Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Office of Saying Nothing

That's my proposed name-change for the Office of Housing following the news on its Roberts Street redevelopment website today that demolition works proper That's right, the buildings are now being knocked down with zero days' notice from the Housing website.

To this our bureaucratic champion of public disclosure added the late-breaking 'news' that asbestos removal concluded... Tuesday last week (8 April), with air-monitoring supposedly showing we have nothing to worry about – despite the strong likelihood that official results will never be released, and that we won't be told what sampling arrangements were in place.

Nor, it seems, can we expect that the results of the further testing recommended by Housing's own audit will be made available any time soon.

In fact, Housing would not even respond to an email to asking them who is the official keeper of air-monitoring and testing results, so that those seeking the information through freedom of information laws might know who to ask without being given the bureaucratic run-around.

Instead, the Office of Housing has devoted itself to saying as little as possible at the last possible moment. Here's a snapshot of the update published today, and here's a snapshot from Google showing the last previous update. It shows definitively that 8 April was the last time the site was updated, at which stage there was no mention of the completion of asbestos removal on that very day, nor of the start of demolition being scheduled for today. The inescapable conclusion is that these useful snippets were unequivocally added only today – what a great effort!

If the Office of Housing wins the gold medal in keeping the lid on public interest information, then with them on the podium is WorkSafe. The so-called safety watchdog – seemingly so responsive until the hard questions began to be asked – still hasn't come clean on any directions it gave on site on Wednesday 2 April, a day of record winds, and also a day on which Housing was happy to have asbestos removal works proceed.

As noted previously, we've had the line that the works were undertaken inside, but WorkSafe still hasn't answered questions about the steps it took to ensure that 'inside' didn't mean inside any of the units with broken windows or no window frames at all. That some of the units were clearly in this condition is shown in YouTube video I know WorkSafe has viewed, and yet it doesn't think we deserve a response. A senior officer of WorkSafe's Preston office admitted on the phone on 2 April that asbestos removal works finished early on that day, even that it was likely because of the wind. Did WorkSafe direct or advise that works finish early? If so, what of Housing's decision to even start?

The only thing saving the Office of Housing from major embarrassment on this project is the lack of media willing to devote the resources to look into it. Our local media – with the exception of the public-interest-oriented Radio 3CR – have shown themselves lacking in this regard, while the larger media have many issues pressing for attention.

That's not to say that what gets media coverage equates with what needs it in the public interest, and therein lies the problem. Until that equation becomes more balanced, bureaucracies like Housing will ignore issues on which they feel immune from media exposure. That is to say, they will ignore you – even when it comes to valid concerns over asbestos in a 47-unit public housing redevelopment.

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