Friday, February 29, 2008

Public interest demands disclosure on Bay monitoring

Today The Age published my letter responding to Peter Ker's recent report that a new Upper House committee of the Victorian parliament is set to scrutinise the economic case for dredging Port Phillip Bay. The report also predicted the defeat of a move by Victorian Opposition Leader, Ted Baillieu, to introduce online publication of environmental monitoring information within 24 hours of its receipt. It seems the government's reluctance to disclose public interest information is common to small public housing redevelopments and large-scale Bay dredging projects alike.

Here's the letter:
The Upper House vote to establish a committee to scrutinise the touted economic benefits of Bay dredging is good news. However, what possible public interest reason could justify the Lower House rejection of Ted Baillieu's additional proposal to publish environmental monitoring information on the Internet within 24 hours of its receipt?

Since we are assured of the environmental rigour of the monitoring, the government surely cannot fear that prompt online publication might reveal holes in the process? If indeed there is appropriate monitoring, I challenge Mr Brumby to give us the reasons we can't have timely results. Note to Premier: The possibility that 24 hours is a bit short for a spin cycle doesn't count.

Money for birthday junk mail, but not for asbestos disclosure

This week's Northcote Leader ('Red card to pollie', p.3) reports that Northcote MP Fiona Richardson routinely sends birthday cards to people celebrating milestone birthdays in her electorate - whether she knows them or not. The Leader reported a number of public views - including of recipient Pennie Hayes - many of which criticised the wastage and expense of the MP's self-promotional measure.

Yet the real story not covered by the paper is the farcical contrast of Richardson's self-marketing with her failure to ensure the release of adequate public information about the demolition of an asbestos-contaminated public housing estate in Roberts Street Northcote. Despite yesterday's announcement of the demolition contractor and a letterbox announcement that works will soon begin, questions about further testing recommended by an earlier asbestos audit, as well as the release of an asbestos control plan, remain unanswered.

As readers of this blog will be aware, Richardson heads the community advisory committee for the Roberts Street redevelopment.

On 18 January, Richardson and housing minister Richard Wynne were sent ten key questions to which there has been no adequate response. Let's hope that in years to come no-one gets mesothelioma for their birthday because the government has cut corners with asbestos safety.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Asbestos secrecy raises safety doubts over public housing project

A recent government letterbox update for the Roberts Street Northcote public housing redevelopment has left unanswered key questions about asbestos safety raised by the government's own asbestos audit and demolition tender documents.

The 47-unit Roberts Street estate has been slated for demolition in February in a $9 million redevelopment announced early last year. Three types of asbestos have been found on the site, and it appears that major questions will remain unanswered as an imminent but unspecified start-date approaches.

Issued on 20 February, the update makes no commitment on further testing as recommended by its own audit, says nothing about releasing the results, is silent on releasing the demolition contractor's control plan that would indicate if audit findings will be addressed, and offers no explanation of why asbestos will remain in the buildings when they are demolished.

The update promises 'scrupulous compliance with all relevant legislation' during the demolition. After two more short paragraphs providing no new information about asbestos management, it concludes: 'All this and more is being done in order to ensure that the safety of neighbouring residents and the workers on site will not be compromised'.

Yet the failure to disclose information to the community about asbestos management during the demolition is undermining public confidence that no corners will be cut with asbestos safety when the buildings are knocked down. The site is located in a highly built-up residential area next to a children's playground (Baden Morgan Reserve).

The Office of Housing makes much of its inclusion of the asbestos audit in the demolition tender documents, but excerpts from these two documents show yawning gaps in the public disclosure of information about this project that could have been addressed in what is likely the final communication before the demolition proceeds. Consider the following:

Types of asbestos discovered:
  • Amosite
  • Chrysotile
  • Crocidolite ('blue' asbestos)
(Audit, results of qualitative identification of asbestos)

'Asbestos containing materials in the form of cement sheet, cement pipes, cement flashing, vinyl floor tiles, and mastic were located during the audit' (p. i, audit summary)

Recommendations include:

'A further assessment of currently inaccessible areas be performed prior to or during the course of the demolition works.' (p. i, audit summary) NO DISCLOSURE

'Where practicable, all asbestos containing materials be removed prior to the commencement of demolition works.' (p. i, audit summary) NO DISCLOSURE, but indications are that some asbestos will remain

'Confirmation of suspected or possible asbestos containing materials should be performed prior to demolition works commencing.' (p. i, audit summary) NO DISCLOSURE

Under the audit limitations we have the following:

'Not all suspect materials were sampled.' (p. 2, audit, limitations)

'Additional hazardous building materials may be present in areas that were inaccessible during the course of the audit and may be revealed during demolition or refurbishment works'. (p. 2, audit, limitations) NO DISCLOSURE

A letter from the Office of Housing asbestos auditor to the consulting engineer dated 7 November 2007 is also included in the tender documents:
'It is our belief that once demolished, the percentage of asbestos containing materials in the building rubble will not exceed 1% asbestos by volume.

