House debates

Monday, 22 February 2010

Minister for Environment, Heritage and the Arts

Censure Motion

2:55 pm

Photo of Tony AbbottTony Abbott (Warringah, Liberal Party, Leader of the Opposition) Share this | Hansard source

I move:

That this House censures the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts for his gross and systemic failure in delivering the government’s home insulation scheme that through his incompetence, refusal to heed safety warnings and blatant inability to do the job the public demands of him as Minister, he has put at risk the safety of tens of thousands of Australian homes, the jobs of thousands of workers and the lives of installers and householders living with electrocution and fire risk across the country. Minister, enough is enough, it is now time to take responsibility and resign.

It is a fundamental principle of our system of government that ministers are responsible for the administration of their portfolios and for the administration of their programs. If that principle is to be disregarded or ignored, what is the point of this House sitting? What is the point of this question time if ministers do not take responsibility for the maladministration of their portfolios?

The tragedy of what we have seen in question time today is that we have seen a minister betray what I am sure is his basic decency. We have seen him squirming, twisting and turning, and doing anything to try to save his political hide rather than address the serious problems that are now absolutely manifest in the programs that he has been administering, and administering badly. What we have seen from this minister is a whole series of weasel words and a whole series of obfuscations and equivocations—everything but a simple statement of the truth.

The truth is that this was a badly designed program, that the minister was warned about the flaws in the design and that he did not take any action about the flaws in the design. The program was put into practice and all of the predictions about what would go wrong came true. At every step in this whole sorry saga, the minister either did not react or reacted completely inadequately. After 160,000 insulations that did not comply with product standards, 80,000 insulations that did not comply with safety standards, 1,000 electrified homes, 93 house fires and four deaths, finally, this minister suspended the program. But it was too late for all of those people now living in unsafe houses and, tragically, too late for the families of those four young victims of a program that should never have been put into place the way it was.

That is the tragic truth. The minister’s program has had these consequences and the Prime Minister still says, ‘He is a first-class minister.’ This is a minister who was responsible for 240,000 bodgie home installations, 100,000 electrified roofs, 93 house fires and four deaths, and this Prime Minister says, ‘He is a first-class minister.’ I would hate to see a second-class minister in this government if a first-class minister is responsible for such mayhem on a grand scale. What we have seen from this minister today is, clearly, an inadequate explanation about what he was told, when he was told about it and what he did about it. We asked him question after question in this House today about when he first learnt of the contents of the Minter Ellison report and when he was first briefed about the Minter Ellison report. What we got from this minister was a series of obfuscations and equivocations, and he said, ‘I only received the full report 10 days ago.’ Well, that is just not good enough. Why did his department ask for the report? Why did he ask for the report if he did not know there was a problem? Having got the report, why did he not read the report and why did he not act on the report?

Whichever way it is, this minister is guilty. This minister should resign and, if this minister does not have the decency to resign, he should be sacked. Either he had the report, did not bother to find out about it and did not act upon it or he did have the report and he did not do what he so obviously should have. And he has misled this parliament about what he actually knew and when he knew it. This is a minister and a government which just does not get it. This is not the ordinary argy-bargy of parliament. We are not talking here about the usual business of a dollar here, a dollar there, a document here, a document there; we are talking about a program that has put at risk tens of thousands of people. We are talking here about a program administered by this government which has compromised and jeopardised the safety of tens of thousands of people, and this minister not only will not take responsibility but will not apologise for actions for which he clearly should be accountable.

We asked him, ‘Would he take responsibility?’ and he said he was concerned. It is just not good enough, Minister. We asked him, ‘Would he apologise?’ and he said, ‘It was regrettable’. It is just not good enough, Minister. These are people’s lives at stake and you show no remorse, you show no concern and you show no urgency about anything except saving your own hide. And this Prime Minister says that this minister is a first-class minister. If this government goes to its political grave later this year, it will be with the words of the Prime Minister about the minister for the environment ringing in its ears, ‘He was a first-class minister’. If the Australian public thinks that the Prime Minister really does believe that this minister is a first-class minister, they will conclude that this Prime Minister is not worthy of their continued confidence.

If all of this had happened suddenly, despite repeated assurances from his senior officials and from experts in the field that all was well with this program, and if this disaster on such scale had simply been sprung upon this minister, it should still be fatal for his continuation in office. But this did not happen suddenly. This was a slow motion train wreck. This program was a disaster that unfolded step by step in the full knowledge of people in the field, in the full knowledge of the experts in the department and, I say, with the full knowledge of this minister—or it should have been with the full knowledge of this minister if he was maintaining adequate supervision of his department—and he did nothing. He was warned at every step and at every step he failed to take adequate action.

As early as 9 March last year he was warned in writing by the National Electrical and Communications Association that this program was a disaster waiting to happen. In late April last year he was warned by state and territory ministers that this program was a disaster waiting to happen and that, if this program went ahead in the form that the government envisaged, there would be serious risk to property and to life. On 14 October last year we had the first death directly linked to this program. On 16 October last year the master electricians association formally wrote to the minister, warning him that without an immediate suspension of the foil insulation program there would be further fatalities.

