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Tuesday, 4 June 2013
Page: 5099

Mr OAKESHOTT (Lyne) (16:35): I have listened closely to the debate not only in the chamber this afternoon but also over the last couple of days and want to put some thoughts on the record. As far as I can read, at the heart of this issue are two claims. One is that government did not have the foresight with regard to asbestos management in the pits and pipes that are owned by Telstra management and shareholders and therefore have somehow been found wanting on issues in and around Penrith and potentially beyond. The other charge, as best as I can work through, is that one side of this chamber has an NBN policy that goes to all pits and pipes and the other does not and therefore the one that does not is somehow to get a brownie point for being a safer alternative to access to all pipes and pits.

To take on both of those charges, the first thing I would say is that asbestos is not new. That should be stating the bleeding obvious. This has been around for a long time. It is a scourge in the building and construction industry. The level of knowledge in Australia around what asbestos is and its health implications has certainly changed behaviour within the industry across the board, and therefore the way asbestos is handled has a very high level of occupational health and safety attached to it across the board. Within the telecommunications industry and within communications, electrical and plumbing unions, they could all tell you that there are manuals and standards in place, and that Telstra/Telecom and equivalents in other providers all know the rules of the game when handling asbestos.

Therefore, to then say, 'There was a lack of foresight in agreements reached,' I judge to be wrong. There was an option that this chamber could have taken, in a significant and much-needed upgrade to telecommunications in Australia today, where the copper network is full and our use of data by fixed wire is going through the roof—we do need, whoever is in government, to upgrade the telecommunications network in this country. To argue a case that there was no foresight is wrong. The option that government could have taken, in reaching an agreement with Telstra, was to buy the pits and pipes; that was a very real option on the table. And, oh, what a mistake that would have been!

This is rubbish infrastructure. I would be surprised if Telstra today even has a clear map of where all the pits and pipes in our country are, as they have been developed over 60 years going back to PMG days, and they are rubbish infrastructure—waterlogged, asbestos-riddled. Yes, there is rust in there, and, yes, this is infrastructure the government should not own and—I think, happily—does not own.

The words of the CEO of Telstra, David Thodey, yesterday should have weight placed upon them in this debate. He accepted full responsibility for the management of asbestos in their pits and pipes. The manuals are in place; the rules of engagement on safe handling of asbestos are there. I think this chamber rightly, with the government, should push the CEO, the management and the shareholders of Telstra to make sure they follow the rules that have been long established in how to handle asbestos in their pits and pipes.

But then, in this debate, to try and draw a link and say that we should halt the National Broadband Network—as seems to be the agreed position between the union and the Liberal-National party—is wrong. We just need to follow the long-established rules on the safe handling and management of asbestos. And we need to do that for the next decade, regardless of who is in office.

There is going to be a completion of an upgrade of telecommunications. The words of the Liberal-National party in launching their NBN policy were that they would complete the NBN. Fibre to the node does not mean that you are bailing out. If, as to the last 500 metres to a kilometre, there is a voluntary engagement, as part of the Liberal-National party policy, that a home can buy access to fibre to the premises—and, sure, we can argue about price another time, whether it is between $2,000 or $6,000—then to actually have that on offer means that the pits and pipes over that last 500 metres to a kilometre are not just going to be accessed once; they are going to be accessed every single time a home wants to take up the option, as per the policy, of fibre to the premises.

So both parties in this chamber, whoever is the government of the day after 15 September, have a policy that every single pit and pipe in this country over the next decade will be accessed. And I would hope that we push Telstra, their management and their shareholders to handle asbestos according to the long-established principles on the safe handling of a very dangerous product.

But to turn it into some sort of political divide and an exercise in political expediency, to blow up an agreed position on the completion of the National Broadband Network, is just cheap. And it is wrong. And it is disingenuous in this debate to try and imply that one policy will be safer than the other and that one side of the parliament has more foresight than the other.

Telstra owns the pits and pipes. They have taken the money from government to upgrade those pits and pipes, including dealing with asbestos as part of that upgrade. Whichever policy, after 15 September, is the one that leads to the completion of the National Broadband Network, access over the next decade to every single pit and pipe in this country will be a necessity. It is a lie to suggest otherwise.

So the agreed principles on handling asbestos should certainly be an issue that this chamber pushes Telstra to deliver upon. But that does not mean that one policy is better than the other. It does not mean that one policy is safer than the other. And it certainly does not mean that the principle of equity should not be delivered to communities like mine in a telecommunications upgrade that is desperately needed in this country.

Our copper network is full. The infrastructure around the copper network is rubbish. The industry does need to be restructured—split between retail and poles-and-wires—as part of agreements reached to date. We do deserve in this country of ours to have ubiquity across a wholesale platform. We do deserve to have speeds better than 25 megs as part of engaging with the globe around us. We do deserve to have reliability. We do deserve to have retail competition under that wholesale platform that is actually at a good, decent and fair price. This is all part of the biggest infrastructure upgrade of our time, going on right now. I have heard people talk about the want and desire for vision. Well, this is the vision for this nation. It is the largest infrastructure build of our time.

The rules around asbestos are clear and the same for both sides. The impact in dealing with the pits and pipes will be the same. Let us get on with the job and by all means push Telstra, the union, the Liberal Party, Ray Hadley, the people of Penrith and whoever. But do not turn an issue around mishandling of asbestos, according to the current rules, into an exercise of trying to blow up a really important infrastructure bill for our nation, one that finally delivers on the principle of equity. We are a big, isolated country. Our telecommunication systems should match the best in the world. This is it. Let us deliver it. Let us get over the politics.