Asbestos Scare Poison For Labor


These are agonising times for Labor's dwindling band of true believers.

The government that swept to power in 2007 is now a pale shadow of the vibrant and optimistic political force of its youth. After years of bad polling, Labor limps lamely towards an almost-certain defeat on 14 September. Rather like the final months of Kristina Kenneally's government in New South Wales, the public has comprehensively tuned out from political discussions, while the insiders and the cognoscenti turn their thoughts to the make-up of the Abbott cabinet and the scale of Labor's wipe-out in Queensland.

In this atmosphere of decay and defeat, the scandal of asbestos exposure in the national broadband network rollout has bloomed like a foul flower. The NBN is one of Labor's last remaining electoral positives – indeed, it is arguably the policy that won over the country independents and ensured Julia Gillard's minority government in 2010. Now it appears that there are major health and safety issues surrounding the network's construction.

The bare facts of the asbestos scare are these: Telstra is in charge of much of the construction work for the NBN. As part of the Government's deal with the big telecommunications company, the NBN Company is switching customers over from Telstra's copper network and leasing the associated pipes, tunnels and conduits through which it runs. In the process of renovating its tunnels and conduits to hand them over to NBN Co, a number of Telstra's subcontractors have disturbed asbestos cladding and cement, potentially exposing residents in western Sydney, Queensland, Victoria, and Western Australia.

Asbestos is everywhere, so the problem is widespread. The lethal carcinogen was used widely in Australian building and construction materials throughout the post-war period. According to Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten, who has long taken a keen interest in asbestos-related illnesses and deaths, one third of the houses in Australia built between 1945 and the mid-1980s contain asbestos. As a result, Australia has the highest number of deaths as a percentage of our population of any country in the world.

Telstra's pits and ducts are no exception. There are perhaps eight million of them, with anywhere between 10 and 20 per cent containing asbestos. As they are dug up and reconditioned for the passage of optic fibre cables, that asbestos can be disturbed. The problem is particularly acute for poorly trained subcontractors who may not realise what they're doing. A recent report from Carseldine in suburban Brisbane records in chilling detail how easily a deadly exposure can occur. Two sub-contractors used a high-pressure water house to clean out a Telstra pit containing asbestos cement. They were found by an inspector with asbestos on their clothes and their faces.

Residents may also have been exposed in Penrith. An alarmed local told the ABC's Jennifer Macey last Thursday that contractors had been digging up pits next to his driveway for much of the previous week. “I had it stuck in my shoes for four days. I was walking them shoes in and out of my house,” he explained.

Yesterday, a crisis meeting was held in Canberra with Telstra's chief executive, David Thodey, NBN boss Mike Quigley, as well as Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, Bill Shorten, and representatives of the industry. Telstra boss Thodey emerged to take responsibility for the situation. “We own the infrastructure, it is our responsibility, I do not resile from that in any way at all,” he told reporters at a media conference after the meeting.

That hasn't stopped the Opposition from attacking the government over the safety fears, with Communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull drawing parallels to the supposedly botched home insulation scheme of 2009, arguing the government should have been better prepared for the potential complications involved with such a massive infrastructure build. “The attempt to push this all off to Telstra is frankly a lawyer's argument,” Turnbull said. “The big issue here is the level of awareness of the government and the amount of attention it paid to this issue.”

Both Telstra and the Government have moved to improve matters going forward, with the Government setting up a register for those potentially exposed to the deadly fibres, as well as a $50 million fund for workers and citizens who might fall ill.

The imbroglio could scarcely some at a worse time for the Government, which remains deeply unpopular, according to the latest round of polls. It's terrible luck, because it really isn't the Government's fault – as even Telstra admits. Shorten is showing some real leadership on this difficult issue, which is commendable, but is unlikely to win the political argument.

The public perception of Labor's 2009 stimulus and infrastructure programs remains coloured by house fires and the deaths of insulation contractors, as well as supposedly wasteful cost over-runs on the Building the Education Revolution school halls program. Despite the fact that two subsequent inquiries found that the BER program was highly effective, and that the home insulation roll-out saw fewer house fires than a comparable period beforehand, both programs have lodged in the public mind as disastrous boondoggles.

The current asbestos controversy will only intensify that perception. And that's a crying shame, because Australia demonstrably needs public infrastructure investment that will make our country a better place, including the NBN. Indeed, as Greg Jericho argues today, given the 50-year low interest rates which Australian bonds are paying to investors, now is the best time in a generation to borrow money to finance big national infrastructure projects.

Unfortunately for Labor, judging by the bad luck and poor judgment dogging the government all the way towards election day, it may be nearly that long before it returns to office.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.