Senator Birmingham (South Australia) (4:09 PM) -Firstly, I move this amendment to the motion:
That the paragraph “The Senate calls on the Government to put in place unified Ministry of Climate Change and Energy” be deleted.
At the outset let me address a couple of the comments that Senator Evans made. Firstly, in relation to the timing of speeches, let me be very clear that I have been advised by the Chief Opposition Whip and Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate that there was no agreement with the Liberal Party or the coalition with regard to the timing of speeches. So any assertion that Senator Evans has made about some cosy agreement between the coalition and the Greens on this matter is quite plainly wrong. While reflecting on the timing of speeches, I would also note that I think Senator Evans has unleashed something at the end of his remarks by commenting about Senator Bob Brown only contributing 10 minutes. I am pretty confident that we all know what the consequences of that will be when Senator Brown rises to conclude this debate.
Senator Evans also sought to cast aspersions on who was leading this debate for the opposition. Let me be quite clear that I am very happy to lead the debate against Senator Evans or Senator Wong-or Senator Brown-on any day of the week, especially when it comes to the mismanagement of the government’s environmental programs. This motion has been moved by the Greens. It has not been moved by the opposition. Therefore as a censure motion it has not been moved by the opposition and taken up by our leader or deputy leader. It has been taken up by me as the spokesman on these issues in this chamber.
Senator Wong -Where are your senior frontbenchers?
I am very happy, Senator Wong, to debate you and to debate Senator Evans on these and other issues any day of the week that you choose, because your record stands as a testament of failure by the government in the management of these issues. That is why the censure component of this motion, its part 1, is commanding the support of the opposition. It is commanding our support because it identifies very clearly failure across a number of programs that this government has sought to implement, a number of programs where this government has got its implementation strategy seriously wrong, and the consequences of its errors in implementing those policies have been devastating. They have been devastating to the budget where hundreds of millions of dollars have been squandered, devastating to the lives of Australians, both families hurt by the mismanagement of programs and businesses hurt by the mismanagement of programs. These programs-the Home Insulation Program, the Green Loans Program, the solar rebate, the remote renewable power generation program and the renewable energy target-all stand out as beacons of failure by the government in their implementation strategy, beacons of failure to deliver on their promises or to deliver on their promises in a manner that actually gets those promises through rather than ending up in absolute disaster. This is a serious motion. It is a censure motion and the opposition considers its support or otherwise as to the censure of the government very seriously.
Senator Wong-Where’s Minchin? Where are your senior frontbenchers? Where are they while you are talking? Where’s Minchin?
Senator Birmingham -I do not see too many people sitting around you either, Senator Wong. There are far more people on this side of the chamber than on your side of the chamber.
We know that there are more censure motions moved in the other place. Censure motions are moved with far greater frequency in the other place. In this place this is the first censure motion moved since 2005. Indeed, it has been moved after some weeks of debate about one particular program, the Home Insulation Program. That has been coupled in a less public way with a lot of angst and a lot of community concern about the Green Loans Program. There have also been concerns about solar hot water support that has led to problems with the renewable energy target. All of these issues have been brewing over a number of weeks. We, as an opposition, have sought to prosecute our case in the House of Representatives time and time again. We have sought time and again to bring to the attention of the House of Representatives the failures in particular of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, Mr Garrett, to act responsibly and to manage his portfolio appropriately and to manage his responsibilities in implementing these key policy areas appropriately.
He has failed to do so. The opposition, led by Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt, has highlighted time and time again the programs of Minister Garrett and the problems that are manifest in his portfolio. Given that the government has used its numbers in the House of Representatives to block our efforts time and again over the last few weeks, I welcome the fact that the Greens have accepted many of our valid points and criticisms. I acknowledge that Senator Milne and others have also been making these points and criticisms for some time. The Greens have decided to accept the manifest failure of the government and to bring a censure motion to this place to pass judgment on the government’s failings.
