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Tuesday, 4 June 2013
Page: 5094

Mr HARTSUYKER (Cowper) (16:15): I welcome the opportunity to speak on this very important matter before the House. This is a debate about competence and integrity. It is about competence, because the government and NBN Co. knew that asbestos would be a key challenge for the NBN project and they have miserably failed to meet that challenge. It is about integrity, because the government's dishonesty and lack of accountability mean that Australian families cannot believe a word spoken by this Labor minister. But ultimately, today's debate is about ensuring that Australian families are not forced from their own homes because a Telstra or NBN Co. contractor releases asbestos fibres into the air. This is about making sure that no worker contracts mesothelioma because he was working on the NBN rollout. This is about keeping Australian families safe.

Although we do have our differences of opinion on many things, I think it is clear that both sides of parliament do take this issue seriously. Ultimately, we have the best interests of Australian workers and families at heart. However there is one member of parliament who does not seem to care a whole lot about this particular issue. At 4:53pm yesterday, the member for Lyne tweeted this extraordinary comment:

This asbestos beat up on NBN is extraordinary politics.

The Australian public can make of that what they will. However, I wonder whether the member for Lyne would still claim this is a beat-up if it was his family that was forced to leave their home due to fears of asbestos contamination. Would he think it is still a beat-up if it was his son or his daughter who may have been exposed to asbestos? I wonder whether the residents of Lyne would be pleased to know that their local member thinks that a poorly trained contractor hacking into an asbestos contaminated pit outside their house is just a 'beat-up'. We may not all agree, but at the very least I think it is reasonable to expect every member of this House to take this issue seriously.

While most of us take the issue of asbestos management seriously, the government clearly lacks the competence to go with their concern. Asbestos was always going to be a key challenge of the NBN rollout. We know that the current Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations was aware of this issue as far back as 2009. Telstra has been aware of this issue for years. NBN Co. has also been aware of this issue for years. So why are we having this debate? Why are we having families living in hotels in Sydney because their houses are contaminated with asbestos? Why did the government have to call a crisis meeting yesterday? Why is there a crisis at all?

The answer is very simple. This government is completely incompetent. This government makes the Hollow Men and Yes, Minister look like the very models of an effective government. This government could not even give away free ceiling insulation without burning down people's houses. The government could not give away money to Australians during the GFC without also sending cheques to dead people and pets. The Gillard Labor government will probably go down as Australia's worst government in history.

But in the worst government in Australian history, the Minister for Broadband and Communications is a special type of incompetent. He tried to regulate the print media for the first time in our peacetime history, and lost that battle in a fortnight. It seems that he has just given up on anti-siphoning. His first try at a national broadband network died a quick death and taxpayers had to pay compensation to Sky because of the way Senator Conroy handled the Australia network tender. Even if we set aside our philosophical differences about the best way to roll out the NBN to all Australians, the NBN is still a failure because of this government's incompetence and inability to implement even the most basic of policies.

On an issue this serious, the least Australians can expect is that the government will be honest and open about the scale of the problem and the potential risks to families and the taxpayer. Unfortunately, as with other aspects of the NBN, you cannot trust a word that is said by NBN Co. or the government. We have endured for years vague and misleading information from the government and NBN Co. on every aspect of the project. I could provide the House with dozens of examples of misleading and vague information being provided by NBN Co. and the government, but to save time I will mention just one. The following exchange is from a public hearing of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the NBN in April. Mr Fletcher asked:

Are you finding that asbestos is a big issue across the board?

NBN CEO Mike Quigley, replied:

What is your view, Ralph? I would not say it is a big issue.

Then the Chief Operating Officer, Ralph Steffens, added:

No. It is present, as it would be anywhere, in any geography. But it does not seem to be a huge problem at this stage.

So apparently two months ago asbestos was not 'a big issue'. These are not my words; these are the words of Senator Conroy's handpicked CEO of NBN Co.

Well, it is a big issue. Families have been indefinitely moved out of their homes. Workers have been put at risk. The NBN rollout has been stopped at various locations all around Australia. In some areas Telstra says the rollout has stopped, while NBN says it is still going ahead. Who can we believe? Yesterday, I must say I was impressed by the CEO of Telstra, David Thodey, who admitted there were problems with the way the issue had been handled by Telstra and promised to do everything he could to fix the problem.

But we have not seen the same level of accountability or honesty from Senator Conroy or NBN Co. Senator Conroy has big questions to answer. The key question here is whether the government pushed NBN Co. to accelerate the rollout to avoid even more embarrassment than it currently suffers as to the very slow pace of the project and, in doing so, pushed contractors to cut corners. That is a question this minister must answer. We know the NBN is massively behind schedule, and we know it is getting further behind each and every day. Senator Thistlethwaite came into my electorate in March last year and told my constituents that construction of the NBN would be complete in Toormina within 12 months. Fourteen months later, there is still no NBN in Toormina.

And every day the rollout is delayed, the cost blows out just a little more Senator Conroy says that asbestos-related issues will not increase the cost of the network, but that is just more deceit from the government. Every day of delay increases the cost of the project. Proper management of the NBN requires integrity and honesty.

This project is being propped up by Australian taxpayers, who deserve to know the true state of the rollout and the risks and challenges of the project. Even my local paper, the Coffs Coast Advocate, has started questioning the lack of accountability of NBN Co., with an article last week highlighting just how difficult it is to get any meaningful information out of NBN Co. The local paper said:

The figures of how many customers have taken up high-speed broadband, however, remains firmly under wraps. NBN Co has refused to divulge localised sign-up figures to the media …

Australians deserve to know the truth about the NBN rollout.

Unfortunately, the current situation is just the latest blunder in a series of massive blunders by Senator Conroy and the Labor government. There are disturbing parallels between this situation, the pink batts debacle and the BER fiasco. On one hand we have cost blowouts and waste typified in the BER debacle, and on the other hand we have the risk to public safety created in relation to the giving away of pink batts.

The NBN project is beset by delays and cost blowouts. Universal, affordable broadband access has the potential to improve business productivity and community amenity. Unfortunately, this latest crisis means that Australians with poor broadband services will be waiting even longer for decent broadband. This is not a beat-up. This is all about the government's mismanagement of the NBN. It is a national disgrace, and it is time to get adults in charge of this project.

The opposition has not been politicising this matter. We have approached it in a sober and measured way. We have brought it to the attention of the relevant authorities. It is the government's incompetence that is the problem here. Senator Conroy cannot just rest on the fact that Telstra is undertaking certain works. Senator Conroy is responsible for what is happening here. He has to take full responsibility. We have a situation where families right around the country do not feel safe in their homes because of the actions of this government, and it is Senator Conroy who clearly bears the responsibility for this. It is a project that has shown very poor levels of management. It is a project that is massively behind time. It is a project that is way over budget. It is a project that needs decent management if it is to be brought on track. I am very pleased to be able to contribute to this matter of public importance today because it very much is a matter of the utmost importance to this nation both for its future in relation to technology rollouts but also in relation to public health and safety.