Sunday, October 30, 2011


The Editor,

Whatever happened to the managers duty of care to their employees? The conscious decision to bury Property Reports because of the cost of repairing or replacing police accommodation can never be justified by the Nuremburg Defence, “I was only following orders.” This is the life , and health, and safety of police officers families at stake here!! If any member of these families is affected by asbestos, they could die agonising deaths. Apart from their duty of care, do these managers in the Police Service have no conscience?? Or do they reassure themselves that they will be long gone from their positions in 20 - 30 years time when members of the police officers’ families have developed asbestosis or mesothelioma? Thank heavens for the Police Association bringing all this to light. Who says unions are no longer relevant!

Jenny Haines

Trail of deceit as emails expose asbestos scandal

Eamonn Duff

October 30, 2011
AN INTERNAL email chain has exposed key police personnel who deliberately kept thousands of officers and their families in the dark about asbestos and other poisonous hazards in stations and houses across NSW.

Embarrassed by the biggest police scandal since the Wood royal commission in the 1990s, the force's chiefs instigated a witch-hunt, tracking all related emails, memos and hard-drive files.

The resulting report was never meant to be made public, but The Sun-Herald has obtained the document that identifies the former general manager of the Police Property Group, Emmanuel Varipatis, as the person ''largely responsible'' for the ''conscious decision'' to bury hundreds of safety audits that identified threats in police houses and stations.

But The Sun-Herald has already exposed an internal report that admitted the force had ''$0'' to fix more than 200 hazardous properties, work that would cost tens of millions of dollars.

Mr Varipatis said: ''I was just following orders.'' He said he withheld the safety audits because he was told to. ''I sought advice from our experts and I followed that advice. I couldn't open up the reports because there would have been an avalanche [of complaints].''

The Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione, told a police budget estimates hearing in Parliament on Thursday he was unaware of the problem until he received a call while on annual leave in July.

''Can I say, in terms of my being advised, was I happy? No,'' Mr Scipione said. ''Have I indicated, if you like, that I am to the point where I actually apologised? Yes, I have. The requirements of legislation in NSW make it very clear. We should have been advising police officers … when it came to asbestos. We did not.''

Mr Varipatis has acknowledged a ''conscious decision'' was made to deliberately keep officers and their families in the dark about hundreds of stations and houses contaminated with lead and asbestos.

Mr Varipatis and other key figures were implicated in the cover-up after the Police Force conducted a covert internal investigation into the decision-making process.

The report uncovers a ''fundamental failure across all parties involved in the management of the Police Property Portfolio'' to ensure the workforce was briefed about the risks. It names Mr Varipatis as being ''largely responsible'' for withholding hundreds of risk assessments from concerned employees due to a concern they would be ''misinterpreted and misunderstood''.

IN ONE email exchange, the Police Safety Command director, Julie Wills, points to a legislative loophole which means the force is not technically required to disclose the full reports about hazardous police housing - because the homes were not regarded as workplace buildings.

Mr Varipatis replies: ''Many thanks Julie, you're a champion … I will stay firm on not releasing the reports. If down the track in 2012 the legislation makes the home the extended workplace, we will need to reassess.''

Both Mr Varipatis and Ms Wills have since left the police force.

Mr Varipatis, who holds a senior position at Fire and Rescue NSW, told The Sun-Herald on Friday: ''I was just following orders.

''There was a chain of command and the instructions I received from the NSW Police Safety Command was not to release the reports to the workforce because it would cause undue panic.

''I was told that in nearly every case, every report, there was no danger. You have to understand these reports are very technical and if you're not trained to know what they mean, it can cause undue stress. I sought advice from our experts and I followed that advice. I couldn't open up the reports because there would have been an avalanche.''

In 2008, the Police Force commissioned private consultants Coffey Environments to conduct a safety audit of almost 1300 properties across NSW. Nearly 48 per cent of houses and 52 per cent of stations are more than 40 years old.

That ageing portfolio is co-ordinated centrally through the NSW Police Property Group and, since 2006, it has been managed externally through a company called United Group Limited. When the Coffey inspection reports began to filter through in April 2008, the results were alarming. The Sydney Police Centre Firing Range received an A1 risk rating, as did the Firearms Registry at Murwillumbah.

Hundreds of police homes across the western region were also affected, but officers and their families were repeatedly denied access to the reports until their union uncovered them in August.

LAST week, The Sun-Herald received a copy of the internal investigation into the cover-up.

