LUKE GRANT:  Simon Birmingham is a Senator from South Australia. He’s also the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment and he joins me on the line. Evening, Senator.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good evening, Luke. Good evening, listeners.
LUKE GRANT: Appreciate your time very much indeed. A lot coming out of this today but clearly the wastage is one issue that you’ve focused on but I guess now the Opposition can really have a look at this idea that the CSIRO has put forward which is 24 per cent of the
140,000 homes inspected are so far in breach of the Building Code. That’s got to be a long term worry, surely?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, there are a number of problems out of this and you’re right to highlight the complete waste and mismanagement of this scheme but certainly the particular news today is that the Government has inspected around 150,000 homes and of those homes they’ve found that 24 per cent of cases where this insulation has been installed are in some way in breach of building codes. Now, that’s just a fraction, of course, of the 1.2 million homes that had insulation installed under this program so we could be talking many, many thousands of homes and the challenge for the Government is to say how they are going to rectify this problem across all homes and what their actual estimate is for the problem across the entire 1.2 million homes.
LUKE GRANT: Yeah, because… and that’s an important point. I don’t know how many people have picked it up but if a quarter of these 140 don’t meet the Code, whose business and whose cost is it to ensure that they do meet the Code?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the Government claims to have done some rectification work.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I want to get to the bottom of just how much and whether in fact they have fixed all of those cases or what work has been left outstanding but you’ve got to remember that all of this work was done at taxpayers’ expense so when you talk about the waste and mismanagement of this program, what you have is that one in four of the jobs inspected to date, paid for by the taxpayer, have not been up to standard and of course have not given the homeowners who asked for them what they expected.
LUKE GRANT: And this has cost us so far, the inspections and the alterations, $190 million?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That’s right and that’s in addition, of course, to the $1.4 billion cost of the actual program, or actually closer to $1.5 billion, so all up you’re looking at a $1.7 billion catastrophe for taxpayers that this program has been and it’s a catastrophe of enormous proportions. We have to remember that four young people’s lives were lost in the installation process, of insulation, and there are coronial investigations occurring as to what occurred in those instances. We have 200 homes damaged by fires that we know about. We have countless businesses and jobs lost and destroyed because of the damage it’s done to the reputation of the insulation industry and, of course, we have $1.7 billion of wasted taxpayers’ money and now we find there’s a legacy of many, many thousands of homes with substandard insulation installed in their ceilings.
LUKE GRANT: Yeah. Look, I notice that during their press conference one of the journalists asked if there had been any action against the Government by people who have had this product installed incorrectly and they… I think they were of the view, or that was what I thought [Mark] Dreyfus said, that they wouldn’t be facing any compensation. That surprised me because I’m assuming that you would assume like I do that, as the insulation in most cases wasn’t going to happen until the Government put this scheme forward, surely that does open the Government to some sort of action later on, should anyone feel aggrieved so to do.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: One thing government is often very good at is, of course, writing lots of technical clauses in the contracts that give grants or the contracts that companies who do the installation undertake so there is probably a degree of coverage that Government lawyers gave themselves in this whole process but [the] Government has had to pay significant sums of money to installation companies as part of, in a sense, voluntary compensation to try to see them through the chaos that ensued when they brought this program to a very abrupt halt. Companies, of course, had spent tens, hundreds of thousands of dollars buying stock, warehousing it et cetera because they thought the boom was going to last forever thanks to the way the Government was handing the money out and then, of course, it ended overnight so they have had to fork out a lot of money for this program along the way which is just another example, of course, of where we’ve seen just so much waste pile up in this sorry debacle for taxpayers and everyone else involved.
LUKE GRANT: Yeah. Look, Senator, there’s another point here and it’s about fast tracking green options, green energy options into the future. Now, the Government fast tracked insulation. One of their motivations, of course, was to try and stimulate the economy but the other was, as we all know, that they thought this was a green friendly way of perhaps reducing emissions by having people turn on their air conditioner or heating, whatever it might be, less. Now, they fast tracked this in order to get some sort of environment pay off as I mentioned and I guess they’re now, very clearly, with this CO2 tax they’re going to fast track other means of renewable energy technologies which might not be ready to go so I guess wonder if you don’t think that the whole rush to do this, as it did in this program, has got the risk of going, you know, ‘pear shaped’ down the road?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh look, this Government, of course, has a track record, whether it’s school halls, whether it’s home insulation, there are countless examples where they have pursued ill thought out policies and taxpayers have been left wearing a very expensive price tag and everyone is quite reasonable to ask the question of ‘if a government can’t manage to successfully install insulation in people’s rooves, how on earth are they going to manage something as complicated as a carbon tax that will apply across the entire economy and impact on so many critical industries for this country?’ so it is a real worry. We don’t think the Government has learnt the lesson of this and they are, of course, going headlong into this carbon tax without having developed any of the details in advance, without having modelled it properly, without being able to tell anybody what the arrangements of it are. It seems very reminiscent of so many other areas that they’ve made terrible mistakes in.
LUKE GRANT: Yeah, it certainly does. Now, the only person that I can see that’s lost their gig over this is [Peter] Garrett. It surely… when a government wastes $1.7 billion, that there’s at least four lives lost and all the other damage that was done, you’d expect more than one head to roll, surely?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, you’d expect more than one head to roll and Peter Garrett’s head hasn’t even properly rolled. He is still sitting around the Cabinet table and the worrying thing for everybody is he may not be in charge of insulation or environment programs any more but he’s the Minister for schools. He’s got schools in his portfolio. He is still sitting around that Cabinet table, drawing a Cabinet Minister’s salary, influencing every decision made by the Cabinet of Australia. That is totally unacceptable. He should have paid the very clear price for this because there were many, many warnings in advance. It wasn’t like alarm bells didn’t go off at the early stages of this program and there was plenty of evidence that should have been heeded far earlier and was just ignored by this Government.
LUKE GRANT: The day before most people switch off for Easter, they try to bury this, do you think?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, I think they were hoping that Wayne Swan talking about the budget, upcoming Easter et cetera were probably ways to keep it buried and of course it was a typical late in the afternoon announcement that made it hard for television networks to cover it and so on but we’ll be doing our best to highlight it and I think, of course, there are certain things that have become synonymous with this Labor Government and waste is right up there but in particular ‘Pink Batts’ and school halls are two of the first things that come to mind.
LUKE GRANT: Indeed. Simon, thanks for your time. Have an enjoyable and safe Easter. I hope I get to talk to you again.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thank you, Luke, a pleasure and to you and your listeners, best wishes as well.