NBN Co will meet with the Communications Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU) as early as today to discuss the contents of a letter from the union to NBN chief Mike Quigley.
The letter, which was also sent to Telstra CEO David Thodey, calls — among other things —for "Telstra and NBN Co to cease all pit and pipe remediation work associated with the NBN rollout", according to a report by The Australian.
The request didn't seem a problem for either telco.
Telstra called a stop work on May 30, and NBN Co had advised CEPU by yesterday morning that it had also halted any remediation works it had direct involvement with, according to an interview aired on ABC's AM program.
(NBN Co confirmed at Budget Estimates late last week (pdf) that it has directly remediated "a very small percentage" of Telstra pits.)
This should probably have been the end of it — at least until after NBN Co and the CEPU had met.
But somehow, somewhere, the union's letter demand morphed from a stopwork on pit remediation into a demand that cut across the entire NBN build effort.
The culprit appears to be multiple over-simplifications.
The Australian's report faithfully reproduces quotes from the CEPU's letter demanding a halt to remediation works. The headline of the story, however, conflates it to "union urges halt to NBN rollout over asbestos safety".
Business Insider repeats the error a few hours later. "Now A Union Wants To Stop Work On The Rollout Completely", its headline claims. Drill into the story and there's the same quote from the CEPU about stopping only remediation works "associated with the NBN rollout", not the rollout itself.
About an hour after that, CEPU's electrical division assistant national secretary Allen Hicks tried to make the important distinction clear on ABC Radio.
"We need to be clear about it," Hicks said. "We haven't asked them to cease all work. We've asked them to cease work where there's remediation going on with pits and pipes".
That seemed clear, except for the ABC's headline on the transcript: "CEPU demands work on NBN ceases...".
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the constant misstatements of CEPU's letter became political fodder.
"Good morning. Now we've seen in the media today calls from unions for a stop work on the whole NBN project," Opposition Communications spokesperson Malcolm Turnbull began in a doorstop interview in Canberra.
Faced with questions from a journalist that perpetuated the misread of the CEPU letter, Turnbull injected some much-needed sense.
"The NBN Co should certainly stop work on pits and pipes where there are asbestos containing materials until such time as they are satisfied that the contractors are following all the asbestos handling materials," he said.
"But there will be a considerable amount of work at the moment which does not involve those asbestos containing materials so downing tools on the whole project regardless of what context you're working in is obviously going too far."
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy attempted to put the issue to bed on Sky's PM Agenda program.
"Let's not stop on all NBN Co work," Conroy said. "Let's be clear".
Conroy said he had made it "very clear to NBN Co" to go sort out the whole mess of the CEPU letter.
"I expect them to meet and talk with the union, and get this resolved," he said.
"We're having a meeting hopefully as early as [today]. I'm very, very insistent on this".
The CEPU letter, of course, has a more serious side: it's about seeking assurances from NBN Co that its risk management models and controls are robust enough to better deal with any future incidences of workers coming into contact with asbestos.
The union will undoubtedly be hoping that message cuts through more clearly today than it did yesterday.