It is therefore our opinion that the asbestos mastics do not need to be removed prior to demolition of the buildings. If however the building rubble is to be considered for recycling, the receiving recycling plant shall be notified of the nature of the rubble.'

So the asbestos is supposedly safe to leave in the rubble, but recyclers need to know about the contamination. Given this opinion, what does Housing say about what asbestos will in fact remain during the demolition process? - you guessed it, NO DISCLOSURE

Given that the Office of Housing, housing minister Richard Wynne (9096 7722) and Northcote MP Fiona Richardson (9481 5777) have failed to answer questions on these issues when they were called on to respond on 18 January, they either don't know the answers, or they do but want the community to remain in the dark.

The asbestos audit was done in mid-October last year, and they've had the report since early November (released Christmas Eve), so there's no excuse to keep secret information that the public has a right to know. Local residents, regular visitors to the adjacent park and especially the media are strongly encouraged to ring or email Wynne and Richardson and to press them for answers to the questions they were sent in January.

For further information, email me, Darren Lewin-Hill, or call me on 0404 526 555. Updates are available by filling in your email address in the form on the right-hand-side of this page.

For further background, please refer to earlier Northcote Independent posts about the Roberts Street redevelopment

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A wasted opportunity to come clean on asbestos at Roberts Street

I went out my door this evening and saw the Office of Housing update on the Roberts Street redevelopment slotted into my letterbox. They had promised a newsletter before the demolition started on the asbestos-contaminated site, and here it was. Maybe some key questions about the safe handling of asbestos would be answered. Alas, this was another wasted opportunity for the government to come clean on asbestos at the derelict public housing estate.

More than a month after tenders closed on 17 January, we still do not know when the demolition will take place, who the demolition contractor will be, nor who will safeguard air quality during the demolition. The Office of Housing claims that tenders are still being assessed, but this just doesn't get them off the hook.

Even if that were the case, and the contractor were indeed yet to be selected, what might they have told us in this newsletter? Well, they could have said that further testing as recommended by their own asbestos audit would be carried out and the results would promptly be made public. They could have said that, once the contractor was selected, the asbestos control plan required by the tender would also be promptly released. This would allow the community to assess how well the contractor planned to address the issues and suggested removal procedures described in the audit.

Given that the demolition tender documents indicated that not all asbestos would be removed prior to demolition, the newsletter could also have clarified just what asbestos was proposed to be left, and why this was not to be removed beforehand when any recipient of the rubble planning to recycle it would be required to be notified of its contamination.

Many people assume that the government will just do the right thing. Unfortunately, when key questions are continually ignored in the name of spin, the community is completely justified in asking whether corners will be cut on asbestos safety at this site. Bland reassurances that so-called 'best practice' will be followed are no substitute for promptly making available the information that would allow us to judge for ourselves whether a truly rigorous process was being observed.

In short, this newsletter could have answered the ten key questions that were sent on 18 January to housing minister, Richard Wynne, and to Northcote MP, Fiona Richardson, who chairs the community advisory committee for the redevelopment.

When I called Richardson's electoral office last week to prompt a response, a staffer said the MP declined to answer because a response would come from the minister. On the very next day, however, I received an effective non-response on behalf of Wynne that was similarly bereft of answers, a situation that has not improved by the newsletter that arrived tonight.

We should be clear on one thing. This development is sorely needed. As of September 2007, there were more than 40,000 people on Victoria's public housing transfer and waiting lists (PDF).

On a number of levels this project could have set a benchmark for subsequent redevelopments under last May's $510 million state funding announcement. In some ways it may yet do that - the environmental aspects of the new design look promising. By all means use environmentally friendly materials in the construction, but what we cannot have is recycled and vague information that fails to answer important questions in the public interest. It's up to all of us to get the real answers in time to make sure this demolition is safe, not just 'cost-effective'.

Keep an eye on this blog for a downloadable copy of the newsletter and the 'response' I received from Richard Wynne to my ten questions.

Update: Here are the latest communications from the Office of Housing and Richard Wynne. You be the judge as to how far they go in answering the ten questions I sent to Wynne and Richardson back on 18 January.

February 2008 newsletter from the Office of Housing (PDF)
Wynne's 'response' to the ten questions sent on 18 January (PDF)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Sorry - the beginning of better times

Well, we were a bit challenged for chalk, but this evening the kids and I took up Senator Bob Brown's suggestion of writing 'Sorry' on the footpath outside the house. The suggestion was a good one, because it allowed people to add a personal note of apology to the one delivered today to Australia's Indigenous people by Prime Minister Rudd on behalf of the Australian Government.

