Senator Birmingham: (South Australia) (5:09 PM) -by leave-I move:
That the Senate take note of the statement.
At the outset, I thank the minister for the courtesy of providing a copy of the statement shortly before making her remarks. This is clearly ‘air the dirty laundry’ day for the government. The visit by President Yudhoyono and the media attention that goes with that visit have seen not only this minister come in here and make a statement on the Green Loans Program but, as I understand it, Minister Combet make a similar statement, on the Home Insulation Program, in the other place. These two poor, unfortunate government ministers have had to pick up the mess left by Minister Garrett in his portfolio. They have come out today to air the dirty laundry and reveal what a comprehensive mess and disaster he made of his portfolio.
It is safe to say that in the Green Loans Program there has been mismanagement of monumental proportions. The only reason the Green Loans Program has not consistently been on the front pages over the last couple of weeks, as the failure upon failure of it has been realised, is that it has had to compete with the human tragedy of the Home Insulation Program for disgraceful management and poor policymaking by this government. It has had to compete with another program equally mismanaged by Minister Garrett. The fact that Minister Garrett continues to occupy a seat around the cabinet table, despite his failures in the Home Insulation Program and his failures in the Green Loans Program-which Minister Wong has just so comprehensively outlined-is an indictment of the government’s and the Prime Minister’s standards of ministerial conduct.
Today the minister has outlined all of the dirty linen in green loans. She has made, in many ways, a full confessional. In making that full confessional, there has been talk of reviews and lots of nice attempts at comfort but no changes and no actions to address the problems that have been encountered in this program. In fairness, the minister has had just two days in the portfolio and it has been a little under two weeks since the Prime Minister announced the changes. But, frankly, this government should not just be saying, ‘We’ve got a massive problem’; they should be saying, ‘We’ve got a massive problem and we have a plan to fix it.’ It is the plan to fix it that is so sorely lacking.
The problems in this program have been evident not just over the last couple of weeks but from day one. This was originally an election policy the government took to the election. In the election 2007 policy document Solar schools-solar homes the promise was to:
Offer low interest Green Loans of up to $10,000 each to make 200,000 existing homes more energy and water efficient, with subsidised environmental audits and free Green Renovations packs.
The government funded its policy in the 2008 budget, the first budget of the Rudd government. We started asking questions in the budget estimates in May 2008 and we were aghast-I know that Senator Milne was there as well-to see just how poorly planned this program was. We were so aghast that, in the press release I put out after those budget estimates, on 29 May 2008, I said:
His own program now appears too hard for Mr Garrett to actually deliver.
Those words, sadly, seem a little prophetic today. Minister Garrett was two weeks ago stripped of responsibility because he could not deliver on this program. He could not deliver because, as was evident, his departmental officials had no idea what they were doing.
At that time, alarm bells should have been ringing inside government about the Green Loans Program. Instead, they charged ahead. Just like with the Home Insulation Program, they failed to listen to the warnings, they failed to acknowledge that the department did not have the skills or the capacity to deliver and they simply charged ahead blindly into the future, hoping it would all work out for the best.
On this program, they did not even have the excuse that it was part of the stimulus package. That is the excuse that gets wheeled out for the Home Insulation Program-that it was part of the stimulus package and therefore needed to be done quickly. This one was not even part of the stimulus package. Then, they scaled back the program before it even started. By the time it became operational, in July 2009, they had wound back the promise of 200,000 green loans to 75,000 green loans. Yet they still could not get it right in the implementation.
Let us go through some of the issues that the minister highlighted in her ministerial statement. She acknowledged that 210,864 home sustainability assessments have been completed. Of those, around 84,000 reports have been returned from the department to households. Around 100,000 reports that have been submitted to the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts have not yet been sent out to households. Well over half of the reports completed in this program, which has been operating since July last year, a hundred thousand of them, are languishing in the department of environment somewhere not getting back to households. It is abject failure of process to return reports that have been completed on people’s homes, completed by homeowners who acted in good faith in getting a home sustainability assessment undertaken by assessors who acted in good faith in going in there and completing that assessment and returning it to the department of environment, and 100,000 of them, more than half, have languished in the department ever since then.