Commissioned by the Deputy Commissioner for Corporate Services, Catherine Burn, the document has yet to be seen by either the Police Minister, Michael Gallacher, or the NSW Police Association's executive committee. For the first time, a clear chronological picture has emerged of what went wrong.

On September 19, 2008, United Group's Patricia McCann emailed a colleague about the disturbing reports being received: ''I was asked by the Police Property Group to inform Coffey not to discuss the audit findings with any police personnel, as this could lead to IR issues.''

But by November of the same year, police officers were inundating the Police Property Group with formal written requests for the ''asbestos audit'' relating to their properties. Those requests were systematically declined and in a ''response report'' dated January 9, 2009, the Police Property Group's liaison officer, Alan Baines, stated: ''It is not policy or usual practice to provide a copy of this type of report to the workforce.''

On October 22, 2009, minutes from a meeting revealed 900 sites had by now been assessed with an estimated repair bill of $32 million.

Around the same time, Mr Varipatis exchanged several emails with senior police in Bathurst about a senior constable who had suddenly quit his job because of ''a chronic inability to provide safe housing conditions which has had direct health effects on my family, including drinking water, lead paint, heating and sewage''. In his resignation letter, the officer accused his employer of withholding ''numerous tests results'' despite his repeated requests for them.

By February 2010, the Coffey audits were complete. In all, 460 properties were found to contain asbestos, lead or both - and the repair bill had skyrocketed to $45 million.

Of those, 63 were deemed high risk and required up to $20 million to fix. When those findings were rolled into a NSW Property Portfolio Strategic Plan, a report that addresses funding options, it stated there was ''$0'' available to make 205 hazardous properties comply with safety standards.

On April 27, 2010, internal memos revealed that Portland policeman Scott Bolton had been waiting almost eight months to obtain the results from a site audit for potential lead paint hazards at his station. At one point, he was snubbed with the following line: ''PPG Policy is that all reports and results are to remain with UGL and the Property Group.''

Even after he threatened legal action, the Property Group still refused to forward him the full report, choosing instead to provide limited detail. He was told: ''no hazardous materials detected''. The claim, however, was wrong and contradicted United Group field manager Gary McDonald's email on March 15, 2010, which stated: ''5.2 per cent lead paint content'' identified.

BY MAY 3, 2010, Mr McDonald had handed all ''hazmat'' (hazardous materials) reports to the Property Group's Jared Watson and advised him, via email, that he would ''need to liaise with the general manager, Mr Varipatis, to find out if and how this info will be handled''.

In the same email chain, frustration had begun to show at United Group, where Patricia McCann vented her dismay to Mr McDonald about the police's ongoing stance to hide the crisis from its workforce. After having held several meetings with Police Property Group decision makers, Ms McCann: ''PPG have not got their heads around how they are going to deal with all the ignorant phone calls regarding asbestos and lead paint poisoning. Numerous meetings have been held … therefore the decision was made not to have them [the reports] on-site, until the NSWPF can properly educate their employees.''

With threats of legal action and dozens of complaints mounting, the Police Property Group faced a challenge. Would it reveal the truth? The answer was no. In a May 10 email exchange circulated among Police Property Group bosses, Julie Wills, director of Police Safety Command, told Mr Varipatis that, based on her interpretation of the Occupational Health & Safety regulations, he might not have to release the full ''hazmat'' reports to police employees, ''just all the information necessary''.

When Mr Varipatis was asked yesterday whether he wished he could have done things differently, he said: ''You've put me on the spot. The police minister has called for an Ombudsman's inquiry so I assume they are going to ring me eventually. I will tell my side of the story then.''

Read more:

Saturday, October 29, 2011


The Editor,

Industrial disputes are taking longer to resolve and involving many issues. There used to be a system of conciliation and arbitration until the Howard Government abolished it. Now, the same business and employer representatives who applauded the Howard Government, are whingeing they can’t get industrial disputes solved. Well suck on it I say! Be careful what you wish for!! Of course, the Howard Government plan for the abolition of centralised conciliation and arbitration was that it was supposed to take place in the context of disempowered unions, where workers and union members would do what they are told by their employers, and where the executives of companies could make decisions in their own interest with no questioning. Good on the unions for getting organised, and utilising the system to get the best outcome for their members.

Jenny Haines

Lenore Taylor, SMH.

29 October 2011

With unions, bosses and politicians in dispute, old laws and new agendas are being tested.

Air travel crippled by striking pilots, engineers and baggage handlers, angry scenes at the Qantas annual general meeting, rowdy protests by striking unionists on the ports, public servants and teachers downing pens - Australia's current industrial landscape looks like a montage of the most bitter workplace fights from decades past.

