Thursday, December 20, 2007

3CR interview on asbestos at Roberts Street

This morning I was interviewed on community radio station 3CR's breakfast program about asbestos at the Roberts Street public housing flats in Northcote. The interview covered the failure of the Office of Housing and Northcote MP Fiona Richardson to release information about asbestos at the flats and how it will be dealt with when the flats are demolished and redeveloped for new public housing early in the new year.

As well as being the local MP, Richardson chairs the community advisory committee for the redevelopment, but has yet to fulfil a 5 December commitment in The Melbourne Times to release an asbestos audit for the site that the Office of Housing website claims has already been done. Nor has demolition tender information been released, despite the website stating that the tender for demolition was to be advertised mid-December. No minutes for any of the community advisory committee meetings are available on the website, including the 26 November meeting at which Richardson claims the issue of asbestos was discussed.

While I wholeheartedly support the Roberts Street public housing redevelopment, it should proceed with transparency and accountability – especially with regard to asbestos. As I said in this morning's interview, if the government is asking us to trust them on asbestos at Roberts Street, then I'd say trust comes with openness and public information, not secrecy and spin.

If you'd like to get in touch with me on this issue, email, or leave a comment by following the comments link at the bottom of this post.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Garrett Should Reject Channel Deepening in the Bay

Federal Evironment Minister, Peter Garrett, is set to decide on channel deepening in Victoria's Port Phillip Bay this Thursday 20 December. I recently received an email urging people to write to Garrett on the issue, so I did. Here is my my open letter to the minister:
Dear Peter,

I urge you to reject channel deepening in Port Phillip Bay when you make your decision this Thursday 20 December. I urge this decision for two main reasons. The first is the uncertainty as to the environmental impact in terms of the marine ecology ? due both to the removal of rocks at Port Phillip Heads, but also to the disturbance of toxic sediment that will likely damage the health of the Bay in unanticipated ways. If the deepening goes ahead and these risks are realised, there is no prospect of successful remediation that will return the Bay to its current state within the foreseeable future. Like the felling of a tree in an old-growth forest, once the damage is done, it is irreversible ? it would be, in the words of Cormac McCarthy's recent novel, The Road, 'a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again'.

The second main reason for rejecting Bay deepening is that the channel is proposed to be deepened primarily to allow the entry of larger cargo ships, providing for the substantial growth of shipping traffic through the Port of Melbourne. This will necessarily impact on Australia's efforts to prevent dangerous climate change both in terms of the emissions of the shipping itself, and in terms of the promotion of increased consumption and its related carbon emissions.

I have seen nothing from the Victorian State Government connecting and reconciling the issues of channel deepening and climate change. Surely, given our recent participation in the UN climate change talks in Bali, Australia should be showing more than rhetorical leadership in this global emergency. Will the report of Professor Garnaut examine planned increases to shipping levels? If this is not part of the Rudd Government's considerations, on what basis has it been excluded?

In conclusion, I urge you to reject the channel deepening in Port Phillip Bay, and thereby to make a stand for the environment, and for the Australian people in their hope for climate change leadership following the election of the Rudd Government.

Yours sincerely etc.

If you oppose channel deepening in Port Phillip Bay, please write to Peter Garrett as soon as possible before tomorrow's decision.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Full picture slow to emerge on Roberts Street asbestos

Public pressure on Northcote MP, Fiona Richardson, and the Office of Housing is beginning to pay off with the slow emergence of the full picture of the asbestos in the soon-to-be demolished Roberts Street public housing flats. Calls on this blog and in The Melbourne Times for the release of information have resulted in the tardy update (11 December) of one page of the Office of Housing's website about the redevelopment. The relevant passages on asbestos read as follows:

An extensive audit for the presence of asbestos containing material was the first step in planning for the safe demolition of the buildings. The analysis was undertaken by independent experts and found asbestos materials in eaves linings, heater flues, window flashings and some joint sealants. Asbestos was a commonly used building material between the 1940's and mid 1980's because of its qualities of fire resistance, insulation and durability. The material was phased out between 1975 and 1985.

The handling and removal of materials containing asbestos will be undertaken by specialists according to the highest industry standards. In addition, an independent occupational hygienist will be engaged to monitor air quality during the works and provide a 'clearance certificate' for the asbestos removal, to ensure that the dust levels during demolition are below the prescribed maximum levels.
So what can we surmise from this? Well, the extent of asbestos on the site is somewhat clearer – there seems to be a fair bit of it. It also appears that an audit has been done. So, judging by Richardson's commitment in The Melbourne Times (5 December, page 8), its full release must be imminent. That will tell us when the audit was done, who did it, what the specific findings were, and what type and amount of asbestos is present ('an extensive audit for the presence of asbestos'). We'll also be able to judge whether the release of public information has been timely.

We also have a better estimate of the demolition timeline. According to the page quoted from above, it's looking like February. OK, good to know. We have a bit more time to get very clear about the situation and to take steps to inform the public if Richardson and her bureaucrats fall down in that regard.

What is still unknown? Well, we don't know who will undertake the demolition, as the tender will be advertised mid-December (that's in the next few days, I guess). However, we should expect notification on the redevelopment website, and it should certainly appear on the Victorian Government Tenders website, should it not? The documentation should reveal pretty plainly the sort of precautions that are expected to be taken during the demolition – presumably referencing State controls regarding asbestos.

