How can asbestos trump common sense?

Global news shines a jarring light on Australia's asbestos beat-up and shows the futility of this Coalition strategy.

While it’s getting little attention in the Australian media so far, five days of rioting in Turkey and a planned strike by a quarter of a million unionists there is a strong reminder of what bad government looks like.

With echoes of the Arab Spring, Turkish protestors are using Twitter, Facebook and blogging site Tumblr to organise, evade authorities and treat the wounded. International media are reporting one death, but an Australian colleague following events closely told me it’s “actually worse than the international press are portraying” and that “hundreds are being arrested and thousands are injured”.

The intrusion of such tragic international stories into the too-often parochial Australian news cycle should be a chance for reflection on our own good fortune – and, in this case, on the grief and fear this latest story is causing for our own Turkish community.

It’s always jarring, then, to turn our attention back to Canberra and back to major news narratives that say too much about known or insubstantial things, and too little about forces that will change the course of Australian lives in 2014 and beyond.

Asbestos is everywhere again today. Literally. It’s all around the outside of my house. It turns up in small fragments in our garden soil. And it’s all through Telstra’s pits and ducts. Nothing new there.

And while Bill Shorten tells parliament that 700 people die from this deadly stuff every year, he’s mostly talking about illnesses caused when only a very few people knew the dangers of asbestos fibres.

One would be hard pressed to find a contractor, be they a sparky, plumber, carpenter or telco technician, who didn’t know how to handle asbestos – or at the very least knew who to call to deal with it. Individuals cut corners, and this story seems to have begun with one such incident in a suburban street.

Why politicise that? Well it’s a great topic to pound the table over. Shorten is outraged that Aussie workers are exposed to health risks. The Communications Electrical Plumbing Union is threatening work stoppages if a system of random checks of contractors’ safety standards is not put in place.

Communications shadow Malcolm Turnbull told the ABC: “'What Mr Shorten is doing, is, because he wants to divert attention from the government's mishandling of the NBN Co, he's trying to create now this national panic about asbestos.”

Well yes, but Tony Abbott has tried to smear the government over a problem Telstra admits is all its own.

Everyone in the business, including the CEPU, has been fully aware the asbestos was there for years, and that it is routinely ‘disturbed’ for maintenance work.

Rob Oakeshott is right to point out that where absestos exists in hospital buildings, we wouldn’t halt redevelopment projects and splash ‘abestos exposure fears!’ all over our front pages.

Meanwhile, it’s again Oakeshott, and fellow independent Tony Windsor, keeping their gaze fixed on things that matter. The pair have been praised by the BCA for blocking Labor’s attempt to amend the Fair Work Act to allow the reintroduction of limited arbitration in resources industry disputes, and to extend union access to workplaces.

Now is not the time, they argued, to make these kinds of reforms in haste before the election.

Those amendments have major economic consequences. They are at the heart of productivity debates and they are the kinds of reforms that can keep our economy bouncing along, or not.

When one looks abroad, at 50 per cent youth unemployment in Spain and Greece, the ongoing bloodshed in Syria and the escalating violence of Turkey, a few thousand holes in the ground containing asbestos that we’ve known about for decades seems very low on the list of concerns.

Keeping the economy strong, as Stephen Koukoulas points out today (The gift of a healthy economic handover), should be front and centre of our concerns. For that reason, the beat-ups must stop. 

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