And, as always, the characters are anything but bland - the feisty Qantas chief executive, Alan Joyce, the outspoken Transport Workers Union national secretary, Tony Sheldon - who also happens to be a candidate for the federal presidency of the ALP - and even veterans of earlier battles, such as stevedoring executive Chris Corrigan.

The only thing that has been missing from the daily dose of union claim and employer counter-claim is the politicians; no latter-day Bob Hawke taking on the pilots, no John Howard and Peter Reith helping to break union power on the wharves.

The Gillard government and the unions insist the lack of political engagement is because there is no systemic industrial problem at all.

They say the noise is coming from a large number of three-year industrial agreements in key sectors that happen to have come up for renegotiation at the same time, among them the agreements at the centre of the particularly bitter Qantas dispute.

And they claim the shouting is obscuring the facts, with figures showing industrial disputation at all-time lows.

Still smarting from the rout of Work Choices in 2007 and focused entirely on regaining power, the federal Coalition is only just tip-toeing back into the industrial relations fray that has historically been one of its defining issues.

The Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, yesterday backed two conservative state premiers in demanding that the federal government intervene in the Qantas dispute, a course of action the Coalition's former minister and industrial relations crusader Peter Reith deplored as ''old thinking''.

But the Coalition isn't prepared to say much at all about what it would do in government, just that Labor should be doing more.

Employers insist emboldened unions are pushing the limits of the two-year-old Fair Work Act, using its powers to bargain harder and on new issues that strip away powers that managers need to run competitive businesses in a global economy.

Over time, that could have serious consequences for the economy, they say. And tourism and retail businesses, in the almost-stalled lane of the Australian economy are desperately worried.

Some observers say the corporate complaints are in part aimed at encouraging Tony Abbott's Coalition back to the barricades on industrial relations reform. But increasingly the costs and inconvenience are real.

In this latest chapter in Australian workplace law it seems everything is being tested: the new laws, the reach of the unions, the resolve of the employers, the patience of the government and the courage of the Coalition's ideological conviction.

The government and the unions have statistics on their side.

In the two years since the Fair Work Act took effect, an average of 3.6 working days have been lost per 1000 employees per quarter, compared with an average of 13.5 days per quarter over the Howard decade. Even the rise in disputes in the June quarter is lower than the rise three years ago when these same agreements were last up for renegotiation. Wages growth is not high, and the Reserve Bank says ''upward pressure on wages is tending to ease''.

''There was a slight uptick in disputation in the last quarter and there probably will be this quarter as well but disputation is still at historical lows … and I think the downward trend will continue,'' the Workplace Relations Minister, Senator Chris Evans, says.

But the Qantas dispute is worrying him. He says ''economic damage has already occurred'', that he and the Transport Minister, Anthony Albanese, have been meeting regularly until recent days with the company and the unions and ''we are making it very clear that patience is wearing thin''.

''We have made it clear … the time has come for this matter to be resolved and the government will consider using its [intervention] power [under the Fair Work Act] if we think that is necessary,'' he says.

But he dismisses calls by Liberal Premiers Barry O'Farrell and Ted Baillieu for the government to immediately step in as ''a stunt'' and points out that government intervention does not guarantee resolution and is a step the Howard Government had also been very careful about taking. Besides, he says, the only lasting resolution is one genuinely reached by the parties.

In any event, Evans says, while the dispute is about the ''clash'' of Qantas's business plan and the unions' concerns about job security, it has nothing to do with the Fair Work Act or any broader industrial crisis.

But his critics are not claiming a crisis, just that we could be heading for one on current trends. And they think the ''clash'' at Qantas has a lot to do with Labor's new laws.

''We are not saying the nation's economy is about to grind to a halt,'' the chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Peter Anderson, says.

''There is certainly a cyclical element to this … but we are also seeing unions testing the boundaries and using the new laws to start making demands about how businesses are structured, whether contractors should be used, and that is particularly worrying from an economic point of view.''

The Qantas disputes (which began after the company announced it would cut 1000 jobs and increase expansion into Asia) are ''a direct pushback against corporate restructuring'' and the disputes on the waterfront are ''all about a company's right to organise domestic and foreign labour''.

''It adds to a drag on our productivity, directly through the industrial action and, of even greater concern, it feeds into the low levels of business confidence and consumer sentiment caused by the problems in Europe and the political uncertainty at home,'' Anderson says.

The University of Melbourne economist Professor Judith Sloan agrees ''you can't tell yet whether this is cyclical or a new trend'' but adds ''it's looking pretty ugly''.