What did the minister do? He had meetings but he did not suspend the program. There were further warnings. In November the ACTU—the Australian Council of Trade Unions—called for the suspension of the foil insulation program, and still this minister did nothing. The New South Wales minister warned of the fire risk from this program. The South Australian minister warned of the fire risk from this program. These were not market fundamentalists. These were not wild-eyed right-wing conspiracy theorists. These were Labor government ministers warning this minister of the risks inherent in his program, and still he did nothing. It was only in February that he finally acted after another two deaths. Let me make it crystal clear: these were preventable deaths. The minister did not kill them but he did not take the action that would have kept them alive. There is no more terrible judgment that could be pronounced against a minister in a Labor government: that his inaction contributed to two deaths. Yet that is the judgment that is pronounced against this minister, and still the Prime Minister insists that he is a first-class minister.

The first charge against this minister—the charge on which he should be censured if he does not have the decency to resign—is of a comprehensive failure to administer this program, leading, I repeat, to 240,000 dodgy installations, to 1,000 electrified roofs, to 93 house fires and to four deaths. But the second charge, at least in the context of parliamentary accountability, is no less serious. This minister has wilfully misled the public and this House about the failures inherent in his program. From the very beginning this minister has been boasting about what a magnificent program this is. From the very beginning he has been telling us how splendid it is that some one million houses have been insulated under this program. What good did it do to insulate these houses if 240,000 of them have not been properly insulated, if 1,000 of them have actually been electrified, if 93 have been burnt down and if four people have died as a result of this program? Instead of warning people about the safety risks, all this minister has done—at every step of the way, at every twist in this tale—is defend himself. This minister is the issue. He is the issue because his failures have compromised the safety of tens of thousands of Australians.

As recently as 10 February this minister was saying:

… a successful program continues to rollout, to deliver the kind of benefits that it is to Australian households …

Just 12 days ago he was calling it ‘a successful program’ that was continuing to roll out and to deliver benefits to Australian households—but what are those benefits? They are: dodgy installation, unsafe installation, electrified houses, house fires and the deaths of installers. Just 12 days ago he was telling us what a successful program it was. The next day, 11 February, again he called it ‘a very successful program’. Even last Friday, the day he announced the suspension of the program, he could not help himself. He was still boasting about how successful it was. He said that the program was put in place to respond to the global financial crisis, to provide fiscal stimulus and that ‘it delivered in spades’. Last Friday, the very day he suspended the program, he claimed that it had delivered in spades. He went on to say: ‘Each step along the way we have sought to take into account the necessary safety and training requirements to ensure that the program could be delivered not only effectively but safely and properly.’ The very day the program was cancelled he was boasting about how successful it was.

This minister is in electrocution denial. That is the problem with this minister. This is a government in electrocution denial. Having boasted about how good this program was, the minister went on to admit that, if he had known more, nearly 4,000 of the installers would have been suspended and 1,050 of them would have been deregistered. This is a minister who claims that he was always on top of this program and this portfolio.

The third charge against this minister is that the man who created the mess is the last person who should be trusted to fix it. He designed a program that could not work. He ignored repeated warnings that it would not work. He was wilfully blind to the fact that it was not working, and he stopped it only after 240,000 houses had been improperly insulated, after 1,000 houses had been electrified, after 93 houses had burnt down and after four people had died while installing insulation.

This program is a disgrace, it is an embarrassment, and if this minister had any shred of the conscience that he so exemplified in his former life, he would now be looking into his own heart. He would now be probing his own soul, he would be consulting his own conscience, and he would be asking himself, ‘Will this really do?’ It is just not good enough that a program has failed to this magnitude with 6,000 people, at the very least, potentially losing their jobs while this minister desperately clings to his. Six thousand people are losing their jobs, on top of all the other things that have happened, and this minister is desperately clinging on to his. And still the Prime Minister says that he is a first-class minister. What does that say about the Prime Minister when he says that this minister is a first-class member of the government? It says that this Prime Minister is more than likely in this program up to his neck. That is what it says about this Prime Minister.

Last week, the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, just on the other side of the chamber, said: ‘Who really cares about the maladministration of this program? Let’s face it. We had to shovel the money out the door to save Australia from recession, so how could we possibly be expected to dot the i’s and cross the t’s?’ We know what happens with programs like this when the i’s are not dotted and the t’s are not crossed: terrible disasters take place, terrible tragedies happen, and the government should take responsibility for these tragedies. Ministers should be accountable for these tragedies. Ministers should be censured if they refuse to be accountable, and ministers should be sacked if they are not so conscientious and so honourable as to take responsibility. I say on behalf of 240,000 householders whose houses have been improperly insulated, on behalf of the 7,000 workers who are likely to lose their jobs, on behalf of the 1,000 householders who face potential electrocution risks, on behalf of the 93 householders whose homes have burnt down and on behalf of the four families whose young sons have perished: first, this minister should apologise; second, he should appreciate the enormity of his incompetence and resign; and third, if he remains obdurate, the Prime Minister should sack him. Otherwise it is the government that is guilty, not just this minister.


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