Federal Politics


Feds must clean up asbestos act

Asbestos, apart from being hazardous to humans, also has another well-known, equally disturbing characteristic: it causes corporations and governments to grow short arms and deep pockets. Although it profited for decades from the manufacture of asbestos products, James Hardie Industries deliberately thwarted the efforts of claimants to receive a fair level of compensation for asbestos-related diseases caused by working at JHI factories and mines. Now, the Commonwealth, which oversaw the dumping of hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of asbestos and asbestos-contaminated soil around Canberra before self-government, is playing hardball over the question of who pays to clean up the mess.

The federal government's position is that having accepted title to the territory, the ACT government now has full responsibility for the costs of the clean-up. The ACT government avers that the dumping occurred during the Commonwealth's stewardship of Canberra, and that under the ''polluter pays'' convention it has a duty to shoulder most, if not all of the costs of remediation, estimated at several hundred million dollars. From a moral standpoint at least, the ACT has the stronger of the two positions. It has precedent in its favour too: the Commonwealth has already cleaned up polluted land at Kingston rail yards and on former defence sites at Bonner and Lawson.

Talks on the issue broke down recently, with few signs the Commonwealth was prepared to compromise on its hardline stance. This is regrettable. Not only is its approach inconsistent and morally questionable but also it has the potential to damage the territory's economy now and in the future. Completion of the East Lake development at Kingston, one of the biggest urban renewal projects in Canberra, may be delayed if the deadlock continues.

When asked last week about the lack of progress in talks, a spokesman for the Department of Regional Australia and Local Government declined to answer questions, except to say the Commonwealth remained ''committed to finding ways to address asbestos management issues nationally''. If that is the case, it should give substance to such sentiments by agreeing to accept liability for pollution that occurred on its watch and under its authority. To do otherwise risks making the Commonwealth look like James Hardie Industries: an entity that puts money before people's health and welfare.

Kingmaking perks

Having parlayed his balance of power status into a ministry in the Gallagher government - with the freedom to reject Labor legislation or to excuse himself from cabinet deliberations as he sees fit - Shane Rattenbury had another small but significant victory this week. He prevailed on the government to allow him to keep his crossbench allowance, and to add it to the allowance he would receive as a minister.

That combined allowance of $790,000 a year makes Mr Rattenbury the second-best resourced minister in the government after Chief Minister Katy Gallagher, but ahead of Deputy Chief Minister Andrew Barr and Opposition Leader Zed Seselja. Mr Rattenbury says it was not just about the money, however. Instead, he argues that, since he will be performing crossbench duties as well as ministerial tasks, it makes sense for him to combine the two allowances. Doing so, moreover, will enable him to make better informed judgements about legislation and other issues on the floor of the Assembly.

Nevertheless, Mr Rattenbury would have been well aware of the value of this particular perquisite of elected office to the ACT Greens. It could, for example, enable him to offer jobs to some of those aides who found themselves unemployed after Caroline Le Couteur, Amanda Bresnan and former party leader Meredith Hunter lost their seats at last month's election. Certainly, the generous resourcing will not hinder the party as it tries to rebuild its Assembly presence in 2016.

The ACT Liberals have themselves proved adept at making the most of the perks of office, and it will be instructive to see whether or how they make use of the resources that go with the office of Speaker of the Assembly. That job was awarded to Vicki Dunne earlier this month on, coincidentally, the casting vote of Mr Rattenbury - another example, perhaps, of the extraordinary power he now wields.