his name is ‑ in Penrith.  Got a beautiful young child ‑ two children, his wife.  He's strung out wondering, is there something that he's done, or should have prevented.  For me, what's important is when Telstra can give answers to parents, so they are relieved of any concern that somehow something they might have done has put their children in harm's way.  That is when we have a satisfactory set of information. And that is what we expect and we'll work with Telstra. But we also have independent monitoring through this group, chaired by Geoff Fary, to make sure that the promises we've been hearing this time, as have been made to us in the past, are kept.

 

REPORTER: On that [inaudible] compensation fund for potential victims? 

 

BILL SHORTEN: In terms of the fund, we didn't go to any final proposition on that. Some of the stakeholders said that Telstra, you know, you better have your fund, you better keep your obligations, because we've seen a sad corporate history in Australia, where too many Australian corporations ‑ of course James Hardie comes to mind, but not just them ‑ have tried to play a legal approach saying, you've got to prove to us it was our bit of asbestos containing material which has killed you, and we saw, the ABC, Matt Peacock, we saw the series Devil's Dust ‑ so there's a legitimate concern by asbestos victim's groups and unions that, they don't want companies walking away from their responsibilities.

 

We didn't finally resolve the issue of funds.  Some people said they want it. Telstra said that they make provision now for claims, that they are a large company and they said that they will keep their obligations as they fall due.

 

STEPHEN CONROY: You've forgotten one point, if I can add, is, they made the point this is not something that while many people have suddenly discovered in the last seventy two hours. This is something they live with for the last twenty, thirty and forty years.  The amount of asbestos that was used for a long period in time and probably only got, I think they said, stopped getting used in ‑ some time in the 80s. So for a long time before that, they've been dealing with this problem.

 

BILL SHORTEN: And please, again, let us not lose sight of the importance of a register for exposure. We've never had a debate before where residents, people in the community, are able to register their concern that they may have been exposed to asbestos containing materials. Because there's three waves of asbestos deaths in Australia. There's the people working in the mining; and we've seen the dreadful toll there. There was the wave in the manufacturing. But then there's the concern of residents in the community, not just to do with Telstra pits, but home renovators and ‑ you know, this is really important if you can get this message out ‑ that the people renovating at home, for goodness sakes, if you think there might be asbestos there, just get advice.  Don't try and do it on your own.

 

REPORTER: Is the definitive agreement between Telstra and the NBN Co clarified ‑ how much...

 

STEPHEN CONROY: David, you'll have to ask them. I've...

 

REPORTER: Have you never seen that contract? 

 

STEPHEN CONROY: I'm aware it's been signed, but is there a copy in my Department, I'm sure there is.  So I invite you ‑ if you want to ask a specific question about a clause in a very, very large document, you contact Telstra and NBN Co.

 

REPORTER: Mr Shorten, when you raised your concerns with Telstra, did you alert anyone else in the government, such as Mr Conroy or NBN Co about those concerns? 

 

STEPHEN CONROY: Well if I can just help a bit, NBN Co didn't exist when it was first raised, first point.  Secondly, when we started the build in Tasmania, we weren't doing it using Telstra's infrastructure.  We were doing it above ground using Aurora Energy's infrastructure.  So at the time Bill was writing these letters, NBN Co wasn't actually using ‑ or, firstly didn't exist and wasn't using Telstra's infrastructure.  But NBN Co itself, is aware and has been aware from day one that there is asbestos in some Telstra infrastructure. That's just a fact of life that's existed for 50 years.

 

BILL SHORTEN: Well, I know that Telstra's ultimately responsible for the communication pits and the matters been complained to me by members of the public.  I took my initiative to contact Telstra, as I said.

 

REPORTER: Do you think they deliberately just fobbed you off, or do you think that they thought they were on top of the issue? 

 

BILL SHORTEN: I can't go to the motives of the people who responded to me. I probably think they thought they were on top of it. I've seen dysfunctional health and safety situations in the past, and quite often the people at one part of an organisation, they've got the paperwork, it looks all tick, tick, tick, but in another part of an organisation ‑ people are carrying it.

 

REPORTER: [inaudible] from an MP though? 

 

BILL SHORTEN: Yes, and they did write back to me and they did say they were on top of it.  Again, though, this just reminds me most clearly, that I think that what the government are doing now in the light of the latest outbreak of evidence over the last number of weeks and months is timely.  We've gone long enough without a public register for exposure.  We've gone long enough without having independent compliance.  I think this does show that our training systems in the role of unions in ‑ again I hope some of the newspapers here write this ‑ but the role of unions in helping improve the standards of training systems is necessary.