The minister highlighted the number of assessors. She said there are around 4,000 assessors contracted to the department. Those 4,000 assessors and the approximately 7,500 people who have actually been accredited with ABSA or the further 1,800 people who have completed training-so 9,300 trained assessors all up-wonder why there is not enough work to go around, why they have not been able to get through to the booking service, what has gone wrong. Most of all they wonder why there are so many of them. Why are there more than 9,000 trained assessors out there and why are there 4,000 contracted to the department? Assessors made their decision to get involved based on statements such as Minister Garrett’s press release of 8 May 2009, when he said there would be 1,000 home sustainability assessors, or the statement of Ms Robyn Kruk, the secretary of the department, to the Australian Economic Forum on 20 August 2009 when she said the program would be delivered through training 1,000 home sustainability assessors. So the government went out there and told people, ‘You might like to become a home sustainability assessor and we will accredit 1,000 of you,’ and somehow accidentally ended up with 4,000 of them.
How on earth does this happen? How does this government consider itself to be remotely capable in the management of this program when it ends up with four times the number of assessors trained to what it said it would have? It is a remarkable failure. Of course, these people have paid money to become assessors, have taken time out of their lives to become assessors, have set up business plans on the premise of becoming assessors, have set their lives up on this premise, only to discover that the government did not live up to its word, did not deliver on the promises it made and has failed them miserably as a result. It has failed to pay them as well. There are 1,500 invoices currently waiting in the department of environment to pay assessors. Indeed, it has failed to obviously put in place a clear process for how those invoices should be submitted, because around 50 per cent of invoices received by the department of environment have been incorrect or incomplete when first submitted. I find it hard to believe that 50 per cent of assessors are getting it wrong. The department must have put in place a totally flawed framework, and indeed the previous minister’s statement indicates that it was previously as high as 70 per cent of invoices being incorrect.
The minister said that there were three key pillars to this program, one being the home assessment, another being the green loan, and the third being the Green Rewards Card. This program was started in July 2009 and people who got an assessment were meant to be getting a $50 Green Rewards Card. What did the minister tell us today? No Green Rewards Cards have been distributed to households to date. When questioned at estimates just a few weeks ago, the department had no idea how they were going to provide them to households. So they have had since July last year when the program started, let alone more than a year before that when the budget funding was first announced, to work out how to send $50 cards to people-and they could not even send one of them out, for the more than 300,000 assessments that have been undertaken. It is an absolute outrage and a complete failure in the department, and indeed of the minister for not asking and finding out what on earth was going wrong. Why wasn’t the minister bringing the departmental officials in and saying, ‘How can you be getting every single aspect of this program so fundamentally wrong?’
We look at the applications for green loans and at Minister Garrett when he announced changes to the Green Loans Program on 19 February. He said they were going to discontinue the loans component of green loans. It sounds like something out of The Hollowmen that the government now has a Green Loans Program that does not have any loans. But that strange fact aside, he said that they were doing so because it had proven to be less popular. We now know it had proven to be less popular because more than half the assessments undertaken never made it back to households, because 100,000 of them were languishing in the department or even more probably at that time failing to get back to households. But they said they would give people until 22 March to apply. We know that there are still 100,000 assessments languishing there, therefore those homeowners cannot apply for a green loan. They do not have any chance to do so.
The minister today said that she was aware that a number of financial institutions have stopped taking new applications. Let us look at that number. Back on 14 February, before the loans component was suspended, there were 16 participating financial institutions and eight which were developing a product to offer. Today what does the green loans website say? It says that only three of them are left. So ‘a number’ is basically all of them. I understand that when contacted today the Berrima District Credit Union said that it is not offering green loans anymore, and the Community First Credit Union said that it had pulled out as well. So there is only one left, and that is the AWA Credit Union, available to Alcoa employees, contractors and their families. So the only people up until the 22 March deadline that the government has put in place for people to apply for a green loan who can still actually put an application in are employees of Alcoa-the only people in Australia are employees of Alcoa. The minister says a number of financial institutions have stopped taking new applications; they all have. Australians can no longer take out a green loan despite the government’s assurances that they had until 22 March.
