LUKE GRANT: Taxpayers are footing a multi-million dollar travel bill as part of Labor’s clean up of its disastrous $2.5 billion Home Insulation Program or ‘Pink Batts’ scheme, linked to at least four deaths and more than 200 house fires. This information has come to hand, I suspect in Senate Estimates, by Senator Simon Birmingham, who’s a Senator for South Australia for the Coalition and joins us on the line. Afternoon, Senator.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good afternoon, Luke, and good afternoon to your listeners.
LUKE GRANT: I guess one of the key points here is that apparently in the great city of Melbourne we don’t have anyone qualified as electricians or ‘tradies’ to carry out these inspections. Is that the case?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, it just beggars belief but the way the Government has spent money or wasted money on these inspections, it seems that they don’t think there are sufficiently qualified people in Melbourne to be able to inspect this home insulation, these ‘Pink Batts’, that went in in the first place. You’ve got to remember this, of course, was a multi-billion dollar program that went wrong first time round in installing these ‘Pink Batts’ around the country. We saw house fires; we saw tragic deaths of installers; we saw a lot of money wasted and a lot of businesses go ‘belly up’ at the end of it; and now the Government’s implemented a $500 million inspection program but is wasting the money there flying inspectors right across the country and we have many, many instances of inspectors being flown from Brisbane to Melbourne to go and check that the insulation is installed correctly. Well, why on earth couldn’t they have enough electricians, enough skilled people, and trained the right people in Melbourne to do the inspection jobs there in the first place, rather than racking up this multi-million dollar travel bill?
LUKE GRANT: Yeah, $3.4 million in travel costs and, as you say, we’ve had people fly down from Brisbane to inspect ‘Pink Batts’ in Melbourne and then fly back to Brisbane. I don’t get it. What percentage of homes that have had ‘Pink Batts’ installed have been inspected and are you comfortable enough now… given that we’ve had, as you said, 200 house fires and four deaths, at least, linked to the program, are you comfortable that the Government’s on top of this?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, look, the Coalition’s had concerns all along that the proportion of inspections is just that – it’s a proportion – and I can’t remember offhand now, Luke, as to the exact number, but we’ve been concerned that there will be many, many houses that will never be inspected under the Government’s program and those householders will have to live hoping that everything was right with the installation of insulation in their properties and that’s something for householders will have genuine concerns over and so we’ve argued that, expensive though it is, there should be a program that allows every home to be inspected. Now, the Government’s rejected that idea. Unfortunately, of course, none of this waste should have happened in the first place but a properly run inspection program is one where you make sure that the inspections are done at the least possible cost to the taxpayer as well and so my real concern this time around is the long travel log and travel schedule of these inspectors getting around the country and even some of the particular examples which we show have one instance where a team doing travel in regional Queensland and regional Victoria on a 41-day road trip racked up bills of $82,700. Now, that’s a vast sum of money for a road trip to conduct 394 inspections.
LUKE GRANT: Yet at the end of the day, despite that cost, from what you’ve told me and reading between the lines, it seems to me that no one in Government can say that everyone who received ‘Pink Batts’ is necessarily out of danger. They just… if they’re not going to inspect every property… we had four people die here. If they’re not going to inspect every property, how can they sit back at the end of this and say ‘we’re on top of that, no one’s in trouble now’?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, that’s right, Luke, and they’re looking at essentially asking people to trust the statistics, so the inspection program is based on a complex series of formulas and they’ve had statisticians look at it and say ‘okay, well, if we do this number of houses and if we target it in this way, depending on where we find problems and so on, we come up with the best odds that we will have inspected and identified faults across the system’. Well, odds are just that – they’re odds – and there’s always an odd of it going, and a chance of it going, the wrong way and we’ve seen the tragic consequences when that happens.
LUKE GRANT: Indeed. Appreciate your time, good to talk to you.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Always a pleasure, Luke.
LUKE GRANT: Thank you, Senator Simon Birmingham.