Bill's Transcripts

ABC Radio National, Fran Kelly


ABC Radio National, Fran Kelly

Monday 3 June 2013



FRAN KELLY: The Federal Government is responding to grave concerns being raised about dangerous asbestos materials that are being disturbed as the roll-out of the National Broadband Network continues.

Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten has called a range of stakeholders to Canberra today for a crisis meeting on how to deal with the safety issue, which the Minister himself describes as a giant scourge.  Telstra, the NBN Co, unions and victim groups will all be attending.  We're joined now by the Minister Bill Shorten.  Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

BILL SHORTEN: Good morning, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: Minister, NBN contractors have so far uncovered asbestos in Telstra pits in Sydney, Hobart, Adelaide and Ballarat.  Does the Government have a fix yet on just how big this problem could be?

BILL SHORTEN: We've asked Telstra to inform us what they think is the prevalence of asbestos in communication pits.  We have asked Telstra and we'll be asking them at today's meeting to talk about what is their plan to deal with asbestos in their pits.

There's an argument which I strongly subscribe to, is that the safest way to treat asbestos is to remove it.  Obviously if asbestos-lined communication pits are being disturbed in the process of infrastructure works or upgrading or NBN or anything else then we need to know from Telstra what asbestos is there, which pits contain it and are the procedures in place for removing it absolutely first class and safe.

FRAN KELLY: And on that basic question of, you know, how many - do we know how many Telstra pits contain asbestos, there's close to two million of these pits I understand across the country.  Do we know how many have asbestos in them?


FRAN KELLY: Telstra has no idea?

BILL SHORTEN: Well, I don't know if they have no idea but they haven't told us. What I'll also say though, I don't want to cause sort of mass panic, is that seriously - these pits are quite small.  Where the asbestos is sealed inside and not disturbed, it's not the same issue.


BILL SHORTEN: But the issue is where then pits are being worked upon you want to make sure that this is a pit which has asbestos and if it is, is everything being done according to the safety standards required of dealing with such a deadly substance as asbestos.

FRAN KELLY: So which all goes to getting the procedures right for the removal.  Who is ultimately responsible for that, for the safe removal of asbestos?  Is it Telstra or is it the NBN Co?

BILL SHORTEN: I think ultimately whoever owns the physical infrastructure is responsible for it, but what I also think is that if you're going to have contractors and subcontractors do they know what they're doing?

FRAN KELLY: And that's the issue, and that's the…

BILL SHORTEN: That they're not cowboys.

FRAN KELLY: Well, that's the issue that came to light with the home insulation program, the whole issue of subcontractors and making sure we didn't get cowboys entered.  A union audit of thirteen worksites in Hobart last week found more than half the subbies had not received proper training. 

Will the Government step in now to insist that either Telstra or the NBN Co improve the training programs before any more pits are dug up?

BILL SHORTEN: Without pre-empting and sort of smearing every contractor, because there's a lot who do know what they're doing…


BILL SHORTEN: There has to be independent monitoring and verification that the work which is being commissioned is being done to a safe manner, full stop.

FRAN KELLY: And part of the problem that some suggest is the rate is pay.  One industry insider says that the subbies are being paid about $270 per pit plus eight dollars top-up if asbestos is discovered. 

It doesn't sound like much money and it sounds like inevitably that could lead to corners being cut, doesn't it?

BILL SHORTEN: Listen, I get that there are concerns in parts of Australia about the adequacy and the quality of the work being done by subcontractors.  This will be for a range of reasons.

My first priority today and tomorrow and the immediate future is to make sure that Telstra and indeed the public know which pits have asbestos, what is the process for verifying it, what's the process for making sure that if pits are being altered that the work is being done safely.

Now, there could be a whole lot of factors which flow out of why the work hasn't been done safely so far.  I don't want to pre-judge any of that.  What I do want to do is just make sure that the lesson that some of these residents have had to put up with at some houses in Penrith is learnt so that no one else has to go through it.

I met with residents on Saturday, and I can feel their distress and to me it's a big part of this. If you think you have a problem, and this goes for Telstra and the contractors, the way you deal with residents once you've discovered there's a problem it has to be tip top, it has to be no nonsense, not patronising the residents, not in any fashion playing down their concerns but saying okay, we take this seriously.

FRAN KELLY: People are terrified because we know how deadly it is.  Now, I understand you're going to propose at this meeting a plan for a national asbestos exposure register.  What would that do?  How would that work?

BILL SHORTEN: Well, first of all people shouldn't have to self-censor their concerns if they think there's an exposure issue. I think that experience shows in a range of industrial diseases that if something terrible happens down the track, rather than having to scramble back to reassemble records of what happened when, I think a register does make sense.

We're talking to a range of experts on how you'd set this register up. Telstra is open to the idea. So it's a matter of just providing - it's very disempowering for residents, and indeed employees, if they think they've been exposed to asbestos and they just don't know.

So I think the first thing that anyone in any position of authority needs to do is to say to people yeah, we take this seriously.

FRAN KELLY: What about the idea of a Telstra fund?  That's what the - Barry Robson from the Asbestos Disease Foundation of Australia wants Telstra to establish a compensation fund for workers exposed to asbestos material.  Is that a good idea, a good in-case idea?

BILL SHORTEN: I work a lot with Barry, will see him today.  In terms of issues of legal liability, some of the path is well-established in legal liability.  Other parts, as we've seen so dreadfully, some large corporations have resisted liability as they did with James Hardie.

I don't know if we're going to sort out an issue of a fund today.  We don't know what the exposure is, I want to make sure first of all that the system is making people safe but the liability issue is important.  It's not necessarily the issue we're going to try and finalise today.

I'd rather Telstra just tell me how much, where and has anyone been exposed and what's the process put in place to make sure that this problem just doesn't sort of roll on unchecked like gathering waves. 

FRAN KELLY: And Minister, just before you go, I know you've got a plane to catch, you're at the airport there, you're endorsing - you've endorsed as I understand it your Senate colleague David Feeney for Martin Ferguson's seat of Batman.  What's David Feeney done to deserve Labor's safest seat?

BILL SHORTEN: Oh, I think he's a very strong advocate.  As Parliamentary Secretary in Defence he's done a good job.  He's always advocated for people over the years.  But I might also say ultimately everyone else can have a comment about the pre-selection but this is a matter which will be decided by local ALP preselectors in Batman.  I'm happy there's a local ballot.  Fran, my interests…

FRAN KELLY: Should the local ALP preselectors be governed by the rules, and the rules say that Labor Party states should have forty per cent women, forty per cent men, and twenty per cent anyone in their candidature.  In Victoria they've only got twenty-seven per cent women.

BILL SHORTEN: Fran, as you could tell by all my earlier questions my head is in working on asbestos, what's happened.  I'm not going to engage in a running commentary about the internals of the ALP.  I think the locals should have a say and they will.  I think David Feeney would be a good Member of Parliament and he is.  Beyond that there's little I can meaningfully add.

FRAN KELLY: Well, you think David Feeney would be a good candidate.  Do you think there's also a case for a female?

BILL SHORTEN: I'm more than happy to just talk about asbestos.  In terms of the ALP internals I do have a general rule about not commenting a lot. I'm going to adhere to that. There's a process in place.  I think, in my opinion, my voters in Maribyrnong want to hear me talk to you about what we do to prevent asbestos risk in the future, that Telstra know what they've got and that is the most important issue for me.  The rest of the matters will sort out as they always do.

FRAN KELLY: Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

BILL SHORTEN: Thanks Fran, bye.

FRAN KELLY: Bill Shorten is the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Financial Services and Superannuation.