Transcript by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Accommodation for NTER staff in the NT

MACKLIN: Thanks very much and thanks for coming at reasonably short notice.

I was informed last night of some very concerning news. A number of the containers that our staff have been living in, as part of the Northern Territory emergency response, have been found to have higher than acceptable levels of formaldehyde.

As a result of that, when I was informed of this last night, I spoke to Major General Chalmers and he then made contact with each of the Government business managers to inform them of this concerning advice.

We also made sure that the other people who have been living in these containers, these community employment brokers, were also informed last night, and all of the staff were advised last night to find alternative accommodation. And we can go through the detail of that with you if you want that detail.

These are very serious concerns that we have and, of course, my number one priority is the health and safety of our staff. That’s why once I was informed of this matter last night we took immediate action to notify our staff and to make sure that alternative arrangements were made for their accommodation.

Major General Chalmers has spoken with them this morning himself, and alternative housing will be found where possible in the communities where people are living. Where that’s not possible, as nearby as we can, otherwise we’ll have to look for other options.

These are very difficult times for the people concerned but I just want to reassure them that we will be having their health and safety as our primary consideration as we go about the future.

We’ve also, last night, contacted the Chief – the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer to get advice from him about these issues. He’s providing further advice to the head of my department and to me today. And that will include guidance from him about the nature of the health checks that each of our staff should undertake to make sure that we do everything possible to look after their health. So we’re waiting for that advice today, and as soon as that’s available we’ll obviously first of all let our staff know and then make that information public.

I’ve asked the head of my department for a detailed brief, to be made available to me by Monday, as to exactly what has taken place with these containers because, of course, we are very concerned about any impact that this may have had on the health and safety of our staff.

JOURNALIST: How many people has this affected?

MACKLIN: Twenty-six people in total: some employed by the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs; some of them employed by the Department of Employment; some Centrelink staff. There have also been a number of staff come and stay in these containers for a period of time. What I’ve asked the department to do is to go back over their records over this weekend and check exactly who has stayed in these containers, so that the people concerned can be notified and that I can be given a full brief by Monday.

JOURNALIST: Are you embarrassed that these odours were first reported in November and it’s now April?

MACKLIN: I’m extremely concerned about those reports. That’s why I’ve asked for a detailed brief from the department by Monday, because there’s no question that’s been a long period of time and I am very worried about it.

JOURNALIST: What are the dangers of formaldehyde?

MACKLIN: Well, these are matters that we’re seeking advice from the Chief Medical Officer about, and until I receive his report I don’t want to make any further comment about that.

JOURNALIST: Well, why wasn’t something done before now about the complaints?

MACKLIN: Well, that’s exactly what I want to know. I was informed about it last night, and that’s why I’ve asked for a detailed report to be provided to me by Monday.

JOURNALIST: Has this put any children at risk or locals in these communities who might have had health checks or gone into these containers?

MACKLIN: As I understand it, it’s staff from our various departments who have either lived or stayed in these containers. But that’s exactly the information that we are seeking as part of this detailed report that I expect by Monday.

JOURNALIST: These containers also comprise – being used for temporary police stations, aren’t they?

JOURNALIST: Respite centres as well?

MACKLIN: As I understand it, many, many people use various containers and we have notified the Northern Territory Police and obviously we will keep them informed of the investigations that we are undertaking. So you should ask the Northern Territory Police if they have had any similar concerns raised with them, but we will certainly keep them informed.

JOURNALIST: I mean, prisoners also have been locked up in these containers, haven’t they?

MACKLIN: Well, anybody else who have been in these containers, obviously what we want to do is get to the bottom of who is living in them, who has been staying in them; that’s exactly what we have to get to the bottom of.

JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] yet? Have there been any reports?

MACKLIN: There have certainly been complaints about headaches and runny eyes, those sorts of things. And, as a result of those complaints, that’s why the department did some earlier investigations.

JOURNALIST: What is the department doing to test the locals to see if they have been affected at all?

MACKLIN: Well, that’s what we are asking the Chief Medical Officer’s advice. We are going to him for advice to ask him what is the appropriate health checks that should be undertaken. We want to make sure that we do this exactly by the book, that we take his advice and that our staff are offered the checks that he thinks are necessary.

JOURNALIST: Why are the staff staying on the job? Why are the staff staying on the job?

MACKLIN: Well, the staff are being given alternative accommodation, and obviously if they are ill they will be receiving medical attention. And once we have advice from the Chief Medical Officer, the staff will be advised to take his – take the appropriate action.

MACKLIN: Minister, if you do a three word Google search, and I’ve done it: formaldehyde shipping containers. Up come the danger signs everywhere. I mean, how could it have got to this?

MACKLIN: Well, I agree that these are very serious matters. That’s why, as soon as I was informed last night, we’ve taken the action that we have. And I want to make sure that each and every one of our staff who have either been living or staying in these containers get the health checks that they need, that these containers are now properly assessed because of course we’re not going to allow anybody back in them until we know they’re safe.

JOURNALIST: Within the intervention hierarchy how high did it reach? Did Major General Chalmers know about it?

MACKLIN: You’ll have to ask Major General Chalmers about that and we’ll turn to him in a moment…

JOURNALIST: How high did it reach, do you know?

MACKLIN: It got to me yesterday so that’s how far – that’s when I found out about it.

QUESTION: Who made the decision to use containers like this?

MACKLIIN: These decisions were made, I think it was last September… so the decision was made back then by the – it was part of the initial decisions for the Northern Territory intervention.

JOURNALIST: So all this time the intervention has been about improving the health and having health checks for local people but you’ve been putting their health at risk.

