Safety & the NBN

I spoke today on the Matter of Public Importance debate, moved by Malcolm Turnbull.
Matter of Public Importance - National Broadband Network, 4 June 2013

I appreciate the member for Wentworth providing us with a chance to set the record straight on what has been a disgraceful fear campaign by the coalition.

As with any major national project there are important conversations that policymakers need to have about what we want to achieve and how best to set about achieving it. So I want to speak first about why Australia needs the National Broadband Network—a fibre-to-the-home network—and then discuss the issues of asbestos that the honourable member has raised and how the government is responding to those.

The simple fact is that in a 21st century developed country, access to the internet is a form of basic infrastructure. It is to our generation as the water and electricity networks were to generations before. The member for Wentworth knows this; he has great knowledge of the information technology industry—certainly unlike his leader, who has confessed 'I'm no tech-head'.

The member for Wentworth might cast his mind back to 1923, when construction began on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Back then, Sydney was home to fewer than 40,000 cars—not enough to cause a single traffic jam. But when construction on that bridge began the policymakers of the era built a bridge capable of carrying six lanes of traffic flanked by an extra two lanes for trains. It might have seemed a bold move but, as the member for Wentworth well knows, and as his constituents would well know, the Sydney Harbour Bridge is now an indispensable artery of the city's transport system. Over 160,000 cars cross the bridge daily, four times the entire number of cars that existed in the city of Sydney when construction of the bridge first began.

The point here is that the Sydney Harbour Bridge was not designed for the Sydney of the 1920s; it was designed for, and it continues to serve, a Sydney of the future. And it is that same spirit with which Labor first proposed a national broadband network. We do not know precisely how our technological use will change in the future. But one way of thinking about this is to think about how our own IT usage has changed just in the past 10 years, and then imagine it changing just as dramatically again.

That is why we need the National Broadband Network. Under the NBN, every home and every business will have access to superfast internet via optic fibre, fixed wireless and satellite technologies. For 93 per cent of homes and businesses this will be a national fibre network. The point here is that unlike copper, which transmits electrical current, fibre uses pulses of light to transmit information. Over recent years, engineers have steadily been achieving more rapid fibre transmission speeds: up from 100 megabits a second a few years ago to 1,000 megabits a second today. That is the difference between being able to download a CD full of information every five seconds rather than every 50 seconds. And the boffins do not think that they have found the limit on fibre just yet. Some tests suggest that it could be up to 1,000 times faster again. Unlike copper, fibre-to-the-premises is an information superhighway without a speed limit.

People in my own electorate of Fraser are already seeing the benefits the NBN has to offer. Gungahlin Library is part of the Gungahlin Digital Hub, where residents are able to learn more about how to access the NBN. They are running free training sessions, covering a range of computer basics, every day online activities, online safety and security and connection options. I would encourage those opposite, whether they call themselves tech heads, or especially if they do not, to visit the Gungahlin Library to learn about how the NBN is delivering.

I have welcomed the release of detailed maps by NBN Co. which show where the construction of the National Broadband Network will start. The maps show that NBN fibre has been rolling out across Civic, Acton and parts of Braddon, as well as in Gungahlin. It is worth making the point that for all its conniptions about Labor's National Broadband Network, the coalition has now adopted a policy which has a multibillion dollar price tag and which has the same accounting treatment as Labor's NBN, but which ultimately will deliver far slower speeds than the NBN. So the need for the National Broadband Network is clear.

I want to turn now, though, to the issue that the member for Wentworth has raised over managing asbestos risk during the rollout. As has been made clear during question time, the health and safety of Australian workers and Australian communities is our number one priority. As the opposition would be well aware, Telstra has accepted full responsibility for the issue. The government is expecting Telstra and its contractors to follow Australia's strict laws on the handling and removal of asbestos in preparing its pits and ducts for the rollout of the NBN. Those pits and ducts are owned by Telstra and used by NBN Co.

We have announced that the first National Asbestos Exposure Register will be created and maintained by the new National Asbestos Safety and Eradication Authority. This continues the strong tradition in the Australian Labor movement, leading the national charge on identifying and eradicating the scourge of asbestos and asbestos-related disease.

It was the labour movement that got asbestos banned: blue in 1967, brown in the mid-1980s, white in 2003. That happened thanks to pressure from the labour movement. There cannot be any shortcuts in asbestos safety. We understand that and we have acted.

There have been a number of incidents in recent times through the remediation of Telstra's pits and ducts, and that includes in Penrith. There has been at least one as a result of work being done by contractors to NBN Co. When you are working in the telecommunications industry and doing this type of work, you will deal with asbestos. That is well known. But the most important issue, and the one the government has continued to focus on, is to ensure that the strict laws in place for the handling and removal of asbestos are followed at all times. It does not matter if you are Telstra, if you are NBN Co., if you are a builder doing renovations: asbestos has to be dealt with in a safe and appropriate way.

