Doorstop interview, ACTU Asbestos Summit, Sydney
4 September 2012
SUBJECTS: Office of Asbestos Safety, Grocon, Newspoll
BILL SHORTEN: Good morning everyone, it’s nice to be here at the ACTU summit on asbestos. I’m joined here by my colleague Senator Lisa Singh who in a previous life was the Minister responsible for tackling the scourge of asbestos in Tasmania.
I’m also joined by Serafina Salucci who has a diagnosis of exposure to asbestos, and I was going to invite her to speak after me to talk about the lived experience.
But turning to the Government’s response, we are grateful for the work of Geoff Fary and his expert panel. This is the first time in the history of Australia that we are going to see a coordinated, national approach to the management and removal of asbestos. Asbestos in 2010, killed - mesothelioma killed 642 people and there are many more with lung cancers related to exposure to asbestos. Numbers of deaths from asbestos are not due to peak until 2020. There’ll be more Australians die from asbestos-related diseases, than died in the whole of the First World War. And most concerning, at the moment, thousands upon thousands of Australians who engage in the national pastime of renovating their own home may well be inadvertently exposing themselves, and their family and their kids, to this deadly, invisible killer.
There is no safe-level of exposure to asbestos. Any fibre can cause asbestos-related diseases. The Federal Government has today announced in its initial response, to this ground breaking national call to arms on asbestos, has announced that we will set up an Office of Asbestos Safety straight away. It will prepare a costed, response to all the recommendations. It will start the work on community awareness and education. It’ll start the work to ultimately remove asbestos from the Australian built environment.
Before I take questions I might just ask Serafina if she wants to make any particular comments about asbestos.
SERAFINA SALUCCI: I was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2007, so five and a half years ago, and since then I’ve done a fair bit of treatment, I’ve had a couple of operations, and I’m doing quite well now, at the moment, but it’s been really, really tough. I think the thing that, for me personally, that’s been the toughest, is the fact that mesothelioma is incurable. And it doesn’t matter who you speak to or what you read, the message is always the same: its incurable, its incurable and it’s incurable. So that’s why I think prevention is really, really important because once you are diagnosed with mesothelioma its pretty much too late. So I’m glad to hear that some changes are going to be made and hopefully they will be made soon.
BILL SHORTEN: Happy to take any questions.
REPORTER: Minister, you’re setting up an office and that’s a good first step, but is it any more than you know setting, I mean, what concrete measures have any relevance today?
BILL SHORTEN: Let’s not just get into, and I’m not saying that is the import of your question but let’s not get into a sort of kneejerk reaction of saying everything’s not enough when we announce something. I wish that what we are announcing today had been done in 1960. I frankly wish that Robert Menzies had done what we’ve announced today.
We’ve know about the problems of asbestos for 50 years, yet 80 per cent of the asbestos we have produced or imported into Australia has been since 1960. This is not a small announcement. This is the first time any Government has fronted up to the task of saying we need a national plan to manage and remove asbestos. So this Office, I believe, is the forerunner of the removal in the next twenty years of much of the asbestos in the built environment in Australia.
We know how much asbestos was mined in Australia, we’ve got a reasonable idea how much was imported into Australia. What we don’t know is where it all went. And again, any of us, when we’re walking the dog or walking the kids up any suburban street on the weekend will see home handymen and women getting into it, knocking down the shed, making those renovations and perhaps inadvertently exposing them and their environment. This Office is a definite step forward. There were 12 recommendations, we made it clear, the Government has made it crystal clear, that we support the recommendations. We want to get on with business and that’s what we’ve been able to announce today.
REPORTER: Minister, if you support those recommendations, why can’t you just get on and do them?
BILL SHORTEN: Do you know how much it is all going to cost to remove all the asbestos in all Australian houses? You can’t, and it’s not a fair question, because none of us do. What we’re doing, if you read the report in detail, it makes it very clear that it’s not enough to just contain asbestos; we’ve got to tackle it. But it also makes it very clear that the data just doesn’t exist. I’m not going to sell you a bill of goods, which I can’t describe to you where it is.
The other thing is, most disturbingly, there is an insufficient or there’s just not enough licensed disposal operations. So there is, all the asbestos if we could remove tomorrow as suggested which would be a good thing, we don’t have the place to put it. What I do know is that this report is saying that we need to do some things differently, that’s what the Government is committing to do.
We also have to cost out propositions, such as if you want to sell your house and do a review of asbestos at point of sale, one proposition is that we make it tax deductible, we have to cost that. But I’ve taken the view that you can wait until you cost everything, you cross every T and get every accountant signed off on it but that’s not the way I operate. My view is that we need to commit to the direction we’re going in. We got the report, we’ve turned it around pretty quickly, we’ve made the decision to set up an Office of Asbestos Safety, we’ve now committed to a national plan to contain, manage and remove, and there’ll be no going back.
