Asbestos: who is accountable?

Dominic Kelly 

Dominic Kelly

First published on The Guardian on 5 June 2013.





Throughout the past week, Australians have gradually been made aware of the seriousness of the reports about workers and residents across the country being exposed to asbestos fibres as a result of the National Broadband Network (NBN) rollout.

The significance of the issue is demonstrated by yesterday’s emergency meeting of workplace relations minister Bill Shorten and the chief executives of Telstra and NBN Co. Considering what we know about the lethal consequences of the use of asbestos in construction and industry over the decades, Australians want to be assured that lives are not put at risk.

However, in their haste to blame the Gillard government and the “government business enterprise” NBN Co, some commentators appeared to have failed to see that they are contradicting their related campaigns about deregulation, cost cutting and the elimination of “red tape”.

In fact, the sorts of problems being reported, as well as those linked to the Rudd government’s Home Insulation Program (the “pink batts debacle” in media shorthand), are the logical consequence of deregulation in areas that can only be effectively regulated by governments.

Echoing the concerns of such lobby groups as the Business Council of Australia, the Australian and the Australian Financial Review have pushed hard on the issues of deregulation and red tape for several years. Clearly, Rudd was sympathetic to these concerns – the department of finance and administration was renamed the department of finance and deregulation immediately following Labor’s election victory in November 2007.

The underlying assumption of the deregulation campaign appears to be that if you simply get governments out of the way, businesses will effectively regulate themselves. But who is accountable when things go wrong, especially with regard to workplace health and safety? Do we leave businesses to get their own houses in order, or do we look to our elected representatives to keep an eye on them for us? It seems that some commentators and business leaders would like to have it both ways.

While it is still unclear at this stage as to who bears ultimate responsibility for the recent asbestos failures – is it Telstra, the NBN Co, subcontractors or the government? – The Australian's editorial seems intent on laying the blame almost exclusively with the government for its lack of regulatory oversight:

To think that workers and families could have been exposed needlessly to risk because of lax procedures is an indictment on NBN planning and oversight. Procedures and training should have been in place to ensure no workers or residents were exposed to risk.

Eminently sensible statements, without doubt. But also the very types of procedural oversight, or red tape, that business lobbyists and pro-business journalists routinely claim are constraining profits and holding us back as a nation.

Parallels have also been drawn between the NBN and the “disastrous” Home Insulation Program (HIP), which was shut down in February 2010 after only one year of operation. This followed revelations that four people had died, and over 200 houses had caught fire as a direct result of the program. There were also concerns about the potentially fraudulent behaviour of some contractors. The Australian National Audit Office was very critical of the way many aspects of the program were handled in its comprehensive 209-page report.

But when a government-funded program carried out by private contractors goes horribly wrong, is the government to blame? Should we not look to those very contractors, who have a responsibility to perform their work safely and judiciously? In the thousands of words I have read in news reports about the HIP, I am yet to come across a condemnation of the contractors most closesly connected with its failures, in stark contrast to the way the government’s role has been portrayed.

Implicit in the argument that self-regulation is preferable to government oversight is the assumption that businesses will always abide by legal and ethical principles. The apparently life-threatening and fraudulent behaviour of some contractors in the NBN and HIP examples suggests otherwise. That some will cut corners is an unfortunate fact of life, so if we can’t trust businesses to regulate themselves, our only option is to turn to government.

If we want to be able to hold individuals and institutions to account when things go wrong, we must accept that government regulation is of vital importance, for no one is more accountable for their actions than our democratically elected representatives.

When governments have full regulatory oversight, we can by all means lay the blame squarely at their feet when problems arise. But to argue for deregulation and cutting of red tape, and then blame the government when businesses fail to self-regulate, smacks of inconsistency.

Dominic Kelly is a PhD candidate and tutor in the School of Social Sciences and Communication.