The coalition cannot pretend that this issue would not arise under their policy. If you are advancing fibre-to-the-node technology, as the opposition does—and they have accepted that it is a slower technology that will deliver slower broadband speeds—it will involve working in areas with asbestos risk. To suggest otherwise is to suggest that perhaps we are intending to leave the copper in the ground forever, that Australia will forever have a copper network. Copper to the home is not something that anyone believes Australia will have in a century's time.

NBN Co. is continuing to assess the situation but it does not expect it to impede the overall rollout. The construction process already takes into account a period of several months in each area for Telstra to remediate its infrastructure. The remediation of Telstra's infrastructure is carried out by Telstra and it is paid for by Telstra. Telstra has known for 30 years about the presence of asbestos in its pits, and this is a process which will be managed by Telstra.

Since 2007, Labor has done more than any previous government to combat the problem of asbestos. We have established the National Asbestos Agency, the National Asbestos Plan and the National Asbestos Exposure Register. Under the Gillard government we established the asbestos management review in 2010. Before that there was no coordinated or consistent approach to managing asbestos beyond workplaces. That is why earlier this year we also introduced legislation to parliament to establish the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency. In the 2013-14 budget we provided that agency with $10½ million in funding over the next four years to help protect Australians from asbestos related diseases. The agency will pave a new way for a national approach to asbestos eradication. It will handle asbestos awareness and education. It will administer a national strategic plan.

Conversely, what can we say about the record of the coalition on asbestos management? I am sure some of the speakers who will follow me will say something about the Leader of the Opposition's track record in this regard. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition was a lawyer who fought to deny compensation to thousands of victims of CSR's asbestos mine in Wittenoom. Back in 2004 it was Labor who shamed the coalition into returning donations given to them by James Hardie. In 2007, as health minister, the Leader of the Opposition refused to list on the PBS a drug known as Alimta, which would ease the suffering of asbestosis patients.

Mr Turnbull: Mr Deputy Speaker, on a point of order: the remarks that the honourable member has made about the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Opposition are not relevant to this MPI. He is just having a free kick.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Murphy): The member for Wentworth will resume his seat. The parliamentary secretary will speak to the motion.

Dr LEIGH: Thank you, Deputy Speaker. I understand why those opposite are concerned about the track record of the two major parties when it comes to asbestos. As Fairfax media has reported, in 2001 Telstra wanted to create an independent body to fast-track compensation payments to employees exposed to asbestos and sought approval from the then department of workplace relations. The then minister for workplace relations was the now opposition leader, so the fact is that the opposition leader knew as far back as 2001 that Telstra was aware of asbestos in its infrastructure and sat on his hands. It is time for the opposition leader to explain what he knew, what correspondence he had with Telstra about asbestos in 2001 when he was workplace relations minister and why he chose to ignore it.

In 2005 a question on notice was asked of then Minister McGauran, representing the then communications minister, Senator Coonan, about Telstra's use of asbestos. The minister provided an answer in February 2006—not exactly a speedy answer, but an answer nonetheless—that explained Telstra's use of asbestos in pits, ducts and exchanges and the possibility of exposure. So those opposite cannot argue that the Howard government was ignorant of this issue. The Howard government was in fact well aware of the issues with asbestos and Telstra's infrastructure. Those opposite have a track record of this standing up for James Hardie, while those on this side of the House have a track record of standing up for those who have been affected by asbestos, of standing up for workers, of standing up for people like Bernie Banton.

We know the National Broadband Network is a necessity. We are working to mitigate the risks that are generated by building the NBN, but only someone who argues that they will never open a single pit again can promise that this asbestos will not be disturbed. The coalition's policy is a policy which builds fibre to suburban nodes. It is the kind of 'get your water at the village well' approach. If you want to build fibre from the node to the home you will have to pay for it yourself, at $5,000 a pop. That is not only inequitable but it will mean that for many Australian households their connections are 25 megabits a second at best. That is around one-40th the speed that the NBN can provide. I am sure slow upload and download speeds trouble the member for Wentworth, but they do not trouble the Leader of the Opposition. He has made the brash statement that he is 'confident 25 megs is enough for the average household'. I have talked about what that kind of thinking in the 1920s would have meant for the Sydney Harbour Bridge: the Leader of the Opposition would have built a single-lane bridge because that was enough for the then 40,000 cars in Sydney.

But we do not have to use infrastructure analogies; we can use IT analogies. When I bought my first computer in 1984 it had 3½ kilobytes of memory. I do not think that we send emails that small these days. But in fact in that period the then computer editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, Gareth Powell, wrote that he thought no program would ever need more than 16 kilobytes. Statements like that are a warning to anyone who forgets that the things we can do with technology far outpace our imagination. The sorts of statements by the Leader of the Opposition suggesting that 25 megabits a second is enough ought to embarrass the member for Wentworth, and I know they trouble many prominent Australians. Dr Karl Kruszelnicki recently told me that he regularly talks to school classes using Skype. With the Australian classes the copper connection is unreliable and has to be reset a couple of times an hour. But if he talks to Korean or Japanese students, he can expect an uninterrupted high-resolution videoconference. That is what the National Broadband Network will deliver to Australians.

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