Thursday, 20 June 2013
Questions without Notice
National Broadband Network
My question is to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy. I refer the minister to information he tabled in the Senate yesterday which said that—
Honourable senators interjecting—
I was referring the minister to the information tabled in the Senate yesterday which said:
Until such time as the new national standard is agreed and the training course is up and running, NBN Co. will transfer the important task of handling and removing asbestos in pit and pipe and disposing of asbestos waste from its tier 1 contractors to specialist asbestos removal firms.
Can the minister advise the Senate what gaps exist in existing training for NBN Co. contractors that necessitate the suspension of asbestos handling by those particular contractors?
Thank you for your question, Senator Birmingham. The agreement that was reached when Minister Shorten and I convened a meeting of the companies involved—subcontractors, Telstra, NBN Co. and the unions involved—was for remediation work on asbestos. Telstra had already halted their asbestos handling and NBN Co. agreed to halt theirs while these issues were being worked through. I believe there is another meeting taking place today at some stage—it could even be finished by now—that is resolving these issues so that everyone can be sure that all of the standards are being followed.
Senator Abetz interjecting—
You had the opportunity to ask some questions about this at Senate estimates, and I think you did. As Mr Quigley has said consistently, asbestos was a known factor before—
'You didn't do anything about it,' says Senator Abetz. You should listen to the answer rather than just mindlessly interjecting. Since it was a known factor, it was built into the NBN Co.'s training manuals. There were training courses and there were requirements. So NBN Co. have taken the asbestos issue seriously from day one. As I have said before, across the 18 months or so since we signed the agreement with Telstra, there have been 29 incidents of asbestos issues reported to Comcare—some of which have nothing to do with the National Broadband Network build in any way, shape or form. That is 0.02 per cent.
But that is still too many. So, to ensure the safety of the public and to ensure the safety of the workers— (Time expired)
Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. If, as the minister has just contended, the asbestos concerns were a known factor at the commencement of the build and were built into the training manuals and other documentation, as he just asserted, why then has it been necessary for the government to strip its original contractors of their responsibility for asbestos handling and engage specialist asbestos removal firms instead?
NBN Co. is working through these issues. We intend to ensure that there are no shortcuts. If some subcontractors of the prime contractors have taken shortcuts, they should feel the full force of all the relevant authorities and laws. We are working with the contractors and, through the contractors, the subcontractors to remind all workers involved that there are to be no shortcuts. Minister Shorten and I left everyone in that room under no illusions. The government does not accept shortcuts when it comes to dealing with asbestos. So, as a precaution, we are ensuring that everybody gets a reminder— (Time expired)
Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Can the minister advise the Senate how many of these new specialist contractors are being engaged? How long does the government anticipate needing to use such specialist contractors? What will the additional cost to NBN Co. be of engaging these specialist contractors in addition to its existing contractors?
My understanding is that NBN Co. do, as I think we discussed earlier in the week, augmentation of some Telstra pits. That means we come into contact with some asbestos. It is a very small portion of the total NBN work. I will have to take on notice the question of how many contractors we are using. I do not have a figure. Similarly, I do not have the figures for the cost, but I am happy to take that on notice for you as well.
Let us be clear. Despite the outrageous reporting by The Australian, your bible, and your attempts to smear the National Broadband Network, NBN take these matters very seriously. They have done so from the beginning—unlike those opposite, who pretend to have amnesia about the fact that their own government— (Time expired)