 

REPORTER: Some of the unions think that Comcare doesn't have enough resources to actually supervise this or to go out and do any checks. Do you think that Comcare has enough resources.  What do you want Comcare to do in terms of going out and doing the checks?

 

BILL SHORTEN: Well, I have confidence in Comcare.  I also make the point that we've just reviewed Comcare.  We're putting more resources into asbestos safety and again it's another point which, but for this issue, probably wouldn’t have attracted interest.  But we've now created an office of Asbestos Safety and Eradication.  Until this government in this term has done this, it just didn't exist. So we are, in the budget ‑ it probably didn't get the coverage I would have hoped it would, ten and a half million dollars over the forwards for the Office of Asbestos Safety, and we will keep working with Comcare and I met with them as recently as this morning, as I do on a regular basis, and I've asked them to examine what are the resources issues and implications they have of making sure, that Telstra, and contractors, do the job that they're meant to do.

 

REPORTER: Senator Conroy, can I just clarify, the only confirmed breaches that we have are the three pits in Penrith, is that right, or have you confirmed the ones in Seaford and Victoria Park that were relating to the NBN Co? 

 

STEPHEN CONROY: Well the ‑ I think there's a Comcare investigation into Victoria Park. I haven't seen the final report on that. In terms of Seaford, again, I think there's an investigation in to that. But I don't think anyone is disputing the fact that the Syntheo subcontractor inappropriately disposed of a pit. So there's no disputing the facts in that particular case. And action was taken by Syntheo at the time.

 

REPORTER: Is there a rough number for the number of incidents that there are now, that you know of, that were discussed?

 

BILL SHORTEN: [inaudible] Since 1996...

 

REPORTER: [inaudible] I mean on the NBN in the recent months?

 

BILL SHORTEN: Do you mind ‑ I'm happy to answer your question.  If you want to talk about incidents, let's talk about asbestos safety and incidents.  Not just the NBN issue, which I know...

 

REPORTER: [inaudible].

 

BILL SHORTEN: Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt your question.

REPORTER: The meeting today was about the NBN so I'm trying to be specific...

BILL SHORTEN: I know...

REPORTER: ...and find actually how many incidents...

BILL SHORTEN: Sorry David, let me correct you. This meeting was about asbestos safety and Telstra pits and ducts. There's been thirty reported incidents since 1996. The vast majority, or the significant majority, have been in the last few weeks and months.

REPORTER: Will you be able to [inaudible] Telstra if they've given you further assurances in future? Would they still be under control?

BILL SHORTEN: Well, in terms of from the health and safety perspective I explained to Telstra that just their simple [inaudible] no longer enough. That for community peace of mind we need to have independent monitoring. That doesn't mean that Telstra won't do what they've said they're going to do, and I accept that when Telstra has said that they want to improve their inspection, they want to improve their training, they want to improve their communication with the public, I take them at face value, they are chastened.

But what I also believe, in order for the community to be reassured - certainly these residents in Penrith that I spent time with, they want independent monitoring, as do the unions.

REPORTER: Senator Conroy, how's this going to affect the overall NBN roll out? Is it going to slow the roll out?

STEPHEN CONROY: No, the Telstra remediation is about six months ahead of when we actually start using it - I'm talking roughly, on average, out of when we start going into the areas.

So in terms of is it going to slow down meeting the targets we've got for thirtieth of June, no. Is it going to slow down meeting the targets by the end of September - no. And if there is widespread disruption or problems then that could, in the future, be the case.

But let me assure you that the work goes on across the country. NBN Co are working to achieve their revised corporate targets and we'll - if there's any material change to that NBN Co would advise that in the future. But the Telstra remediation work is well, well ahead of the actual installations of the cables, installations of boxes in people's homes and flicking the switch, so to speak, to turn on services.

REPORTER: This last letter is quite detailed and is also to David Thodey, has he given you any explanation why the answer was so inadequate?

BILL SHORTEN: Well, he has expressed his disappointment at the way which Telstra's been handling matters...

REPORTER: But it was to him.

BILL SHORTEN: Yes. But he - I assume he's informed by people in his organisation.

REPORTER: So he's disappointed in himself, as it were?

