Back in the 1980s when asbestos containing materials were banned in building and construction, one might reasonably have assumed that risks associated with the deadly material would progressively be confined to older buildings and infrastructure which were constructed prior to the prohibition.
As numerous examples have shown, however, the presence of the deadly material is now back with vengeance amid a surge in the volume of materials being imported from places such as China and India. This will only be resolved through a cooperative approach under which multiple parties work together.
Alas, it appears that the government – or at least one minister – would rather engage in political point scoring and apportioning blame. In an interview on Sydney radio station 2GB on August 4, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton sought to attribute significant areas of responsibility for the growth in asbestos importation to the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). Thuggish behaviour by the CFMEU, Dutton claimed, was driving up building costs and forcing contractors to ‘cut corners’ through measures such as importing cheap materials.
There are two problems with this. First, any suggestion that the CFMEU is in any way responsible for the importation of asbestos containing materials is wide of the mark. Second, we need to work together to combat this problem: fighting against each other and blaming one another is pointless.
To be sure, the union does have a fair bit to answer for. The blackmail and intimidation outlined in the final report of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption and also documented in cases brought against various union officials by Fair Work Building and Construction is unacceptable and should not be tolerated.
But whilst this kind of thing no doubt drives up labour and other costs on site, it does not impact the selection of materials which are brought to site: that. Cheap imports are being brought to site not because of anything which happens on site but instead because they are simply less expensive to purchase. Put another way, if the CFMEU were to disappear tomorrow, any builders who use cheap and potentially inferior materials now would not magically cease to do so.
In addition, it should be noted that asbestos is turning up not just in building materials but also in imported consumer goods such as toys and cars. Last year, for instance, asbestos was found in crayons imported from China which found their way onto children’s toy stores. In 2012, almost 25,000 Great Wall and Chery Chinese cars had to be recalled after asbestos was found in the engine and exhaust gaskets. If Dutton really thinks that the construction union is responsible for asbestos containing materials being imported, how does he explain this?
Moreover, if we are to apportion blame, then Dutton himself has questions to answer. Why for instance, did he sit on a report containing important recommendations as to how border protection can improve its practices with regard to asbestos detection which he received in March and has only recently released? Why, as reported by the ABC last month, is border force checking less than one in ten of all shipments which fall into the high risk category for asbestos during risk assessments?
But the bigger point is that we should not be pointing fingers at all. As with the broader issue of the importation of products which do not conform to Australian standards, the importation of asbestos containing materials is a multi-faceted problem requiring action on several fronts. This includes better co-ordination between government agencies; greater clarity in roles and responsibilities; beefing up testing efforts; tightening up evidence gathering requirements regarding the safety and suitability of products under the Building Code of Australia; greater awareness on the part of designers, builders and subcontractors about steps which should be taken to ensure that only compliant material is used; and increasing both the number of prosecutions for illegal asbestos importation and penalties involved.
All this requires leadership, action and cooperation – especially from government. Blaming and finger pointing achieves nothing other than to take our collective eye off the ball. Unfortunately, Dutton obviously either doesn’t get that or otherwise doesn’t care.
The asbestos battle will only be won if we work together. Let’s stop blaming each other and instead work together in order to deal with this serious threat to all of our long term health.