Bill's Transcripts

7.30 Report with Leigh Sales


Program Name: 7.30 Report
Leigh Sales

Date: 5 June 2013



  LEIGH SALES: With me now is the Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten.

Minister, I'll come to some of the points in Chris' story about the Labor Party later, but I'd like to start firstly with the asbestos issue. The relevant union, the Communications, Electrical & Plumbing Union, has asked for the NBN rollout to be paused while independent assessors check the project. Is that going to happen?

BILL SHORTEN: Good evening, Leigh. In terms of asbestos, I think it's really important to state at the outset that whilst the number of reports of possible exposure is small, I take and the Government takes it very seriously because asbestos is a deadly substance. So when the union is saying that there are unsafe practices, I've certainly asked Comcare to investigate every complaint, because it's not good enough that residents, people, should be unsure of whether or not they've been exposed. So, we will do whatever it takes to make sure that people are safe and that the removal of asbestos-lined pits is done safely. So we will work with the union, we will go through their issues, because this is too serious an issue to bog down in committees and red tape.

LEIGH SALES: But you won't pause the NBN rollout, I take it?

BILL SHORTEN: No, couldn't be any clearer, but I'm sorry if I haven't been. What I'm saying to you is that after 20 years of representing people in terms of health and safety, if there is an immediate hazard to an employee's health or safety or a residence, then work should stop. What Comcare has to ascertain, working with the union, working with Telstra, is: is there an immediate hazard? But if there is, there's not enough tea in China to pay an employee to expose themselves to a life-threatening hazard.

LEIGH SALES: You say you've asked Comcare to investigate every complaint. How many complaints so far?

BILL SHORTEN: Well there’s been 24 since the beginning of May; there's another three in April. As I understand, there's been 120,000 pits which have, of Telstra's, which have been remediated or dealt with. There's been complaints in the last four to five weeks in 27 of them. There's a couple more before then. Telstra and their predecessor, the PMG, should know where all the asbestos is, but they don't. They estimate it's in 10 to 20 per cent of pits. What I should say though before people get overly concerned is: on the one hand asbestos is a dreadful killer. It will kill more people than World War I did for Australians who served overseas. But what we've asked Telstra to do is to maintain the highest standards, which they've undertaken to do in the past.

LEIGH SALES: OK. If I can just bring you back to the - you mentioned the 120,000 pits, possibly 10 to 20 per cent with asbestos. So you could be looking at around 10,000 complaints?

BILL SHORTEN: No, sorry, I was probably using too many numbers in one sentence. I'm sorry about that. I understand that there's been 120,000 pits that have been remediated. I have asked Telstra, I've said, "How many pits contain asbestos-containing materials, ACMs?" They can't tell me exactly, which is frustrating.


Telstra's accepted responsibility that where you remove asbestos-containing materials, it has to be done to the highest possible safety standards. We've seen in the last couple of days, in the last couple of weeks, legitimate concern from residents in Penrith and elsewhere saying, "What's gone on?" We've asked Telstra to explain. Their CEO David Thodey's taken a leadership position. He hasn't tried to obfuscate behind lawyers or PR spin. What he's said is Telstra takes responsibility.


I've set up a task force on Monday. I'm pleased to tell you and viewers that it met today. Telstra is now preparing a plan for prioritised removal of pits which are part of the NBN rollout, so once they're tested and if they have asbestos in them.

LEIGH SALES: Who is going to be liable for any compensation arising from any claims?

BILL SHORTEN: Well in terms of Telstra pits, as I understand it, Telstra has control of these communication pits and ducts and pipework until they're put in a fit state for NBN to take over. So Telstra has responsibility. Beyond that, in terms of liability, for employees who are exposed, that's a workers' comp' issue, so the relevant insurer is responsible for that. In terms of residents, what we want to do is on one hand not have everyone scared, on the other hand, we don't want people being complacent about the risks of asbestos. This is a really important opportunity to talk not just about Telstra, Leigh, but to talk about DIY renovations, to talk about homes and factories. We have a lot of asbestos in Australia. We were the highest per capita user of asbestos in the world after World War II.

LEIGH SALES: OK, we've already established that so I just want to move on before we run out of time with other issues.

BILL SHORTEN: OK, I'm sorry, but it is ...

LEIGH SALES: It is an important issue and we have established those points.

BILL SHORTEN: Thank you.

LEIGH SALES: I did say I'd leave time to raise some of the points from Chris Uhlmann's package, so let's return to that. Do you agree with Laurie Ferguson, who was on this program last night saying that the Labor Party leadership needs to do a better job of communicating your policies, particularly on asylum seekers?

BILL SHORTEN: I think this Government has got a lot of good things to tell a story about. I think that we do need to communicate more strongly what we've done.

LEIGH SALES: And why haven't you been?

BILL SHORTEN: Well, I'm just answering your first question in longer than a sound bite, Leigh. In terms of what matters, this Government is the first government ever in the history of Federation to develop a national disability insurance scheme. This Government is fighting tooth and nail to make sure that all the schools in Australia - primary and secondary - have literally hundreds of dollars more resource for each student so we can have more support for the schools to provide better curriculum, better resources and better choices.

LEIGH SALES: Well if you're so great, the public sure isn't seeing it.

BILL SHORTEN: Well, what you said is that we need to - what you were saying was that you need to explain your story better and I was taking that invitation up to do it on this very popular show.

Why do you think the Labor Party is on track for an historic election defeat?

BILL SHORTEN: Well I do think we need to explain our case as well as we possibly can.

LEIGH SALES: Well then I come back to my question again: why haven't you been?

BILL SHORTEN: Well, again, all I can try and do, Leigh, is to explain it. What we need to recognise in Australia is that when you look at the rest of the modernised world, our unemployment is relatively lower than the rest of the world. We've got a low interest rates. We've got relatively low inflation. Our economy's grown 13 per cent. There is a good story to tell. Now that doesn't mean that everyone's finding it easy. Certainly the minority Parliament, because of its relatively unusual nature, has led to a lot of political argy-bargy. But when you look at the substance of what we've got done, people with disabilities are gonna get the best chance in life that they've ever had a chance to have in Australia. We want to spend much-needed money to give our kids the best start in life.

LEIGH SALES: But if you want to sell those policies, you have to have a front person that people are listening to and it looks like the public is not listening to Julia Gillard. Why is the Labor Party resigned to going to the election with Julia Gillard when it's becoming clearer by the day that she's not gonna win it for you?

Well I think that one of the important features is that we do have a strong leader. Now times have been tough in terms of you see in the media, in the news, the instability in Europe. We've got the minority Parliament. There's some really tough changes which have been debated, putting a price on carbon pollution. At the same time we've lifted superannuation legislatively from nine to 12 per cent over the next seven years.

 What we're doing is we're saying to Australians, "We want to you retire with more income, we want kids to have better schools, we're taking a long overdue overhaul of the disability system. And economically, we got through the Global Financial Crisis in much better shape." Any Aussie who goes overseas, when they land back at Sydney or Melbourne Airport, they don't want - when they get back here, they don't think, "Oh, my goodness, we've come to a terrible country." Most Australians, if you and I did a quick survey would say, "Thank goodness we're home in Australia. This is the best country in the world."

 LEIGH SALES: Bill Shorten thank you very much for your time tonight.

Thanks Leigh, nice to talk.