Bill's Transcripts

ABC News 24 Breakfast

ABC News 24 Breakfast
Monday 3 June 2013

6:35 AM



MICHAEL ROWLAND: Let's take you back to our top story this morning. That is that crisis meeting to be held in Canberra today to look at that asbestos issue concerning the NBN roll-out. Bill Shorten is the Workplace Relations Minister. He joins us now from Melbourne. Minister, good morning.

BILL SHORTEN: Good morning, Michael.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: What do you hope to achieve from this meeting?

BILL SHORTEN: Well, I had the opportunity to go and talk to residents in Penrith on Saturday. What I realised, talking to them, is that what people want to know is how did this happen, have they been exposed, what's being done to remedy the problems of any potential asbestos exposure from Telstra-owned communication pits? So it's answers. That's what we're seeking from Telstra and contractors.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: What was the mood amongst those residents? How distressed, how concerned were they about what's happened?

BILL SHORTEN: Well, I have to say that the mood was distressed and, I think, legitimately so. These matters unfolded two weeks ago plus. More than two weeks ago. And the residents, others and regulators have been forced to chase up questions, answers. So I think the residents…I don't know if they've been exposed and I obviously sincerely hope they haven't, but I don't think the way that the issue has been dealt with since the potential exposure has been adequate.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. Just picking up on that, what has Telstra done wrong, from your point of view?

BILL SHORTEN: I think some of the operators in Telstra have done good jobs and some of the contractors have. But if you think there's a potential asbestos exposure, then removing that risk is the number one and only priority. And I think that people haven't moved quickly enough to take the concerns of the residents seriously.

If you think that you've been exposed to asbestos and there's some basis for thinking that, in terms of asbestos-containing pits potentially have been disturbed, then what the people in charge of the pits, the physical infrastructure, should do is take those concerns seriously. So I think Telstra is moving now in the right direction and contractors as well.

But I think when you are talking to the residents, half the reason that this has become the issue it has is because, upon finding out there was a problem, I'm not sure that people moved and took it seriously enough.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: These are sub-contractors employed by Telstra, so it's taking your argument to its logical extension, it's a management failure here by Telstra to deal with a potentially serious public health risk.

BILL SHORTEN: Asbestos is a killer. It's killing six, seven hundred people a year as we speak. Asbestos was used prolifically in Australia for a long time until it was banned and it still exists in infrastructure and indeed homes. Now, once the asbestos-containing material gets disturbed, there's the chance for it to be—if it's not removed or treated properly—to become exposed to people. That is unacceptable. There's no safe level of exposure to asbestos.

I think that there's too much complacency around how we handle asbestos. And I think that in the case of these communication pits, the only safe way to deal with this matter is to identify, is there asbestos in them, and then, if there is, remove it safely.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Just can I clarify, Minister, how many pits are we talking about now?

BILL SHORTEN: Oh, well, in terms of this, the three or four streets in Penrith, there were 20 pits, of which three have been discovered to contain asbestos. It's not clear if asbestos has then been exposed to the environment. But the thing with residents—and if I was a resident in the street, I hope I would have the grace under pressure that some of these residents have had. I'd be furious.

And the issue is have they been exposed and if there's a potential for that then you don't stuff around. You get in and you remediate it, you remove it. You follow the procedures. You do it properly and you certainly don't spend the time arguing the toss with residents.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Telstra, of course, has been doing the work here, but it is a National Broadband Network roll-out we're talking about. Overall, how much liability should NBN Co wear?

BILL SHORTEN: In terms of legal liability, whilst I know some people want to move to that issue, my first issue is, has there been exposure? What's the health and safety here? How do we make it safe? So it's not that the liability question isn't important, but in the first instance I just want to make sure that the residents in these streets in Penrith can feel safe.

And then beyond that I want to make sure that everywhere else where Telstra pits potentially will be disturbed in the process of either remediating them, or in the process of using the pits for different purposes, such as NBN, that the procedures are safe, the contractors are trained. That there's no slipshod operations. No cowboy actions.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Would you support the setting up of a James Hardie- style compensation fund if residents or workers were indeed found to have been exposed to asbestos?

BILL SHORTEN: I support justice for residents and employees if there is exposure. But the first step is—the most useful thing I can do straight away is to assist—make sure that Telstra and contractors are just doing their day job safely, so that residents don't face these issues.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Does justice mean a compensation fund? Compensation at some stage down the track?

BILL SHORTEN: Oh listen, again, it's not that the questions you are asking aren't significant. They are. In terms of legal liability, there's some well-worn paths and certainly this Government has strong sympathy in terms of people who have been exposed to asbestos, full stop, no matter what the circumstances. It's a cruel disease.

In the first instance, though, the most useful thing we can do today and tomorrow, in the very short term, is to make sure that people are not being exposed and that the systems  in place are working as they've been promised to the Government and to the people of Australia.

We are setting up a register. We're working through the details now. If people think that they might have been exposed, don't self-censor. Don't assume anything. But rather, contact Comcare, the safety regulator. And we want to set up a register, so if there are any future legal arguments people don't have the added stress of trying to establish where they were back in history at this time.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Just a couple of other quick issues, Minister. I know you've got a plane to catch there at Melbourne airport. There are reports this morning that you're looking at a proposal to require everybody who sells a house to produce an asbestos certificate, declaring the house is free from asbestos. Can you talk to me about that?

BILL SHORTEN: Yeah, I think some of that reporting is premature. There is asbestos in people's houses. I'm sure that people, when they have houses, want to make sure they know what's in their house. On the other hand, you've got to…I think the first, best instance is to work with the real estate industry and the housing industry, rather than automatically leap to any particular solution.

So, yeah, I think it's an issue if you've got asbestos in your house, absolutely. I also think that the sensible step in the first instance is to work with industry in terms of how to help residents and consumers. I don't have a particular preference for a particular model.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: And just finally to that pre-selection battle for Martin Ferguson's seat of Batman. Do you share the concerns of your cabinet colleagues, Penny Wong and Jenny Macklin, that, as it appears likely a woman won't be pre-selected for this very safe Labor seat?

BILL SHORTEN: Listen, I've been working on the asbestos issues in recent days. For me, it's important that the local Labor Party members have a say. Beyond that, where my head is at is, in terms of how on earth people have got this situation where they're not sure if they've been exposed to asbestos. I'll leave the commentary on the internal workings of the Labor Party to other people.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Just very quickly, will it be a local pre-selection? David Feeney's not exactly a local resident.

BILL SHORTEN: Oh, again, I think that for me the best thing I can do is work on asbestos. I'm not going to get into commenting about the Labor Party. My point is that all the local ALP members should have a say and I understand they will.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. We'll leave it there.