Bill's Transcripts

891 ABC Adelaide

891 ABC Adelaide
4 June 2013


DAVID BEVAN: Let's right now go straight to Bill Shorten - he's the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations.  He is a very busy man and we appreciate him giving us a few minutes this morning to talk about asbestos. 

There has been another terrible scare surrounding asbestos of course following the news that as a part of the NBN rollout workers have been digging up these Telstra pits and finding that there's asbestos there and some people may have been exposed.  We want to particularly ask him what the situation may be here in South Australia.  He did announce yesterday that there will be - well it's called a national asbestos exposure register.   

Good morning Bill Shorten.

BILL SHORTEN: Good morning gentlemen.

DAVID BEVAN: Bill Shorten, how many sites in South Australia may have been inappropriately opened as a result of the NBN rollout? Do you have any idea at all?

BILL SHORTEN: No I don't have any state specific numbers.  What I do know and can give you some overarching numbers and this is one of the things I've been pressing Telstra about since all these problems have been coming to light in most recent times is that there's eight million communication pits in Australia.  Now Telstra tell me that between ten and twenty per cent of them may have asbestos containing materials.  So obviously there'll be a proportion of them in South Australia. 

Asbestos is a substance which absolutely no one can take for granted - the problem isn't just Telstra's frankly - asbestos is everywhere.  When it's in place and undisturbed, it's okay but the problem is if you're changing remediating communication pits or indeed if you're home renovating you just need to be so terribly careful to check if there's asbestos there and then if there is how you take it out. 

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: So how will your register work?

BILL SHORTEN: Well what this register is, it's the first time it's ever happened, is that if people think they've been exposed and this is not just employees, not just contractors but residents, we're going to set up a national register so people can provide some basic biographical data about who they are and where the exposure they believed may have taken place and then what that means is that down the track, if something dreadful does happen and it can take many years for a diagnosis - for the symptoms to emerge then what happens is they don't have to go through the same legal argy bargy - they've got a history of possible exposures.

DAVID BEVAN: How far back can the register go?  For instance I'm sure we've got listeners right now who are thinking well, I reckon when dad was cutting out that stuff in the backyard in 1972 I might have been exposed to it.  Should they be registering with you?

BILL SHORTEN: Well this has initially been prompted over the Telstra work but I'm going to take that on notice and come back to you.  My view is that if people think they've been exposed they should actually register. Whether or not this register that we've set up is the one for that I don't know. I'd like to take it on notice. 

There are registers which are kept by various law firms.  My view though is that people shouldn't self-censor.  It's typical - when you tell people to think about whether or not they might have been exposed to asbestos they don't want people unduly panicking.  On the other hand, I'm not going to say to people that asbestos is a benign substance and that there is a safe level of exposure, because there just isn't.

DAVID BEVAN: No. So Minister who definitely should be registering with you?

BILL SHORTEN: Well certainly I know that people who worked in the Whyalla Shipyards they should be registering, other people who've had exposures in industrial processes.  In the case of these Telstra issues - if you have been near a pit where you think the work wasn't done properly - and again I have to say a lot of the work appears to have been done properly but in Penrith and in Ballarat there's a number of reports saying that the subcontractors seem to be doing the work in a slip shot manner.  They weren't suited up, they weren't double bagging the asbestos rubbish, they weren't...

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: So is that a bit like your insulation installation program?

BILL SHORTEN: No the difference is Telstra is in charge of what happens with its pits.  And there are some contractors in my opinion and I went to Penrith which is in Western Sydney on Saturday and spent a period of time talking to upset residents there. I believe there are some contractors who haven't adhered to standards.  Whether or not that's actually led to an exposure, we don't know. Not every pit and most of the Telstra pits don't have asbestos containing materials but some do.  We want Telstra to tell us what pits if they're remediating them - we want them to test them to make sure do they have asbestos and if they do to make sure that they adhere to the appropriate safety standards for removing it.

DAVID BEVAN: But isn't this - Bill Shorten, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations - isn't this a bit of a cop out?  In other words, you've rolled out this big program and you talk about some eight million pits and your preferred delivery system is using those pits to get fibre to the home and you're now saying that some people may have been exposed and if they have put their name on a register.  And you'd have to look at the Kudelka cartoon in The Australian today - it may be years before we can tell if you have any asbestos-related diseases but if it's any consolation Canberra is very close to discovering who's to blame.

BILL SHORTEN: Well some people can make whatever comments they want.  For me what's important here as the workplace safety Minister is that there's been a system of work which Telstra has undertaken to do - they're the ones in charge of the pits, they don't hand the pits over to NBN Co until the pits have been remediated. They accepted responsibility yesterday.  I know some people want to put politics into this issue.  For me it's not a political issue it's a straightforward issue of asbestos safety.  The people in charge...

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: But you're running that - you're running the program.

BILL SHORTEN: I'm sorry I don't run Telstra.  What I'm saying to you very...

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: So Telstra are installing the NBN off their own resources?  It's not a Government program at all?

BILL SHORTEN: No again I'm going to talk about asbestos and then if you want to take it elsewhere you're welcome to. Telstra is in charge of remediating these pits and making them safe for Telstra - for the NBN rollout.  Telstra has said as much as some people want to blame the Government for everything - Telstra, an independent company - you can buy their shares on the stock market has said it was our responsibility.

Now what I'm saying though is that asbestos generally in the community is an issue which insufficient attention is paid to.  What I can also say is that this government has created an asbestos agency for the first time to nationally coordinate what people know about asbestos...

DAVID BEVAN: But as somebody who ran one of the largest unions in the country, you would have always been very sensitive to pressure being applied down the food chain?

BILL SHORTEN: Absolutely.