Pleasingly the opposition, for once, have said ‘okay, in principle’ and what we need to do is make sure we round up the state governments that don’t see this as some sort of - I don’t want state governments to look at asbestos removal as some sort of day by day political issue where they feel they have to take an oppositionalist view to the Federal Government. This one’s too big for that sort of nonsense and we just need to commit to what’s in the report and working together and we want to work with the states and with the local governments.
REPORTER: How shocked are you to discover that in 2012, the Federal Department of Health is advising home owners, home renovators and the public that occasional exposure to large amounts of asbestos is unlikely to be harmful? And doesn’t that demonstrate the need for an independent agency outside of the federal bureaucracy?
BILL SHORTEN: First things first, I’m grateful to the Gippsland advocacy group who raised this issue with me about information put out in another ministry. It is misleading that information, not in what you said but the point you’re making. There no safe exposure levels, full stop. So that’s misleading. We’ve spoken with the Health Department getting the chief medical officers together – there is a COAG process. But that material, I don’t support. That material which says you can have a safe exposure. No one has ever been able to tell me which fibre is the one which will kill you so therefore you’ve got to assume that any fibre will kill you.
In terms of independence, we’ve got this review going. I don’t think anyone amongst the stakeholders seriously think, is seriously saying that this report’s not a fair dinkum, straight-up plan for the future – a visionary statement.
We will keep working on the stakeholders. I think you’ll find we’ve passed the test of engaging people so that all those people with views feel that they’re being consulted.
This report sets the picture for the future. It sets the destination that we want to manage, we want to educate and we want to remove, therefore, asbestos out of the built environment.
REPORTER: But it is extraordinary isn’t it, that the Department in 2012 can be saying this sort of stuff?
BILL SHORTEN: Well I think I answered your question the last time when I said that I find the material misleading. I don’t agree with it. My gut reaction is that it was ridiculous and we’ll fix it
REPORTER: [Inaudible] suggest that from there that the removal, that schools should be prioritised for removal first. As the Minister driving this, would you agree with that?
BILL SHORTEN: I think wherever the public is, is a priority. Obviously exposure to children is particularly repugnant but there is no good exposure to any group. In terms of the priority, one of the first things, as I spelt out, is that the Office of Asbestos Safety will work with states and local governments to help set a priority plan. I can see the sense in what was raised by the unions today but I’ll also work with this office with the state government to work out what is the appropriate priority but it makes sense.
REPORTER: Minister, speaking of the unions can I also ask you about Grocon, they’ve got some workers onto the site there in Melbourne, your reaction?
BILL SHORTEN: That’s good.
BILL SHORTEN: That’s positive. Let me be very clear about this matter in Melbourne. There is no case for any participants in the workplace to think they are above the law. I have said seven or eight times, almost on a daily basis over the last few days that we believe that all participants should adhere to the instructions of the police. That all participants, including the CFMEU should adhere to the Supreme Court orders. So we are very firmly of the opinion that no party is above the law, state or federal.
REPORTER: Minister, what is your response to Grocon refusing the CFMEU suggestions last night?
BILL SHORTEN: I think that this dispute, this disagreement including issues around the right to be represented in the workplace by union delegates could not get fixed through confrontation. I believe that the independent umpire, Fair Work Australia’s provided a sensible way out. It in no way mitigates any court action; it in no way rewards any bad behaviour. But I do actually know that through years of negotiating that people can put on as much war paint as they want, they can use all the confrontational tactics they want but at the end of the day these arguments gets fixed through sensible negotiation. I think Victorians are over this dispute, in fact I think they were over it as soon as it started. What I also know is 1) the rule of law has to apply and all parties, no one is above the law. 2) Confrontation will not fix this issue, it will only be through sensible discussion and negotiation. I think Fair Work Australia played a very big role.
There is one myth in this dispute, that somehow on one hand the Conservatives say oh the Federal workplace laws can fix this if only something had happened but on the other hand as soon as the independent umpires step in the conservatives have run away and said no we don’t want Fair Work Australia to fix this. You can’t want some independent umpires, you can’t play by the rules of one game and then call in the referee or the rules for another code when it suits.
So we think sensible discussions are the way to fix it, no confrontation. But let me be really clear, no party, no union, no employer is above following the instructions of the police or the Supreme Court and I believe we should also look to what the independent umpires and presidents recommended.
REPORTER: Minister what do make of today’s Newspoll?
BILL SHORTEN: Polls go up, polls go down. What I make of it is that Australians want long term vision. That is why this government is proposing a fundamental injection of resources to ensure every child in Australia when they go to school, regardless of the postcode they live in is able to get a quality education. So the short term polls – I think Australians are over short term thinking. I think polls help sell newspapers but I think fundamentally what matters in terms of national politics is who has got the fair dinkum policy to educate our kids and see our kids whatever postcode they come from. Who’s fair dinkum about the creation of jobs? Who’s fair dinkum about the creation of a better deal for people with disability and their carer’s and indeed announcements like the what we’ve said today tackling the scourge of asbestos related diseases.
It’s the long term which counts not the short term.
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