Judgment is an important thing. Senator Evans attempted to talk about judgment when he tried to bring into question the judgment of the opposition. Let us consider the judgment of the government in promising to introduce these policies. It has promised policies that are far from achievable and are far from sensible, measured or deliverable. The government has promised the world but instead has delivered chaos. That is this government’s legacy on its environmental policies. It promised the world going into the last election, but it has simply delivered chaos in the implementation of these policies.
Senator Brandis -It is the most calamitous government since the Whitlam government.
Senator Birmingham -Thank you, Senator Brandis. It is the most calamitous government since the Whitlam government. By the way the Australian people are reacting to the failures of this government, it is evident that they-and, in particular, Minister Garrett-are in more strife than the early settlers when it comes to these portfolios.
Firstly, the story on the Home Insulation Program is an absolutely tragic one. Senator Evans acknowledged that. It is tragic because it has involved the loss of the lives of four young Australians working on installing insulation. I do not blame Minister Garrett directly for that loss of life; nor does the opposition. We blame Minister Garrett for failing to recognise, in implementing a government promise, the consequences of how the industry and the market would respond to workplace safety. That is the tragedy of this program. Associated with the House Insulation Program are around 93 house fires. We know from estimates of the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts today that there are around 1,000 homes at risk of electrification as a result of dodgy installation and that there are more than 200,000 Australian homes estimated to have received inadequate or dodgy insulation. A number of them are at risk of fire.
These are serious issues and serious statistics, and these are things that could have been avoided had the minister acted appropriately when implementing the Home Insulation Program. Did Minister Garrett act on the advice that he received? We now know not only that there were multiple warnings-more than 20-coming from industry and state government sources and elsewhere about the risks inherent to this program but also that the government commissioned its own independent external advice. It commissioned not one but two reports from that esteemed law firm Minter Ellison, where my colleague Senator Brandis used to practise.
Senator Brandis -I am a Minter Ellison alumnus!
Senator Birmingham -Indeed, and I am sure you are a proud and well-recognised member of their alumni. These two reports provided by Minter Ellison to government-the risk management plan and the risk register-identified a number of concerns that should have been recognised and acted on by the government. The Minister for Employment Participation, Senator Arbib, came into question time today and, in one of the rare instances where he has been questioned about these issues, attempted to provide some level of detail to an answer. He tried to go through the risk management plan and say that each of the issues had been adequately addressed. They quite clearly were not adequately addressed. The proof is in the outcome, and the outcome is the tragic statistics I spoke of before.
It is not just that the government did not act on the concerns. The government even had suggestions put to them by Minter Ellison that it failed to act on. It was suggested to the government that risks in certain areas were not tolerable. Minter Ellison, in documenting the risks of implementing this program, found that on 9 April 2009, when they delivered these reports to Minister Garrett’s department, the risks of going ahead and implementing the programs were not tolerable. They recommended, instead, that the government consider delaying the start date for the Home Insulation Program by three months. This was so there could be more time for the government to put in place appropriate regulations, registration, training, restrictions around procurement processes and the types of things that could have ensured installers were well trained and that the pink batts or other insulation materials they were installing were up to scratch. These are the things that the government could have done had it bought an extra three months to get the implementation right. Instead, it ignored that advice. The government ignored the advice in a report that it paid more than $20,000 to get which suggested it should just wait three months.
They ignored it because the great haste was on; the pressure to deliver quickly was on. They needed to be seen to be taking ‘decisive action’-which at the time was the buzzword from the government, the ‘well-focus-grouped’ term. The government needed to be seen to be a government of decisive action, so they wanted to rush this program through as quickly as possible. That was the brief, clearly, from the Prime Minister. It was the brief given to Senator Arbib when he was appointed into the executive. I note that the best excuse Senator Arbib could offer up today as to why he was not as culpable as Minister Garrett in the implementation of this program was that he was not a minister at the time; he was just a parliamentary secretary. Well, parliamentary secretaries are appointed with executive responsibilities, and his executive responsibility was to assist in the implementation of the stimulus package. He should have assisted in the implementation of the Home Insulation Program. Rather than saying, ‘Go faster, go faster, go faster,’ he should have been saying: ‘Hasten slowly. Take the cautious approach and make sure we get this right, because, if we don’t get this right, lives could be at risk.’
