Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler—Leader of the House, Minister for Infrastructure and Transport and Minister for Regional Development and Local Government) (17:30): Firstly, I thank the member for Page for her contribution and for her ongoing support of ABC and SBS. I am not surprised that a regional member feels so strongly about the role that these fine national institutions play in our lives, making a huge difference whether it be through television, radio or new media opportunities that both of these institutions are engaged in.
With regard to the record funding for ABC and SBS, the government is proud of the support that we have given. It has also been given, might I say, from some other portfolios. My portfolio of infrastructure has, for example, assisted in building the new headquarters of the ABC in Brisbane. People would be aware of issues raised about the health of staff at the former ABC headquarters. The new structure stands on the banks of the Brisbane River.
I went to the opening of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. The ABC does play that important cultural role in our cities and our regions. One thing that orchestra have been doing, as do other institutions associated with our public broadcasters, is bring cultural activities to regional communities. They certainly play a fine role there.
The government is absolutely committed to this funding. We are committed to the independence as well of the ABC and SBS, unlike the former government that stacked the boards with right-wing ideologues. We have ensured that there is a professionalism brought to the appointment of the boards and to those institutions.
In response to the shadow minister’s questions that were raised, the issue of asbestos is indeed one that has haunted communities since the dangers of asbestos became clear. It must be said that the dangers were apparent to executives in companies such as James Hardie a long time before they were prepared to fess up to the consequences of this deadly product for which they were prepared to put profit before the lives of those people who worked with the product and those people who just lived in communities. Indeed, it is the case that where building work for infrastructure takes place in cities such as Sydney there needs to be absolute care to ensure that the workers are protected and also that communities are unaffected where this work is taking place.
I know that when a refurbishment of an oval in my electorate was taking place, they found a lot of asbestos had literally just been buried beneath the oval—covered over with dirt as if the problem would just go away. This is something that does need to be above politics. The member for Wentworth is clearly genuine in his concerns about these issues; these issues are serious but they are not new. We know that claims, for example, that legacy infrastructure with asbestos will not be disturbed under the coalition’s plan is not true. That is why these claims are now being refuted by industry experts. We need to make sure that this work occurs in an appropriate way. There is no way to avoid interacting with asbestos when you are working on Australia’s fixed telecommunications network. The member for Wentworth cannot avoid dealing with asbestos if he is ever in a position to build his fibre to the node system which would consist of some 70,000 nodes at least. As independent telecommunications consultant and safety expert Fernando Calero told the Financial Review:
…rolling out fibre-to-the-node technology still requires some modification of pits and pipes between Telstra exchanges and street corners, as well as those pipes connecting Telstra exchanges.
Mr Calero also said:
A lot of the inter-exchange stuff is asbestos. … Many of the main trunks are asbestos.
It is a fact that when this work takes place every care must be taken and Telstra has accepted responsibility for doing just that.
We know indeed that this is not a new issue. We know that in 2001 Telstra wanted to create an independent body to fast-track compensation payments to employees exposed to asbestos. They sought approval from the then Department of Workplace Relations, but they got knocked back. The then Minister for Workplace Relations was the current Leader of the Opposition. So, the opposition leader knew about those issues as far back as 2001, when Telstra made a clear approach to the department. In 2005 it was raised again. In September 2005 a question on notice was asked of Minister McGauran representing the then communications minister Senator Coonan about Telstra’s use of asbestos. The minister provided an answer in February 2006 that explained Telstra’s use of asbestos in pits, ducts and exchanges and the possibility of exposure. This has been an issue that has been around for a long time. This is an issue that requires every care.
I had the great honour of being a patron of the Asbestos Diseases Foundation prior to being elected as a member of the House of Representatives and afterwards as a backbench member through my association with Barry Robson, a great Australian, and the great Bernie Banton—as heroic an Australian as anyone could meet. He was courageous until the end, fighting and campaigning not for himself but for justice for other Australians. I believe that we need to ensure that every respect is given to people such as Bernie Banton for the role he has played in fighting companies that did hid what they were doing—companies like James Hardie and CSR, which some prominent people on the opposite side see fit to defend in cases against victims of asbestos.
I have found some of the politicking in the last week or so a bit galling, frankly, given the history of these issues. Of these issues, I would say that Telstra—just like any other company or organisation engaged in activity that is likely to disturb asbestos—needs to take every care possible.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.