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The very fluffy argument behind Canberra's asbestos secrecy

The Mr Fluffy crisis has upended the lives of thousands of Canberrans. No one would envy ACT Asbestos Response Taskforce head Andrew Kefford, who has carried the burden of being the public face of the decision to destroy just over 1000 homes, against some owners' wishes. Dealing with this "wicked problem" was only ever going to create losers; we don't pretend that balancing the competing interests is a doddle.

Nonetheless, it's worth noting in detail the taskforce's bizarre approach to the question of whether to tell Canberrans which houses are affected.

There is immense interest among this city's residents in knowing whether they once lived in a property that contained toxic, loose-fill asbestos. Some people know the answer to that question because they know the house's current owners or tenants; some have accessed one of several unofficial lists circulating among tradespeople; others have been told by ACT public servants, who disclosed the information to friends without authorisation (who can blame them).

What's clear, though, is that the government's official means of allowing people to find out if they previously lived in a Mr Fluffy home has been utterly ineffective. Just over 200 former tenants and owners have applied to check the register of affected properties, no doubt because the paperwork requirements are so onerous (who keeps copies of bills or rental leases from 20 years ago?) or because the very existence of the search service has been minimally publicised.

The Canberra Times has tried to assuage this curiosity (and fear) by seeking access to the list under freedom of information law. On three occasions now, the taskforce has suppressed the document, citing a range of reasons. The latest response, in December, was frankly embarrassing in its rationale.


Some context. Back in October, federal Employment Minister Eric Abetz and then ACT chief minister Katy Gallagher announced jointly that the Commonwealth would lend the ACT $1 billion to buy back and demolish the affected properties. On the same day, the taskforce said in a public report that, in light of the buy-back scheme's establishment, "the balance of arguments now sits with release, rather than withholding the list [of homes]. The ACT government will publish the list in early 2015."

The Canberra Times noted this when it asked, yet again, for a copy of the list. After all, the taskforce had now acknowledged that the document belonged in the public domain. How could it say no?

Yet the FOI decision-maker, Fiona Barbaro, did say no, and went on to argue, in effect, that federal officials were so thin-skinned that they would scupper the $1 billion loan (and, in the process, destroy months of work and the hopes of hundreds of stricken Canberra families) if the list of properties was made public.

"I consider that disclosing many of the program files, including lists of houses, could reasonably cause damage to relations between the Commonwealth and the ACT," Barbaro wrote (though we only asked for the list, not for "program files").

"I am concerned that releasing the lists publicly may generate unnecessary alarm (particularly among home owners) which would affect the ACT's negotiating position with the Commonwealth. Heightened media interest and public angst could work against the ACT's negotiation position in this regard."

It's hard to believe anyone really thinks this could happen.

When we asked Chief Minister Andrew Barr if he believed there was a genuine risk the federal government would withdraw its widely publicised loan offer (and it's worth noting the agreement is not yet signed), he did his best to defend Barbaro's decision without sounding absurd: "While it is unlikely that the Commonwealth would withdraw from these negotiations, it is in the best interest of the community that the ACT government doesn't take any action that could jeopardise the offer of the loan."

And Abetz? Did he really believe his officials would be provoked or offended – as Barbaro inferred – if the list of affected properties was made public? His spokesman was circumspect, too: "The Commonwealth government understands the sensitivities faced by the ACT government in relation to the possible release of this information. However, decisions relating to the ACT's FOI system are entirely a matter for the ACT. The Commonwealth remains absolutely committed to its offer to provide a $1 billion concessional loan to the ACT for the Mr Fluffy remediation program."

We would argue those words "absolutely committed" are a concrete rebuttal of this specious, paternalistic argument.

Barbaro also raised concerns about the privacy of home owners (read them here in full), though, again, it is difficult to reconcile such reasoning with the taskforce's earlier, public statement that the "balance of arguments" – including privacy considerations – now favoured disclosure.

When the taskforce eventually releases the list (it says it will do so in July), we encourage past residents of Mr Fluffy homes to ask Kefford and Barbaro why it was so important to delay informing them of their potential exposure to asbestos.

Liberal with history

You may recall our efforts last year to educate Rhodes scholar and Liberal MP Angus Taylor, who had misquoted ancient Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero's views on fiscal discipline. We don't blame Taylor: he did so amid the excitement of Joe Hockey's first budget, when the air was heavy with the intoxicating scent of public servants' blood. Several conservative politicians had made the same mistake over the years, and it's easy to see why when one reads Cicero's (alleged) words:

"The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance."

(Alas, the words are not Cicero's, though a fictional version of him said something similar in a 1975 novel.)

But while we forgive Taylor, it's harder to forgive his Liberal colleague, Bert van Manen. Not only did van Manen make the same mistake on the very day we sermonised on Roman history (in our June 2014 issue), he repeated the error in a speech to Parliament in November.

Van Manen's penance is to read the Informant each month: he clearly needs a new source of ancient wisdom.