BILL SHORTEN: Again, why not ask David Thodey what he thinks, I won't put words in his mouth. What I do know...

REPORTER: Can you supply the answer?

BILL SHORTEN: What I do know is that...

REPORTER: [inaudible].

BILL SHORTEN: I'll take that on notice Michelle, whether or not it's just [inaudible] the conversation. What I do know is that this is frustrating. It's frustrating but most importantly it's not frustrating for Members of Parliament as much as our opponents sort of want to bang on about NBN. What is most frustrating about it is that people in the streets, in suburbs in Australia, are feeling an anxiety which they shouldn't have to feel. The training standards which are promised have not been delivered in all cases. The protocols which are promised around safety do not appear to have been honoured in all cases. The promises that have been made have not been kept.

What the Government will do is we will work with Telstra, we will work with everyone in the chain of communications who has a duty of care, we will make sure that asbestos exposure does not occur. We will have our Comcare inspectors and we will work with state regulators. We will work with the Opposition when they're so minded to work with us on this. This issue is above politics.

I just feel particularly motivated when I think about this thirty-two year old chap, living in a street in Penrith, who's not sure if as a parent he's failed his kids because somehow a possible exposure may have taken place. That is what I keep in my mind when I answer all your questions Michelle. So am I disappointed in Telstra, yes I am. They gave assurances - not just to me but to the public, and they appear, that in some cases, not to have kept the promise they made.

Having said that, I cannot fault CEO David Thodey's leadership today and there is a real willingness, I believe, from stakeholders to learn lessons and make sure that this doesn't happen.

REPORTER: But you can...

[Over speaking]

STEPHEN CONROY: Sorry, the gentleman at the back's had his hand up for a while.

REPORTER: Did Telstra say that they would adopt any of the - your recommendations in the first letter that you passed on...

BILL SHORTEN: No.

REPORTER: ...that their needs to be warnings, there needs to be a careful study.

BILL SHORTEN: They indicated they had matters under control.

REPORTER: Is it your position that as the work is done on this network as the NBN is rolled out basically, that asbestos has to be removed completely. Some people might say why meddle with it. If you just leave it in place it won't hurt anybody. Is your position that it's got to be absolutely removed?

BILL SHORTEN: My position is that asbestos is dangerous. In an ideal world you just don't have it. Of course, you can't un-invent it, as I said in my opening comments. In some cases it can be kept in situ, or in place. So just because asbestos exists in buildings, or in infrastructure, is not an immediate danger to people's health. But when it is disturbed, when it is broken, when it can become friable, or with the potential for it to be exposed to the elements, or to the environment, that is when you can have a real danger.

There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos. There are no safe levels of asbestos exposure. What works in each case of each pit will depend upon the circumstances and the safety in which it's currently in place, or if it's being tampered with.

REPORTER: What does that mean for the cost of the NBN? Does it mean it's going to be more expensive?

STEPHEN CONROY: Well, how many more times do we have to explain to you, David, that the remediation - and if you paid attention to this more than just - on a daily basis, you will have seen that Telstra announced quite some months - probably even twelve months ago - they'd set aside nearly one billion dollars to remediate their pits. So Telstra have set aside a substantial amount of money to remediate their own pits. That was a public announcement which was material, so that was made publically. And so in terms of the costs to the NBN - there is no cost to the NBN of remediation by Telstra of its pits. I don't know how many times we have to say that.

REPORTER: Can I just clarify; when we talk about exposure obviously we're not going to know if anyone has actually been exposed for quite some time. But when we say - we're talking about the three breaches in Penrith, do we say exposure in the atmosphere? Is that what you're saying exposure would mean?

BILL SHORTEN: No. At this stage we know that there were three pits out of the 20 in the area done by this subcontractor, which contained asbestos materials. The occupational hygienists are still assessing the likelihood of their being exposures.

REPORTER: [inaudible] is released?

BILL SHORTEN: Yes. It is unsatisfactory to me that we can't give quick answers to the people caught up in this mess and I've expressed my frustration to Telstra. But having said that, now is the case where I just want people to get straight answers, I just want people to hear the truth. Also I have to say that where there's subcontractors who just simply have thumbed their noses at systems, well they should be prosecuted, and certainly Comcare is investigating - and I'm not at liberty to go to all of the ins and outs of those investigations. But if you've got some subcontractors who've cut corners, who've endangered their own workforce, or have endangered the community, well, they deserve to be prosecuted with the full weight of the law.

- ENDS -