MACKLIN: Well, there’s no question that we are very concerned about the health of our staff, that’s why we’ve taken the action that we have. We want to make sure that they get safe accommodation and that they get the health checks they need. It is a serious matter. I am very concerned about it which is why I’ve taken the action that I have.

JOURNALIST: There’s no accommodation available, alternative accommodation available for staff in many of these communities, isn’t that right?

MACKLIN: That’s right. That’s exactly right which is why we’re looking at what options are available in communities, what options are available in nearby towns. We’re looking at all the alternatives because accommodation is very hard to…

JOURNALIST: … pull out of staff from these communities, pull out of intervention staff.

MACKLIN: If that is what has to happen, that is what will happen because their safety is the – is our priority.

JOURNALIST: So, could this undermine the intervention then if staff are pulled out?

MACKLIN: What it may mean is that we have to move to flying people in and out but we’ll look at each of the options because obviously these staff are very important to the intervention that the priority has to be the health of our staff.

JOURNALIST: Do you think this will deter people from wanting to be part of it?

MACKLIN: I’ve been very impressed with the calibre of our staff. I think they’re an outstanding group of people who’ve made a very important contribution so far and a commitment to this intervention which is why I am particularly concerned to protect them at this time. What I hope is that we can deliver the services that they need of the alternative accommodation and also the health services they need so that they can continue working.

JOURNALIST: How quickly does it need to be sorted out, so there’s no shortfall and those programs are being delivered on the ground.

MACKLIN: It does need to be sorted out quickly but we have to recognise that there is a serious shortage of accommodation so Major General Chalmers is already on that job. He understands how important it is to have people on the job, that will be done as quickly as possible.

JOURNALIST: How many communities are affected?

MACKLIN: I’ll have to turn to Major General Chalmers for those things…

JOURNALIST: Just one last question. What do you know about where the formaldehyde has come from, like within these containers?

MACKLIN: That’s the detail that we’re going through now and I hope to have more information about that on Monday.

JOURNALIST: There’s a mention of furniture construction, is that…

MACKLIN: I have heard that but I really want to wait until Monday until I go in any further into all those details.

JOURNALIST: So where do these containers come from?

MACKLIN: Once again, let’s get the full report from the department about exactly all of those questions where they came from, how much they cost, what checks were made before people went to live in them; they’re exactly the questions that I want to have answered because we want our staff to be safe.

JOURNALIST: Will you also be demanding to know why it took five months before – after this was first reported for something to be done about it?

MACKLIN: What I want to know is exactly what happened following each of the complaints that were made. I want to know a full timeline of complaints made and action taken…


MACKLIN: and that’s what I…

JOURNALIST: What brought this to a head?

MACKLIN: … and that’s what I expect by Monday.

JOURNALIST: What brought this to a head?

MACKLIN: Further information was brought to our attention – to Major General Chalmers’ attention yesterday and he informed me of his concerns last night. Okay, maybe if I turn to him.

JOURNALIST: When did you first find out, sir, that there was formaldehyde, were there reports of an odour?

CHALMERS: Well I think there’s been ongoing concerns for some time of fumes and smell in the containers and that’s been the subject for investigation for us. I will be detailing to the Minister very specifically what action was taken at what point but yesterday we received a technical report which raised some red flags to me about the levels of formaldehyde were unacceptably high.

JOURNALIST: Have any of your staff complained of symptoms of feeling unwell?

CHALMERS: Certainly there have been – staff have complained over time of headaches and other effects that the fumes have caused. The advice from our supplier was that ventilating the buildings would – the containers would fix that problem. We were dissatisfied with that, we sought further investigation, and that’s what’s resulted.

JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] those complaints not raise the red flags when they were initially made, why not?

CHALMERS: Well, certainly I was concerned about fumes and smells and reports of effects from those fumes and smells and that’s why we investigated further.

JOURNALIST: Do you take responsibility for putting your staff’s lives at risk?

CHALMERS: Well, I am not certain that we’ve put people’s life at risk, that’s why we’re…

JOURNALIST: Putting their health at risk.

CHALMERS: … going to the Chief Medical Officer to find out exactly what the impact of exposure to elevated levels of formaldehyde is. We don’t know what that is but we are taking the precaution of making sure that we don’t expose people any further to those elevated levels. Of course I take responsibility for my staff and for health and safety of my staff.

JOURNALIST: Can you tell us about who is the supplier?

CHALMERS: The supplier of the containers will be reported to the Minister on…

JOURNALIST: Well, could we find out today who the supplier is?

CHALMERS: The supplier will be part of the report that I provide to the Minister on Monday.

JOURNALIST: And how many communities are these containers in?

CHALMERS: Well there are 17 locations that are affected. Of those, 16 are occupied and those are the ones that we’re concerned about.

JOURNALIST: Isn’t it important that we find out today who the supplier is so that other – [indistinct] Northern Territory Government may need to know and the wider public may need to know if they’re using these containers as well.

CHALMERS: Well, certainly we’ve reported to the Northern Territory Government and to other officials and agencies which are using these containers our concerns.

JOURNALIST: Everyone on the ground in these communities, have they been informed about potential dangers?

CHALMERS: Well, these are Government business accommodation so they’re not accommodation that’s used more broadly in the community. So this isn’t a case where the people who live in communities are in any way affected. This only affects our staff and of course my concern is for the health and safety of my staff.

JOURNALIST: The containers won’t be used anymore until they’re cleared, is that right?

CHALMERS: Oh, absolutely. We have directed that no staff are to enter the containers now and we will be conducting testing now as a matter of urgency to confirm both the levels of formaldehyde and also the risks that that poses.