The minister indicated that DEWHA is struggling to keep up with the more than 7,500 written inquiries and complaints it received over the period 25 February to 9 March. I am sure Senator Milne would agree that our offices have received a fair number of written inquiries and complaints over that period too, that we have all heard from people screaming and complaining, wanting to know what the government is going to do to fix this mess. The minister promised that work was already in train to put in place a nationally accredited training module for assessors-some would say a little too late because 300,000 of the 900,000-odd assessments have already been concluded. There will probably be more than that by the time this training module is put into place. So the government now is questioning whether the training was appropriate for the assessors it has had in the field for so long. The government employed more than four times the number than it intended at the start and is now trying to work through a training program to fix things. Well the horse has well and truly bolted. It is a little late in many ways to be closing the gate but better to get things right now than never, I guess.
The minister said that she will soon meet for the first time with representatives from the assessor body, ABSA. Again, I acknowledge she has been the minister for only two days but in the two weeks since the Prime Minister made this announcement I would have thought the association representing the assessors would have been one of the first groups the minister would have met. I suggest to the minister that, as ABSA officials are in the building at present-I know because I was meant to be meeting with them right now-perhaps she could meet with them today to discuss the many concerns of the thousands of registered assessors. The minister indicated that a lot of reviews are under way. That, of course, is the process of the Rudd government-if in doubt, review; if in doubt, set up another inquiry. That is the way they promise that things will be fixed.
There is an independent, external process being put in place for reviewing within the department of the environment. I trust that will shift across to the new department. There is an audit and report under way which will be completed by April. An audit of assessor accreditation processes is being undertaken by PricewaterhouseCoopers. The commitment I would like to hear from the minister, which she has not made, is that all of these reviews and all of these audits will be released publicly, so that we can see just how wrong the government got it and, more importantly, the recommendations, so that we can hold the government to account to fix this debacle. The minister should today commit to publicly releasing these audits, these reviews, as soon as they are completed. The government has poorly managed this program and should be held to account for how it will be administered in the future.
There are a litany of flaws and failings in the minister’s statement today, but they are cold, hard words and little else for the people affected by this program-the assessors and homeowners who have acted in good faith, the small business people and people concerned about the environment who acted in good faith to do their best to improve their homes, only to be so severely let down by the government. The minister’s statement is full of cold words but has little on action, little that will explain to people out there, to the assessors, how the thousands of assessors, who are now effectively unemployed because of the government, will manage to find work.
The government put in place a cap of 5,000, yet there are around 9,600 assessors. How is the government going to support all of those assessors? With the cap on assessments that can be put in place by the government, will there be enough work even for the lucky 5,000? Having accredited 4,000, how will the government choose the other 1,000? What will be the merit process be? The government has not outlined any of those points. What of the homeowners who invited assessors into their homes to conduct an assessment in the belief that they could apply for a green loan? What is the government going to do for those who have had assessments, some as far back as October of last year, who at least know that there are no longer green loans available, those 100,000 who are still waiting to get their report back? What is the government going to do for them?
What is fundamentally missing from the minister’s statement today is any sense of how the government is going to evaluate the success of undertaking nearly one million home sustainability assessments across Australia. At least under its original model there was the green loans component. We could see how many people took out a loan and could measure what they did with that loan. Now people will get an audit undertaken and that audit will be returned to them, we hope, a little more speedily than has been the case to date, but the government will have no idea what people do in response to that audit. There is no evaluation process in place, there are no evaluation mechanisms and the government should be saying how it is going to measure the benefit from a program spending $150 million-plus of taxpayers’ money. We know there will be lots of paper flying around but what will be the environmental benefit; what will be the energy efficiency benefit; what will be the water savings? These are the things the government needs to spell out and needs to ensure are quite clearly measured.
Lastly, we had a burst of honesty last Friday from Dr Parkinson, the head of the Department of Climate Change. When briefing staff, he acknowledged that his department has no more skills in program delivery than the department of environment, which has just been stripped of this program. I am pleased to hear the minister say that she has instructed the department to commit extra staff resources. Lord knows they have plenty to go around-staff who have been hired to work on the ETS who have nothing to do at present. I am pleased to know that she is reallocating those staff to work on this program and presumably on the home insulation debacle as well, but she needs to ensure that they know about program delivery not just about policy development. Otherwise, we will see the same tragic mistakes, mistakes which result in a waste of money, loss of opportunity, loss of jobs and a disaster for all Australians.