JOHN BARRON: A Senate probe continues into the Rudd Government’s home insulation scheme despite its scrapping last week following the deaths of those four installers and more than 90 house fires associated with the program. The Senate committee has this morning heard a strong defence of the scheme from senior Environment Department officials who said that the scheme carried inherent risks and wasn’t achievable without some measure of danger. Committee member, Liberal Senator from South Australia Simon Birmingham is with us. Senator, good afternoon. Now, do you accept that there are inherent risks in installing home insulation? That was certainly the assessment of Department head Robyn Kruk.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: John, certainly there are risks, but those risks are heightened, indeed they are escalated beyond almost comprehension, when a Government comes into the market and starts throwing billions of dollars out there in a manner that is highly, highly profitable for anybody to come in and install that insulation. So yes, there are inherent risks, but what the Government failed to do was to effectively realise that by encouraging hundreds, indeed probably thousands, of new installers into the insulation market there were going to be people with shonky practices who would cut corners and they needed to effectively regulate and register all of those installers and make sure that the training was adequate. Now in hearings in this inquiry last week we heard from people who’ve been around the industry for decades – many, many years – and they all told us they used to give installers training of between two and three months on the job. This Government came in and mandated a one-day training program. That is far from adequate and of course the results have been particularly tragic.
JOHN BARRON: Indeed. The Department also told your inquiry today that they believe that the industry is now better regulated because of this insulation program. Has regulation in fact improved in the last 12 to 18 months?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the proof is in the pudding as to whether the regulations that the Government claims to be so proud of have actually worked, and that proof is that tragically four young installers have lost their lives, some 93 houses – homes of ordinary Australians – have been damaged by fire, tens of thousands more are at risk… these are obviously not regulations that have worked, these regulations have failed, failed Australians terribly, and that’s because the Government rushed this program through, super-charged the industry, and the advice and reports provided to them by independent consultants Minter Ellison warned them of the dangers of rushing this program and they failed to heed those warnings.
JOHN BARRON: We learned only today that Mr Garrett only read the full risk assessment report from Minter Ellison only 11 days ago. Officials from his department told your inquiry today that is not unusual. Do you agree?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: What I find amazing is that Mr Garrett never asked to see it before then. It seems as if it was a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ type arrangement between Mr Garrett and his department and that frankly is just unsatisfactory, but his departmental officials did indicate that having received the two reports that we now know exist from Minter Ellison on the 9th of April last year that they provided a written briefing to Mr Garrett in late April last year about the risks from this program, and that indeed the departmental secretary, in weekly briefings with the Minister, regularly kept him updated with the risks. Now having had all of those briefings from his department, it is astounding and negligent beyond belief that Minister Garrett would not at some stage have said ‘Have we had independent advice on this? Can I see it? Who did it?’ He seems to claim that he never did any of those things until February of this year. What on earth was Minister Garrett doing all of this time?
JOHN BARRON: So your suggestion there is this is not just about Ministerial responsibility for an error of judgment… that was a collective error, if you will, through the Department and the Ministerial office but this finishes with the Minister and this is about competence?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well there are endemic failings throughout this program. Before these hearings, before the release of the Minter Ellison reports, we knew that there were at least 19 explicit warnings around this program provided to the Government, directly to the Minister, to the Department, about the risks of having a super-charged Home Insulation Program that would put dodgy installers into the market – 19 warnings that were ignored. The problem is endemic in the Government, and with Minister Garrett, that they failed to heed those warnings and failed to act in a satisfactory manner to protect installers and to protect Australian families and even in this latest report, released only this afternoon, the Risk Register and Management Report provided to the Government at 2pm on the 9th of April 2009 there are recommendations there that the Government should have extended its temporary rebate scheme to the 30th of September 2009 so as to allow proper timing for the implementation of this program rather than rushing the start date of the 1st of July…
JOHN BARRON: Which is obviously good advice in retrospect but of course the Minister says ‘look, we took on board the Minter Ellison report plus the submissions from industry, from unions, that’s how we formulated the policy, it wasn’t as though we ignored this report just because we didn’t read it.’
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, but ignore it they did – ignore the recommendations to hasten slowly, to not rush in on the 1st of July with an ill-conceived and ill-developed program. There were clear recommendations here that we can see now that suggested the Government needed to wait until October, to wait another three months to get this program right, to get the training, the procurement, all of those important things right. They ignored that recommendation, they ignored all of the warning signs and somebody has to take responsibility for the fact that four young Australians, 93 Australian homes, have been damaged or lives lost, and that somebody is Minister Garrett.
JOHN BARRON: Thanks for your time this afternoon.