''This is very union-friendly legislation … [the unions] are trying to go beyond the normal wages and conditions issues and insert themselves into management decisions, they call them job security issues which is a joke … it is often about restricting the use of contractors and labour hire firms and the like, which have all been non-allowable matters for a long time.''

The result, Sloan says, will be to shrink employment. ''It is absolute madness,'' she says.

But Adelaide University's Professor Andrew Stewart says ''almost none of the disputes has anything to do with the Fair Work legislation … these disputes are like the ones we have seen before and will see again''.

The competing views about what is going on and whether any fault lies with the legislation will be aired at an independent review of its effectiveness starting in January. Evans says it will be practical, rather than a ''rehash of ideological positions''.

The Coalition, cautiously, says it will also be guided by what it finds.

Having begun the year insisting it would make no change to the new laws, it was pushed by business leaders and some pointed interventions by Reith and some Liberals on the current backbench to shift to a position contemplating unspecified change ''within the architecture of the Fair Work Act''.

Unlike the government, the opposition spokesman for workplace relations, Senator Eric Abetz, does see some real, systemic problems.

''It does look like we are slipping back to where we were before the waterfront reforms …,'' he says.

''I do have some difficulty with unions trying to act as de facto business managers, telling companies when they can or can't employ contractors …

''That does not allow for the degree of flexibility that you need as a workplace waxes and wanes.

''Many businesses are concerned about the rate of industrial action that we are seeing and the unwillingness of trade union negotiators to talk about productivity. That needs to be addressed because we cannot afford wage increases above [inflation] without productivity trade-offs.''

And he says the Coalition also thinks ''the government should be looking at why the individual flexibility agreements allowed for under the act are not being taken up''.

Evans says he suspects the ''Coalition has made a decision that rather than formally return to individual work contracts they will try to amend the existing laws to achieve the same thing by another name''.

If he's right the new Coalition policy would be welcomed by Peter Anderson who says business intends to ''carry the argument'' that over time the new laws will have to change to re-establish individual contracts.

And according to Andrew Stewart, the task of ''carrying'' that argument to the ears of the Coalition is amplifying business's current industrial relations complaints.

''You have to understand the real audience the employer groups are targeting. Publicly they direct their comments to the government, but they know this review will not re-examine the foundations of the Fair Work Act and that these current disputes would be pretty much the same under the old laws. The real object of their lobbying efforts right now is the internal debate in the Liberal Party,'' he says.

''They had thought they had lost the debate for the forseeable future, but now they see the prospect of a Liberal Government … and the opportunity to rekindle the torch of industrial relations reform … the pragmatists within the Liberal Party are still holding sway but business is pushing as hard as they can to get the Liberals to adopt a more radical policy.''

The ACTU president, Ged Kearney, agrees. ''The employers are leaping at anything to say the Fair Work Act is not working,'' she says. ''That is not the case, this is a normal bargaining process, it is just mischief making.''

However, Sloan believes ongoing industrial disputes will strengthen the case for change.

''I think the Coalition should wait until the pendulum has swung and people realise what is going on,'' she says. ''They have no incentive to flesh out their agenda until much closer to an election …''

With the Qantas dispute dominating the headlines, there are both immediate economic and broader policy reasons for the government to try to steer it towards resolution.

Read more:

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


SA Labor convention calls on Gillard government to permanently abandon people-swap

• by: Michael Owen
• From: The Australian
• October 23, 2011 6:35PM

THE South Australian ALP convention has called on the Gillard government to return to Labor's national platform and permanently abandon its Malaysian people-swap deal.

A motion passed unamended at the convention this weekend at Adelaide's Festival Centre that "directs the federal government to realign its immigration policies, consistent with the ALP's National Platform".

The motion said federal Labor was obliged to "treat people seeking our protection with dignity and in accordance with the core Australian principles of fairness and humanity".

"Protection claims made in Australia will be assessed by Australians on Australian territory. The assessment and review of protection claims must be independent and free from any political or diplomatic interference," the motion said.

"Labor recognises that people residing in the community should not be arbitrarily deprived of the right to work while their claim is being processed.

"Under Labor's policies, the presumption will be that persons will remain in the community while their immigration status is resolved: persons will be detained only if the need is established.

"Detention that is indefinite or otherwise arbitrary is not acceptable and the length and conditions of detention, including the appropriateness of both the accommodation and the services provided, would be subject to regular review.

"Detention in immigration detention centres is only to be used as a last resort and for the shortest practicable time."

Since the Malaysian deal fell over, the federal government has been forced to revert to onshore processing, a move immigration officials have warned could lead to as many as 600 people arriving by boat every month.

Two other motions related to immigration policy, slightly amended, were also passed by convention with little fuss.

A motion was amended to withdraw an expression of "disquiet with the failure of the federal Minister for Immigration to articulate a policy of compassion with regards to asylum-seekers who arrive in Australia by boat".

The amended motion passed with calls on Chris Bowen to set a mandatory detention limit of 30 days, after which asylum-seekers should be allowed to live and work in the community while their claims were processed.

The Adelaide Hills is home to the 400-bed low security Inverbrackie detention centre, used mainly for family groups seeking asylum.

ALP state president and federal MP Steve Georganas said in his opening address to the convention that a proper debate was required about immigration policy.

"Over the last decade it has been a difficult issue for the party to grapple with because of the varied and wide view both within the party and the community," Mr Georganas said.

"We need to have a full and frank discussion. Can I say, in the years that have gone by we have been successful in this area.

"Afterall, we successfully accepted over 100,000 Vietnamese refugees in the 70s and 80s, many of them landing on our shores as unauthorised boat arrivals seeking asylum. This is a discussion we must have."

New South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill said the matter was an "incredibly difficult public policy issue".

"I think we should behave humanely to people who come to this country, but there are other issues at stake," he said.

Sunday, October 09, 2011



State Conference calls on the Federal Labor Government to uphold our platform and values by abandoning the current fixation with offshore ‘solutions’ and establishing a just and humane approach for people seeking asylum. The High Court’s recent ruling on the Malaysia solution presented a definitive turning point in the way we treat people seeking asylum in Australia. Federal Labor must respect the decision of the High Court and act consistently with the principles established in that decision.

Conference believes that the only humane and effective deterrent to the secondary movement of people is to ensure individuals have access to protection in countries of first asylum and transit. This will require the establishment of a multi-lateral regional protection framework under which countries of first asylum and transit countries in our region provide protection, support and settlement to people fleeing from terror and persecution. Punitive measures, be they indefinite detention in Australia or removal of people to offshore processing are neither humane nor likely to act as an effective deterrent.

As a country, we must adopt just and humane policies on refugees and asylum seekers and in doing so raise the level of debate and treatment of some of the most vulnerable people in the world. Only then will Australia be able to hold its head high in the international community as a nation with a commitment to human rights and a deep appreciation of the plight of people seeking a safe haven from persecution and a better way of life.

Victorian Labor reaffirms its commitment to the National Platform which in particular;

• Commits that protection claims made in Australia will be assessed by Australians on Australian territory, and;
• Recognises that Australia has obligations to also settle refugees and asylum seekers who cannot access Australian territory.

The Victorian State Conference calls on Federal Labor to:

• Adhere to the principles of the High Court ruling. Indefinite detention and sending asylum seekers to uncertainty in other countries is inconsistent with our international obligations and is an unjust response to people fleeing persecution and in need of our protection;

• Commit that protection claims made in Australia will be assessed by Australians on Australian territory;

• Immediately rule out offshoring processing and only detain asylum seekers where there is a discernible health and security risk to the community, while ensuring the prompt processing of protection applications and that children are not detained in Immigration Detenion Centres;

• Increase our refugee and humanitarian intake in the region and honour the commitment to resettle the 4000 refugees from Malaysia;

• Pursue a regional protection framework as a matter of urgency. Conference notes the positive progress achieved through the Bali process this year towards this goal;

• Assist our regional neighbours develop their capacity to assist displaced people, including by –
a) increasing Australia's support for the UNHCR,
b) increasing our humanitarian intake, and
c) developing alternative immigration pathways to Australia for individuals seeking protection including skilled migration

Victorian Labor calls on all parliamentarians and party members to promote informed and genuine discourse on our responsibilities to people fleeing war and terror. By counteracting misinformation and spin from the Coalition we can move towards a political climate where racist fear campaigns like those driven by Tony Abbott are unable to gain traction in the community.

Conference rejects all politically motivated attempts to simplify Australia’s obligations to displaced people by unduly focusing on maritime arrivals.

Finally, Conference notes the importance of the candidates pledge and adherence to the Platform to the integrity of the democratic structures of our party. Labor Parliamentarians must adhere to the party platform. Victorian Labor looks forward to engaging in a genuine debate on Labor’s platform and policies at December's National ALP Conference.

M: Michele O'Neill
S: Zoe Edwards