LUKE GRANT: … more details about the botched Home Insulation Program have emerged in Senate Estimates hearings, showing just how poorly run the Federal Government’s scheme was. We can’t forget the money wasted here. We can’t forget that people died here, either. I mean, we really cannot. The failed program has cost Australian taxpayers an estimated 2.1 billion in installation and clean up over four years. Now, as you know, Ray [Hadley] was the first to uncover the rorts within the insulation program and he did lead the campaign to have it axed. Four men died while installing insulation and the program has been linked to more than 200 house fires – 200! 41 cases of alleged or suspected fraud remain under investigation. Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham, the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment, questioned officials from the Department of Climate Change yesterday during an Estimates hearing and he’s on the line for a chat. Senator, good morning.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning, Luke, and good morning to your listeners.
LUKE GRANT: Very nice to talk to you again. How much money has been recovered by the Government so far?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, a mere pittance, of course, has actually been recovered from this program. In fact, we have, in terms of that, recovered just around about a million or so dollars that’s actually been recovered but plenty has been referred to debt collectors, plenty of debt remains outstanding, so you might have… 1.86 million to be precise, Luke, that’s been recovered from dodgy installers but $1.86 million out of a $2.156 billion scheme is of course just small change and, sadly, taxpayers have been left to wear what really is an epitome of… example of Labor waste under this Government.
LUKE GRANT: And I guess… we’re talking here about money owed to the Government by people that have been found to have rorted the system – that’s what we’re talking about here?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That’s right, so the Government, through its extensive attempts to try to clean up the mess that was left by this program… and that itself cost hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to go out and inspect homes and identify rorts and dodgy installations and dangerous installations… they have at least identified some people who claimed money that they shouldn’t have claimed – dodgy installers who put in invoices that they weren’t entitled to – so that’s left the Government now with more than 2,500 bad debts that total around $34.5 million of illegitimately claimed money but the Government is having, it’s safe to say, a pretty hard time collecting any of that money. Some of these debts are now more than 17 months old, dating back to early last year, and so they’ve had to take the remarkable step of engaging debt collectors on behalf of the Federal Government, as they try to…
LUKE GRANT: And that’s cost money, too, hasn’t it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: [unclear] … taxpayer money.
LUKE GRANT: Yeah, so what’s that costing?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, we don’t know exactly how much that will cost but these debt collectors will receive up to about $115,000 for each debt they successfully manage to collect, so the Government couldn’t tell us yesterday precisely what that would be and it will depend in each instance as to how much they recover but it is, really, a remarkable situation where you have a Government that has wrongly given away taxpayers’ money to people making false claims but the Government then can’t manage to get the money back from them and they have to go out to a private debt collection firm to try to get this money back for the taxpayer.
LUKE GRANT: You know, Simon, just… look, thinking aloud here, so I take that risk in opening my gob and uttering these words… the Government’s been lucky that they’ve buggered up so much because, if they hadn’t, all the attention would have focused on this Program and I think there would have been more community outrage. I mean, as I said, we’re talking about 200 homes potentially being burnt because of this Program. We’re talking about deaths. That, aside from the $2 billion… I mean, just as well we’ve had other things to focus upon because this would have been the gift that kept on giving, much like the carbon tax, you’d have to say.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Luke, lesser matters have been referred to Royal Commissions in the past and been the subject of very intense scrutiny but this does stand alongside, of course, the school halls debacle and waste, the continued arrival of record numbers of boats and the billions of dollars in extra costs that taxpayers are wearing as a result of that, the backflip on the carbon tax, there indeed is a litany of examples under this Government that have distracted from this very important issue but, as you highlighted in your introduction, there’s no getting away from the fact that more than $2 billion of taxpayers’ money was involved here. It had a devastating legacy in terms of house fires and a tragic loss of life has been linked to it so we have real problems here and we’re now sort of squabbling over picking up a few million dollars here and there at the end but the tragedy is that aside from the personal tragedies of house fires and loss of life… is the other tragedy of the opportunity cost of what could have been done with this money, had you run a program sensibly and actually done something that didn’t leave such tragic consequences.
LUKE GRANT: Yeah, good point. Thanks for your time, Senator. Very good to talk to you.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Always a pleasure, Luke.
LUKE GRANT: Good on you. Simon Birmingham there, the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment.