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Tuesday, 4 June 2013
Page: 5087


Mr TURNBULL (Wentworth) (15:45): The National Broadband Network is the largest infrastructure project in our nation's history. It is also the most mismanaged. This project was undertaken by the Rudd and Gillard governments without any analysis of any kind as to whether the approach they were taking was the most cost-effective or, indeed, the most safe.

Despite going to the 2007 election with a policy that said the Commonwealth would not invest in any infrastructure project without a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, and despite having established a specialist agency—Infrastructure Australia—to do precisely that, in this, the biggest project in our nation's history, no such analysis was done. This is the biggest blank cheque written in our country's history. The government had no idea how long this project would take. It does not know what it will cost. Our own analysis suggests, making some very conservative changes to the financial assumptions, that it is likely to cost $94 billion as opposed to the $44 billion in the now utterly discredited corporate plan.

The project is running so far behind schedule it would put an arthritic snail to shame. I refer you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to these numbers: in its corporate plan published at the end of 2010—the first corporate plan—it said the NBN was going to pass 950,000 brownfield premises by 30 June. In August last year it scaled that back to 286,000 premises to be passed by 30 June. As of the end of March it was scaled back again, saying it would only reach between 155,000 and 175,000. As of mid-May, we are told they had passed just over 70,000 homes.

This is a classic case. It would remind those honourable members who have had anything to do with marketing or sales of an unsuccessful salesman who has an annual target. He does not make any sales in January but says: 'Don't worry, boss. It's going to ramp up.' There are no sales in February, no sales in March, no sales in April, until he finally gets to November and has not made any sales, but he says: 'Don't worry. It's going to be a brilliant Christmas. We're going to get the whole year—the hockey stick will become so steep it's vertical.' That is what the NBN Co.'s plan looks like at the moment.

In the second half of last year, they passed 137 houses per working day. So far this year they have been passing 353 houses per working day. The only problem is that their plan, their target, is at this time to be passing 1,028 houses per working day. They would have us believe that in two years they will be passing 5½ thousand every working day, so they are going to increase their rollout volume by a factor of 15. This project is failing.

We have had the unedifying spectacle of the new Chairman of NBN Co., Ms Siobhan McKenna, saying that she does not want the minister to speak to the chief executive officer other than through her. We have had reports in the press saying that she wants the chief executive to be sacked—she wants to be the executive chairman. When this rather disturbing news was put to Mr Quigley in Senate estimates, the minister Senator Conroy intervened and would not allow him to answer the question and would not rebut the proposition himself. Can you imagine, Mr Deputy Speaker, a situation where you had a public-listed company and the chairman was reported as having no confidence in the chief executive and wanted to have him sacked, and that matter not being put to rest almost immediately? It would be a completely untenable situation. But this is the disaster that the government is presiding over.

I turn to the latest example of mismanagement: the question of asbestos. It has been known for many, many years that there are pits and ducts in Telstra's network which are made of asbestos-containing material—in other words, asbestos fibre cement. This has been a matter that Telstra has taken seriously and it has elaborate procedures to deal with it. So, when pits are broken—a truck might run over them or new holes have to be bored in them for new ducts, or anything of that kind—there are elaborate procedures for attending to that.

However, in 2009 we know that an AWU official known to the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations wrote to Mr Shorten, then the parliamentary secretary, and raised the issue of the asbestos in the Telstra ducts and pits. The then parliamentary secretary, now the minister, wrote to Telstra and sought some explanation. Telstra responded, as we know, and said that they had a whole procedure for dealing with asbestos-containing material but, where the infrastructure was not friable and when it was buried, it was safer left in situ because it was not exposed to air and there was not any interference with it. And they had a logical risk-management process. That is what the minister was told, because he was proposing then that Telstra should literally dig up every pit it had and remove any asbestos-containing material in its ducts. It would have been a gigantic exercise. As Telstra's chief executive advised him, it would obviously have raised real issues of health risk. It was a risk-management question.

