Asbestos panic holds perils for Abbott

The Coalition's determination to wield Telstra's asbestos problem as a weapon against Labor is likely to backfire once it takes government.

Crikey

It was presumably inevitable that the “NBN" asbestos issue would draw comparisons with the Rudd government's Housing Insulation Program. That's despite the HIP, for all the flaws of its rushed implementation, delivering a massive improvement in insulation safety standards and several individuals and firms being prosecuted for safety breaches that led to deaths (remember when the opposition tried to suggest then-minister responsible Peter Garrett should be prosecuted for manslaughter?).

And it's despite the complete lack of similarity between the cases: HIP was a program that was rushed out -- contrary to the advice of Garrett to Kevin Rudd -- to generate economic stimulus by an inexperienced department that failed to establish proper accreditation processes for a small industry that was suddenly pumped full of government money. That created a crucial gap of several months in which accreditation processes lagged the rollout of the program, inviting shonks and spivs to move in, with fatal consequences.

Telstra's asbestos problem -- yes, despite what you'll read in many media outlets, it's nothing to do with NBN infrastructure -- is a legacy problem many decades in the making, as the excellent Richard Chirgwin explains in Crikey today. Indeed, as Mark Kenny and Heath Aston have already noted in Fairfax, it was a Howard government minister, one Tony Abbott, who stymied Telstra's plans to establish compensation arrangements for its employees.

Telstra asbestos is no more Labor's fault than it was the Howard government's fault, which in both cases isn't very much -- although in selling Telstra, the Howard government made it harder to ensure that asbestos handling and management by the company was fully resourced and taken as seriously as the public would like it to be.

That's not the limit of the obstacles to the Coalition exploiting the issue: putting aside Abbott's shocker of a 2007 election campaign in which he had a go at dying asbestos victim Bernie Banton, there's deputy leader Julie Bishop's pre-politics legal role in CSR’s "litigate until they die" asbestos strategy. There's also the problem that one of Labor's perceived weaknesses, its links with the union movement, is a source of strength on asbestos, especially given frontbencher Greg Combet's role in the fight against James Hardie as a former ACTU secretary.

That made for an interesting backdrop after the Coalition unsuccessfully tried to make asbestos a weapon to deploy against Bill Shorten, one of Labor's opposition leaders-in-waiting, in Question Time yesterday, with the prosecution led by opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull. Alas, the Turnbull of Godwin Grech fame, rather than Spycatcher fame, showed up.

The (wafer) thin case against Shorten was that he had somehow failed in his duties as Workplace Relations Minister on the issue. Unfortunately, Shorten had written to Telstra in 2009 about the asbestos issue, despite having no portfolio responsibility for the matter -- indeed, in 2009 he was still confined to barracks as a parliamentary secretary for disabilities by Kevin Rudd, a choice Rudd might, in light of later events, regret.

Well, Turnbull, perhaps humming Janet Jackson's What Have You Done For Me Lately, demanded to know what else Shorten had done, beyond stray outside his own responsibilities to pursue the issue. It turned out Shorten had written twice more to Telstra and received assurances that Telstra had developed a detailed plan to address the issue.

Inconvenient. The prosecution of Shorten ground to a halt, with points going to him. Eventually Labor resorted to asking itself questions about asbestos so that it could beat up on Julie Bishop.

The other complicating factor is that once the Coalition is in government, it will find the absurdly high standards of ministerial responsibility it has argued for in opposition will return to bite it. This isn't merely for the obvious case of Turnbull's Copper Magic NBN -- although Turnbull seems to suggest that, somehow, asbestos only starts in Telstra infrastructure in the bits from the end of the street to premises -- but for other programs. To be consistent, for example, Coalition environment spokesman Greg Hunt will need to resign if a farmer is injured spreading biochar on her property, or if a member of the Coalition's nonsensical Green Army is hurt while engaged in whatever activities -- rubbish collection, tree-planting -- they are supposedly going to undertake.

That brings us to something broader: the reason why so many right-wing commentators, seized on HIP was not merely for partisan purposes, but because it was an opportunity to discredit activist government. Ultimately any government activity, even delivered via a private contractor, can be tenuously linked to deaths and injuries sustained in the course of that work, although the selectivity with which the HIP was singled out was driven by pure partisanship; the only real solution is to minimise any spending by governments, for fear something, somewhere, may go wrong.

Sadly, the Coalition will not be getting out of the active government game altogether, running the risk its ministers, too, will somehow, vaguely, be connected to deaths and injury.

This article was originally published by Crikey on June 4. Republished with permission.

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