Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Editorial - 4/6 NBN process should have avoided the asbestos crisis

NBN process should have avoided the asbestos crisis
ONE of the great unfathomables of our national political debate is what the Minister for Communications, Stephen Conroy, might have learnt, and how the nation might have profited, had he followed prudent processes and commissioned a cost-benefit analysis before proceeding with the $36 billion National Broadband Network. That he didn't, and has offered no satisfactory explanation or received any apparent admonition, says much about the habitual failures in policy delivery of this government.
It is reasonable to assume such an analysis would have identified a legacy issue such as up to two million Telstra pits containing asbestos which now present substantial safety issues for the NBN rollout. Given that Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten was aware of asbestos issues in Telstra infrastructure in 2009 - when the NBN was first mooted - and that NBN Co itself has long known of asbestos issues, it is extraordinary that proper procedures were agreed at a crisis meeting only yesterday. Senator Conroy is quick to point out that Telstra assumes full responsibility, yet surely a thorough consideration of the NBN would have identified the safety risks and cost implications of asbestos.
The deadly health implications of asbestos contamination should be beyond partisan politics, with voters entitled to expect open information and impeccable protection measures. Yet given the NBN rollout has generated a series of new asbestos incidents and triggered a redesign of protocols and procedures, it is only reasonable that the government is open to scrutiny over its handling of this issue, including through parliamentary processes. Sadly, it has taken media exposure of asbestos incidents during the NBN rollout - by Ray Hadley at radio station 2GB and The Australian - to prompt this belated remedial action.
Mr Shorten has a long history of pushing for asbestos safety, and certainly his knowledge in 2009 pre-dated political responsibilities for workplace policy and came at a time when the NBN was in its infancy. However, now that he is the Workplace Relations Minister, it demonstrates how the government should have been more focused on this issue when the NBN Co struck a deal for access to Telstra infrastructure two years ago. Again, it suggests better processes would have identified the issue earlier and, presumably, prevented some of the unsafe practices and potential risks.
The asbestos issue will undoubtedly play into the policy debate about the NBN's failure to meet its fibre-to-the-premises rollout targets, potential for cost overruns and the political contest over the opposition's cheaper fibre-to-the-node alternative. While engineers re-examine plans it is possible the rollout could be modified in areas where infrastructure is contaminated. This has given Malcolm Turnbull an opportunity to spruik the advantages of his plan to leave much of the copper network in place. "The approach that we're taking would not give rise to these problems, or at least not to anything like the same extent," he says, "because you are not disturbing all of those pits." There is an inherent logic in his argument and we hope that Senator Conroy, having missed earlier opportunities for proper process, will not hesitate to consider the safety and cost benefits of fibre-to-the-node in appropriate areas.

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