As of 2009, of course, the NBN was only just established. The company was formed in April 2009, and there was no plan to disturb Telstra's pits. Work was done to replace them from time to time when they had to be repaired, when things broke or when there was some upgrade. But then along came the NBN. The deal between the NBN and Telstra was for the NBN to use all of Telstra's infrastructure—all of its pits and ducts. What has happened is that Telstra has an obligation to upgrade those pits that are too small for the multiport device that the NBN is using for its fibre rollout. Many of these pits—hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pits—are too small and have to be removed and replaced with a plastic pit. That is Telstra's responsibility to do that work. So you go from a position in 2009 where interference with and disturbance of Telstra's pits was an infrequent occurrence—and it was well known that many did contain asbestos—to the position where virtually every single pit in the country was or was likely or liable to be disturbed in this fashion.

Furthermore, Telstra's ducts—the pipes that carry the various cables, be they copper or fibre, around the country—are filled with copper and in many cases do not have the space to take the new fibre optic cables of the NBN Co., and have to be augmented with new pipes in the ground. That responsibility is actually not Telstra's; that is the NBN Co.'s. If those new pipes have to enter into an existing pit that is made out of fibrocement then of course there is an asbestos issue. The minister, Senator Conroy, was quite wrong yesterday when he said that the asbestos management issue was only an issue for Telstra. It is an issue for the NBN Co. as well. In any event, all of the work that is being done by Telstra is for and on behalf of the NBN Co.

So in 2009 the minister was very alert and very much on notice to the asbestos issue with Telstra's infrastructure, but at the time that infrastructure was being rarely disturbed. Fast forward 18 months or so later and the Telstra infrastructure is being entirely disturbed—it is being remediated and augmented almost in its entirety. It follows therefore—and the minister knew this very well because he noted this in his own correspondence—that asbestos becomes a much bigger issue. The question that the opposition has been pursuing is: why did the minister apparently not raise this with the minister for communication—and by this stage in 2011 he had come into cabinet—or did he, and we have not yet learned about it? Why did the minister not raise it with Telstra or NBN Co. prior to Ray Hadley making a big issue of the asbestos risk in Penrith last week—a member of parliament whose history and experience in the trade union movement gave him a special awareness of asbestos issues? Fixed with that actual knowledge of the risk associated with Telstra's pits and ducts and knowing that they were all going to be disturbed, why did he then apparently take no action? We have no answer to that.

Today, the minister said that the coalition was somehow or other being irresponsible in suggesting that all of the Telstra asbestos-containing material should not be immediately dug up and replaced. This is a risk-management issue. Telstra's current asbestos management procedures, a public document, state on page 9:

Asbestos containing conduits and pits in good condition do not need to be removed as a matter course, however where they present a hazard to staff or members of the public, they will be made safe or replaced following the removal practice in this procedure.

It is interesting that the minister has accused the opposition of seeking to make a political issue out of this, when in fact he has created a massive scare campaign, which runs the risk of becoming a sort of public hysteria and creating enormous anxiety about asbestos. In the House today he said that all of the asbestos-containing material in Telstra's network, even if it is buried under the ground, should be replaced. What are people to think about asbestos that is built into their houses, into schools, into hospitals and into industrial buildings—asbestos-containing material that is inert, that is intact? In his effort to place all of the blame for this on Telstra and to try to make himself a hero on this issue, he is on the verge of creating something in the order of a national panic. There is no question that asbestos is a very serious issue—there is no doubt about that. But there is also a very important risk-management issue here. If asbestos is in a building structure—particularly if it is buried under the ground, if it is intact, if it is inert, if it is not exposed to the air, if it is not being broken or damaged and if people are not drilling through it—then one has to take a very hardheaded and practical view as to whether it should be proactively removed. In any process of removal, no matter how well managed, you have some risk of the asbestos fibres escaping.

There are very disturbing resonances between this and the pink batts episode. With pink batts, we had a roof insulation industry that was putting in roof insulation as and when required, and was doing so in accordance with safety standards. Then the government turbocharged that industry and poured so much money into it. Many, many more people became involved and, of necessity, safety standards were much harder to enforce and compliance was much harder to supervise, and the tragedies that occurred did occur.

And this is what has happened here. You had asbestos being treated as an important issue by Telstra, as and when it was necessary to do so, but with the pits and the ducts rarely being disturbed. But now, of course, they are being disturbed—all of them. And as a consequence you have many more people working on it and it is harder to enforce standards—I am not making any excuses; the standard should be enforced and I hope will be enforced. But you have of necessity a much greater challenge.

And yet knowing all of that, and knowing the experience of pink batts, this minister, unless there is something that he has not told us, did nothing. (Time expired)