It is not just the Home Insulation Program for which the government stands condemned. Yes, that program has caused immense suffering to many families and immense damage to the insulation industry in Australia-damage that some businesses who have existed not just for 12 months but for 12 years or longer will struggle to recover from-but the government also stands condemned for the other programs that the Greens have highlighted in this censure motion. There is the Green Loans program. It is worth recounting a little bit of the history of Green Loans. Green Loans was one of those great election policies of Team Rudd back in 2007. It was one of those policies where they promised the world and we can see now that they have delivered chaos. What did they promise? Kevin Rudd and Peter Garrett, in their 2007 policy document Solar Schools, Solar Homes, promised 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.
That was the promise: 200,000 green loans of up to $10,000 each. How many have been delivered? At last estimates, it was 1,008 out of the 200,000. And guess what. In the changes announced by Minister Garrett last Friday, we discovered that the Green Loans program will no longer have a loans component. That is right. If it were not so serious, you would think it really was an episode of The Hollowmen: a Greens Loans program without a loans component.
Of course, this is not the first downsizing or change to Labor’s election promise on Green Loans. In the 2009 budget, the Labor government quietly downsized their promise. It went from being a promise to provide 200,000 green loans to instead providing 75,000 green loans. So they sliced more than 60 per cent of the loans off before they even started implementing the program. The loans were promised to be 20,000 this year, 20,000 each of the next couple of years and 15,000 in the last year. But, as I said, 1,008 out of the 20,000 budgeted for this year are all the government have managed to deliver.
The government promised to appoint some auditors to go into homes and conduct sustainability assessments of homes. They left the impression that there would be 1,000 auditors. In his 8 May 2009 media release-the one where he downsized the program from 200,000 loans to 75,000 loans-Minister Garrett said that there would be 1,000 home sustainability assessors. On 20 August 2009, Ms Kruk, the Secretary of the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, told the Australian Economic Forum that the program would be delivered through training 1,000 home sustainability assessors. Guess what. Instead of training 1,000 home sustainability assessors, the government trained 3,648. That was the estimate given at estimates, although I note that the industry body is citing figures far higher than that as the number who appear to have been accredited.
There are some questions there that need to be answered which I have posed in correspondence to Minister Garrett. I hope that, when he finishes defending himself over the Home Insulation Program, he might address this issue, because again we have thousands of Australians who have invested their time, their money and their lives in becoming home sustainability assessors, on the premise that there would be 1,000 of them around Australia, on the premise that the work would be shared between 1,000 of them. Instead, the government has gone and at least trebled the number of assessors. Indeed, in the announcement made on Friday, the government said the number would be capped at 5,000. So 5,000-five times the number that was originally promised-is what the government has ended up putting into the marketplace.
Little wonder that assessors are complaining that there is not enough work, that when they can get work they cannot get through to the government’s booking service to book the assessment and that when they complete the assessment and they send the audit of homes back to the department it sits in the department for Lord knows how long. We have complaints from numerous assessors who say that these audits of homes have been sitting in the department of the environment not just for a couple of weeks but for several months at least-months and months of sitting there in the department before they get back to the homeowner. Of course, the homeowner wonders what is going on, blames the person who undertook the assessment, harasses the person who undertook the assessment and obviously is not able to take out a green loan even if they want to, because they have not got their audit back. It is another example of the gross mismanagement of these programs by this government.
On the issue of solar-very briefly-the government has flipped around time and again. It brought in, without any notice, a means-testing of the solar rebate. When the industry went mad in terms of the amount of rebates being claimed, the government decided to change the rules again. Again, it changed the rules without notice to industry, just ending the program overnight without warning. People got an email in the morning saying, ‘The program will end by close of business today.’ That is how this government treats the people in the solar industry.
The government also ended the Renewable Remote Power Generation Program earlier than planned and with no appropriate substitute, leaving people in regional areas reliant on diesel power instead. It is a litany of failures by this government in the way they have managed these environmental programs. In particular, Minister Garrett, who has responsibility for all of them, stands condemned. As a result, the government should be censured for its mismanagement on these issues.