We should also expect to know who the 'independent occupational hygienist' is, and exactly how the monitoring will be performed. Will this be the subject of a tender? If so, the same considerations apply as with the demolition tender.

Once the demolition contract is let, we should be able to find out who won it and look into their track record regarding demolitions involving asbestos. Will the contractor be on the Trades Hall register of approved consultants, for example? I hope so.

Finally, despite a modest concession to public information, we still don't have available on the website the minutes of any of the community advisory committee meetings – including the 26 November meeting at which the issue of asbestos was supposedly discussed. So, to the public release of the asbestos audit and the tender information, we should add the minutes of these meetings.

Why is all this necessary? Many people have a tendency to believe that the government will 'do the right thing'. To that kind of belief I would respond that the government/public housing bureaucracy has let the Roberts Street flats deteriorate over years knowing that asbestos was present. It is commonly known that the risk from asbestos increases with such deterioration. In that case, surely it is more likely the government will 'do the right thing' if they are persuaded to release information by which they can be held accountable. And that must benefit everyone living in close proximity to the flats, or who happens to live downwind of the demolition.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Where's the asbestos audit, Fiona?

In an article in this week's edition of The Melbourne Times, Northcote MP, Fiona Richardson, responds to concerns about asbestos in the soon-to-be demolished Roberts Street flats by saying that an audit of asbestos and removal plans will be made publicly available. The trouble is that, despite the timeline for the project being long known and the demolition being close at hand, there has been almost complete silence on this issue. That's why I raised concerns with TMT, and was unsurprised that those concerns turned out to be shared by former residents.

Yes, there is still one resident who has not been transferred to alternative accommodation, but delaying the commencement of the redevelopment shouldn't mean stalling an asbestos audit and making the results publicly available, or failing to be open and transparent on an issue of public health. I am told, for example, that the issue was raised at the recent community advisory committee meeting (26 November) not by the attending officials, but by a resident.

Given that the committee meetings are understandably held at a time suitable for the residents rather than members of the wider community to attend, that places a special onus on the committee, and on Richardson as its chair, to communicate more effectively via letterboxing and the web. Yet the Office of Housing website appears not to have been updated since September, and contains absolutely no mention of asbestos.

So what should we expect on this issue? I think it's reasonable to have answered the questions I sent to Richardson on 28 November. It's reasonable that as much information be made available as will allow the community to make its own judgment about whether asbestos will be appropriately handled to ensure a safe redevelopment.

As a start, Fiona, when was the audit commissioned and exactly when will it be published and distributed? We might also have the minutes of meetings published on the web as soon as they are completed, so that those who can't attend in normal working hours can read what's going on. It's time to move towards openness and transparency, and away from spin doctors and so-called issues management - which is really more about covering backsides than informing the public of the things they have a right to know.

If you want to prompt Richardson to respond, why not call her electoral office on 9481 5777, or email

You might also consider writing a letter to The Melbourne Times by emailing, or calling them on 9473 4700 to express your concern.

For those of you who are interested, ABC Radio National's Australia Talks did a program on asbestos last night. The Science Show will also shortly broadcast a series on mesothelioma, a deadly disease caused by exposure to the fibre.

While it is important to remember that asbestos can be removed safely to protect human health, not all asbestos exposure occurs in the workplace – there have been numerous examples of dangerous cost-cutting in commercial demolition works. That's why it's important for the government to set the standard with projects such as the Roberts Street redevelopment.

Your comments are most welcome here, or feel free to email me if you prefer to discuss this matter offline.

More on asbestos at Roberts Street shortly

If you've received my flyer and want to see the questions I sent to Richardson, see below. More soon!

Roskam plain wrong on Howard loss

The Institute of Public Affairs' John Roskam was pushing his skewed take on national affairs in the opinion pages of The Age yesterday in a piece entitled, 'It wasn't because they weren't "liberal" enough that the Libs lost'. It was part confused rationalisation of the Howard loss, part prescription of where to from here for the Liberal Party.

To me the piece was badly argued, and I responded in a letter to the editor that was somewhat shortened in the published version ('A vote on values'). Here's the full version:

John Roskam is clearly bewildered by the Coalition's deserved loss of the election – he's also confused. While Kevin Rudd did play small-target politics and the charge of me-tooism was not unjustified, his strategy highlighted significant differences between his alternative government and the Howard Coalition. These differences were of policy and value.

If, as Roskam suggests, values can guide the Coalition's future policy formulation, it is also true that the policies it took to the election reflected underlying values that voters emphatically rejected.

WorkChoices was both an abhorrent policy and indicative of a Coalition that valued an exploitative inequality favouring employers over workers. The failure to endorse Kyoto was again symptomatic of valuing a narrow, big-business construction of economic prosperity over the health of an environment shared by us all.

Unfortunately, calls by Roskam and others for the Liberals to be the party that 'defends and extends personal freedoms' are too often code for removing constraints from corporations (so-called 'legal persons') to the detriment of the public interest – the Coalition's WorkChoices and climate change policies were just two, electorally disastrous, examples.

That's why Howard lost, John, and why, in terms of policy and value, Rudd's election brings a promise of fresh, carbon-free air.