ASHLEIGH GILLON: … joining me in the studio, the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Action, the Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham, good morning.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning, Ashleigh.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: You were one of the Senators in there grilling officials from the Environment Department today… did you learn anything new from that, what were the key outcomes?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: What we’ve clearly learned today, Ashleigh, is that the Minister, Minister Garrett, received warning upon warning upon warning. Going into today’s hearing we knew that there were 19, at least, explicit warnings given to the Minister or his Department or the Government about the risks of this program. Today it was revealed that Ms Kruk, the Secretary of the Department of Environment, briefed the Minister on a weekly basis and kept him updated about advice the Department received in relation to the risk of the program. We learned that there were numerous written briefings provided to the Minister and although the Department has thus far refused to release those briefings, hopefully they will release them and I would call on the Minister to authorise the release of those briefings, because they go very much to the heart of just what the Minister was warned of, what Peter Garrett knew and when he knew it, about the risks of this program. It is very clear the Department was telling him all along, from February last year, way before the first death occurred or the first house fire occurred, that this program was fraught with danger.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: There were those warnings, but the Government would argue that Mr Garrett did act on those warnings, that he set up standards that were far better than had been in place before, he acted on recommendations setting up the nationally accredited training program, a register for installers, didn’t he act on that advice and the industry at the time were happy with the standards that had been set up?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The proof is in the pudding, and the actions were manifestly inadequate, because obviously as the program was rolled out we’ve seen the tragic death of four installers, we’ve seen nearly a hundred house fires now recorded, we see of course tens of thousands of homes now at risk. The proof is there that the systems put in place by this Government were totally inadequate and Minister Garrett has to accept that when he decided to pump billions of dollars into this industry it was always going to lure profiteers, it was always going to lure shonks and he did not put in place the right mechanisms to ensure that those sorts of people could not profit from this scheme and in doing so put the lives of so many Australians at risk.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: That’s fine in hindsight but back to the point, when the Minister received the warnings and set up the framework and the standards in response to those warnings, the industry had said they were happy with them, how was he meant to know otherwise?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The Minister continued to receive ever escalating warnings, from his Minter Ellison reports – there were two reports, we learnt this morning, both the risk assessment and a risk register, and the Government has not yet released the risk register… we hope that they will honour the commitment taken at the committee to do so today, so we can see again just how detailed the warnings that the Minister received were… but these warnings continued to escalate over time and the types of standards the Government put in place were very flimsy – they were largely based on using existing State frameworks, using existing State occ health and safety frameworks, and even State Governments were warning the Federal Government that those standards were not adequate for what was happening in the industry and for the way that growth was just spiralling out of control.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: You mentioned the Minter Ellison report… the standard practice is, isn’t it, that these reports go to the Department, then they take it to the Minister and give a briefing on those reports, and the Minister then acts. Now, isn’t that exactly what happened – that’s not unusual, is it, that Minister Garrett wouldn’t have read that full report when the Government first received it last year?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It’s not necessarily unusual he wouldn’t have read the full report at that stage, but given the extent of warnings and the weekly briefings he was receiving on risk, I find it astounding that he never asked to see a full copy of the report until February this year, so nearly 12 months later, that he never asked for more detail out of either of the reports that were commissioned… it’s like he sat there sort of mute during all of these briefings saying ‘yes, okay, good job, keep going, keep going’, rather than interjecting…
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Robyn Kruk made very clear that that’s not what happened… she was asked that very question, ‘was Mr Garrett mute’ and she of course said ‘no, of course he wasn’t’, and this was as you point out the subject of weekly briefings, so that’s probably a little bit unfair to the Minister…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: But we haven’t heard of a single thing that Peter Garrett intervened and said, ‘actually, Department, you need to do this… Department, you need to slow this down’…
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Isn’t it the Department’s job, though, to offer up recommendations to the Minister and I understand that the Minister did follow all of those recommendations.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It’s also the Minister’s job to show some leadership, and the Minister in this case seemed to show leadership in saying ‘we’ll throw billions of dollars at this industry and go your hardest’ and then simply accepted departmental advice, it seems, now we haven’t seen all of that advice so we don’t know whether he accepted all of it, but seemed to accept at least some of that departmental advice rather than ever saying to himself and to his department ‘this program seems to be spiralling out of control, it’s putting lives at risk, homes at risk, and we should slow it down and get it right.’
ASHLEIGH GILLON: But isn’t that the Department’s job?  Minister Garrett isn’t expected to go through every single report in full, is he, isn’t that the Department’s job, to get these reports and then go to the Minister with them… with their recommendations, are you suggesting the Department should be cut out of this process, or… ?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No, not at all. The Department has a very clear role to play and the Department were providing weekly briefings to the Minister, indeed Minister Arbib as well appears to have been central to briefings in the development of this program, so we have multiple Ministers involved in the development of this program, the Department was providing those briefings, the Department in those briefings highlighted the risks of fire and electrocution, and dodgy installation practices. The Minter Ellison report, in hindsight, reads very clearly like, of course, exactly what transpired – the Department wasn’t up to the job of running a program of this scale, the risks of fire and electrocution and damage to homes were very real… all of this is documented in a report that the Government received in April of last year, well before anybody died, well before  homes started to burn down, and yet they couldn’t get it right, to prevent these risks that were identified then from coming through.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Of course this program is now closed, that was an announcement that Mr Garrett made on Friday… are you convinced that the new program that will be in its place will be better?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I’m far from convinced about that yet. There are two aspects that need to be considered about the announcement of Mr Garrett on Friday, firstly of course that having supercharged this industry and drawn hundreds of businesses and thousands of workers into this industry, they all now face very grim prospects, including of course many, many businesses who have been around for 10… 20… 30 years, operating safely and reputably, now find that their lifeline of this rebate has been cut off, they’ve got enormous orders, they’ve got lots of stock, they’ve got lots of staff, and their business has been cut off until a new program, details of which are very sketchy, comes into play. Now, we’ll be looking step by step at exactly what the new program entails, making sure the Government gets it right this time, but just because there is a new program does not absolve Mr Garrett of responsibility for the actions or inactions he took in the last program.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Okay, well I’m sure that the Coalition will continue to pursue this in Question Time this afternoon, so we will be watching that with interest. Senator Birmingham, thank you for your time.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thanks Ashleigh, any time.