It has been a great day for Australia, and one in which we could all participate in marking the start of better days. I began by reading the text of the apology from The Age to my eleven-year-old daughter before she went to school (my five-year-old daughter was a bit hard to catch). I was then tuned in variously to Radio National, 774 ABC Melbourne and News Radio, all of which offered live coverage. When I collected the kids from school, the apology was the topic of conversation among the waiting parents, and the kids told me how they had observed the occasion with a special assembly.

Tonight, as I was cooking, I heard an excited exclamation from my eldest daughter when she saw a close-up on the TV news of a little Indigenous boy from her school who was at Melbourne's Federation Square today. Not long after, we left the roast to get a little bit more well-done and went outside with our chalk and a stone from the backyard. There's a 'sorry' from each of us, with a bit of creative highlighting of each other's work to counter an overcast and fading evening sky.

Let's hope today is the start of a much better future for Australia's Indigenous people, and therefore Australia as a country. It is only the start, and will be measured in its success not only in the systemic and widespread improvement in the lives of Indigenous people in terms of health, education and justice, but in terms of compensation reached through consensus and recognition of past injustice and harm. Prime Minister Rudd today declared his central and personal role in achieving a better future for all Indigenous people. It was a great first step, and I applaud him for it.

Demo safe for Northcote families?

Demolition of a contaminated public housing estate in Northcote is set to proceed this month, amid persistent unanswered questions over the safe handling of asbestos during the works. The lack of answers from the state government creates uncertainty for local Northcote families, including visitors to the children's playground at the adjacent Baden Morgan Reserve.

Mother of two children, and chair of the community advisory committee for the Roberts Street redevelopment, Fiona Richardson MP, yesterday responded through her electoral office that she would not be answering a series of questions sent to her on 18 January. According to her office, this was because answers would come from housing minister Richard Wynne, who was sent the same questions.

Unfortunately, following the minister's poor response on 10 January to a 28 November 2007 request on related issues, I have today received in the mail a further sketchy response from the Director of Housing on the minister's behalf.

The reponse states that the provisional sum of $10,000 allowed in the tender for the removal of asbestos identified during the demolition but potentially missed by an earlier, incomplete audit can be 'varied up or down'. It also claims that 'there are no limitations placed on the auditing of properties or the removal of asbestos'. It is a pity then, that the response has fundamentally failed to answer many of the key questions.

These relate to the disclosure of what further asbestos testing will be done on the site (as recommended by the earlier site audit), the demolition contractor's control plan for managing asbestos during the demolition, the asbestos that tender documents indicate is to remain in the buildings when they are demolished, and the specific timing of the demolition. It is disappointing but unsurprising that the minister's response has avoided specific disclosure on these points.

The now apparently variable $10,000 allowed in the tender documents for the removal of additional asbestos missed by the incomplete audit continues to contrast disturbingly with recent media coverage of the $12,000 that was to be allowed for a ministerial photo-shoot.

Wynne's latest evasions and Richardson's point-blank refusal to answer the questions are just the latest in a series of delays in the release of public interest information about the project.

The asbestos audit carried out in mid-October was published on the web only on Christmas Eve following community pressure. Tender details required to be published online did not appear until 3 January, despite tenders being called on 12 December 2007. Now, despite the close of tenders on 17 January, residents still do not know who has won the contract.

Along with the failure of government to answer specific questions, the information it has grudgingly and tardily released has only fuelled concerns about the safe treatment of asbestos on this site.

The poor communication and restriction of information about this project is telling given that the government is set to tighten freedom of information laws and has announced millions for a new media monitoring project to help it manage spin on issues of public interest.

With more than 40,000 people on Victoria's public housing waiting and transfer lists as of September 2007, the Northcote redevelopment enjoys widespread community support in its planned provision of new public housing for the elderly. It should not be compromised by a lack of transparency and neglect of public safety.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Roberts Street on 3CR breakfast today

The issue of asbestos and the Roberts Street Northcote public housing redevelopment was highlighted this morning on 3CR breakfast with John Retallick. The focus of the interview was on ten questions sent to housing minister, Richard Wynne, and chair of the redevelopment committee, Northcote MP, Fiona Richardson.

The questions were sent on 18 January and there is yet to be a response, or any updated information posted to local letterboxes or the Office of Housing website. In fact, the only public response from Richardson and Wynne on this issue has been extracted by media enquiries.

While the demolition tender has closed, and demolition will start sometime in February, we still do not know if further testing recommended by an asbestos audit will be carried out and made public, whether the demolition company's asbestos control plan will be released well before demolition starts, and why the indications are that some asbestos will still be in the buildings when they are knocked into rubble.

As suggested on this morning's program, you can help prompt answers to these and other questions sent to the Government by calling Wynne on 9096 7722 or sending an email to You might also call Northcote MP, Fiona Richardson, on 9481 5777, or send an email to

Fore more background and other questions on this issue, see my earlier post, A quick tour of Roberts Street.