DAVID BEVAN: So the question for you is how culpable is the Federal Government in an election year in putting pressure on employers who then put pressure further down the chain?

BILL SHORTEN: No I don't accept that if you've got subcontractors - I think there is an issue with the contracting system so that part of what you say I do agree with that it's become the trend in construction to have the client or to have a principal contractor, then to have a subcontractor then another subcontractor.  And the argument goes that by contracting you lay off some of the risk, but the reality is when it comes to asbestos the people who own the infrastructure have got the ultimate duty of care to make it safe.

Now you are raising a really good point about when you have contractors and subcontractors, are they getting trained properly? The meeting of stakeholders that I convened yesterday agreed that there would appear to be deficiencies in the way people are trained.  Also Telstra has agreed that we should have independent monitoring to make sure that the standards which they say they're doing are actually occurring.

DAVID BEVAN: The Federal Government is one of those stakeholders.  How culpable is the Federal Labor Government in putting pressure on employers and subcontractors to get this NBN out in an election year?

BILL SHORTEN: If it wasn't for Labor and you had the other people - conservatives in power we'd have a more deregulated labour market.  The safety net requires that people be paid properly.  But I agree with what you're saying that people have got systems on paper, on desktop which look good but the reality of the bloke in overalls and muddy boots digging up a hole in the ground in a suburban street, there is no doubt in my mind now having listened to both the safety regulator and also Telstra and its contractors, that the standards slip as it goes further and further away from the principal - that is Telstra.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Bill Shorten aren't you describing a replay of the insulation installation problem - that is this big rollout of insulation and contractors again and then subcontractors and then subcontractors and then kids climbing up into houses and getting electrocuted?  And didn't you learn anything from the rolling out...

BILL SHORTEN: You and I know I wasn't the Safety Minister then. 

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: I'm not worried about who was Minister - I'm talking about the Government...

BILL SHORTEN: But when you - yes okay I get your point.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Let one person - yes okay well that's all I'm asking.  I'm not trying to be unreasonable here but...

BILL SHORTEN: No okay well I think though you are not accepting one point - this is Telstra's responsibility.  They are the people in charge.  They are a very big multi-billion dollar company.  Their shares buy and trade.  The Government doesn't run every private company in Australia.  If your hypothesis is that every time a major publicly listed company does something wrong, they're allowed to take the profits. They're allowed to take the big wages. They're allowed to take the rewards, but when something goes wrong that's the Government's fault, I don't buy that logic.

DAVID BEVAN:  No, no, no, no, no.

BILL SHORTEN: But what I do accept is that there has been a systems failure. I'm not ducking that. That's why I went out to Penrith and met the residents myself. What I do accept is that the system that we've been promised, that the Government of Australia's been promised hasn't happened. What I do accept is there are some contractors who've been taking money from their clients who have not been fulfilling their contracts in a safe manner.

DAVID BEVAN: Okay, now Bill Shorten, your press release says Australia was the world's most prolific user of asbestos containing materials. It's estimated up to one in three homes built in Australia between the end of the Second World War and 1987 contain asbestos.

Now on that front and this is probably almost a separate issue to an exposure register. Has any thought been given to either a subsidy for people to remove asbestos or making the asbestos monitoring charges, which can run into the thousands of dollars if you're having work done or what have you, cheaper for people so that people don't do the dodgy thing and rip it out themselves and dump it at a boat ramp or whatever? And that goes on all over the country. It's, you know, it's expensive just to get it out and also to dump it.

BILL SHORTEN: There are no cheap solutions to the ultimate removal of asbestos, you're right. Initially when it's in place, it's not the same level of problem as when you start renovating, but you are right and as I said earlier when people start renovating they need to check.

Now in terms of the checking process and when for instance homes get bought and sold, I am sure and I've been conscious of asbestos problems for most of my working life as a union rep. I am sure that when people buy houses they want to know what's in them. Now at the moment there is no requirement to report asbestos in your house so even before we get to renovations how do you find that out?

Now one of the issues is do you encourage householders or vendors when they're selling houses to get a report - they're not very expensive - just to ascertain what asbestos is in the place? We want to talk to the housing industry and the real estate agents because whenever the government proposes something on safety everyone has a go, well that's the government's fault and you've got to pay us to do something.

So the first instance is we want to talk to the real estate industry, the architects and the housing industry. What is the best, most cheap, if it's safest and economical way so that people know what they are actually buying and what they have in their house...

DAVID BEVAN: Bill Shorten, thank...

BILL it's a work in progress.


DAVID BEVAN: Bill Shorten, thank you very much. We do appreciate your time.

BILL SHORTEN: Yeah, I do get that you're saying that this Telstra stuff shouldn't have happened and you know, the government, what are they doing. It shouldn't have happened. There's been reports in the last few weeks and months which shows that earlier commitments by Telstra haven't worked.

We will work with Telstra and I should just say on behalf of Telstra one thing their CEO's shown a bit of leadership. He hasn't tried to duck the issues. He's accepted responsibility and hasn't run to the lawyers or the PR guys. We'll work with him and I just want to say to all the residents in South Australia that if they think in the future that they see work being done on Telstra duct pits they have a right to enquire about has this been checked for asbestos and we, along with Telstra, will provide information to try and verify that.


DAVID BEVAN: And if your office could get back to us whether or not there are any incidents here in South Australia we would appreciate that because there have been reports that have it happening up at Seaford, but Bill...

BILL SHORTEN: Yes, I have heard about Seaford. We will get Comcare - they're the regulator, they're the statutory agency who does this - happy to get Comcare to liaise with you guys.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Okay, thank you.

DAVID BEVAN: Thank you very much, Bill Shorten.

BILL SHORTEN: Thanks fellas.