Monday, 22 February 2010
Minister for Environment, Heritage and the Arts
I want to make very clear in the parliament that this government has always taken issues of safety seriously, that I as a minister take issues of safety seriously and that the construction of the risk management program and framework under the Home Insulation Program was particularly and specifically designed to that end. Additionally, I want to make the point that there is no activity which is risk-free and that the challenge in programs of any kind delivered by any government, at federal or state level, is for departments and ministers to assure themselves that the program they have put in place is capable of satisfactorily managing risks that are identified and, if necessary, adding to the safety risk management exercise by way of action where necessary and doing that on the basis of advice from the department, advice from experts and advice from stakeholders.
The fact is, at every step of the way as this program has been rolled out, I have taken advice about what measures we needed to have in place to manage safety. I have always said, at every step of the way, that, if there were a requirement for additional steps to be taken in terms of the satisfactory management of risk under this program, then I would take those steps. It is the case that the most recent advice to me in relation to risk management around this program provided me the opportunity to consider whether or not the program could continue in a way that would satisfactorily manage risk—that is, in a way that was adequate and appropriate for a program of this kind—and I came to the conclusion, on the basis of that advice, that it could not. So I have not run away from these problems. I have actually addressed them as they have come to me and I have taken the step not only of closing a program where there was the potential for additional risks to arise, on the basis of the most recent advice that I had, but also of putting in place a transition to a program which would lift even higher the level of regulatory framework for risk management in relation to insulation in people’s ceilings.
It is a fact that the government has been criticised on occasions for not responding to a range of issues that have been raised and it is the case that sometimes those who are involved in the discussion about the rollout of this program have had different views. It is a fact that, as minister, I have sought advice from my department about a range of views that have come to me: views expressed by stakeholders; views of the industry itself, in which there are divergent voices; views of technical experts; and views in relation to the risk assessment that the department itself has as an ongoing process, informed by the report that was referred to earlier in the House. The appropriate course of action for any minister in this situation is to take that advice seriously. If a minister receives advice which identifies and highlights risks and does not act in a timely and appropriate fashion, then it is absolutely legitimate for an issue to be raised around the exercise of that judgment. But my statement in the parliament last week and my subsequent decisions show that in fact I have taken the advice of the department in reaching my decisions and making decisions about this program. It is on that basis that the conduct of my responsibility as a minister rests.
I must go back to a roundtable in February and to issues that were raised in relation to training. One of the risks that had been identified was that there was not a nationally accredited training module for ceiling insulation. Everybody in this House knows that, from the outset, the delivery of this program relied upon the existing state regulatory framework, including occupational health and safety requirements, and a rollout of the program where the Australian standards were appropriately taken as the guide for the program. But the issues of risk that were identified included training. The fact is that, upon that advice being received, we set in train steps to deliver a nationally accredited training model. We took advice from departments, from training organisations and from the insulation industry as a whole and we put that training module into place. Subsequent to that, I have added to the level of training compliance and requirement that we saw was necessary in that instance. It is a matter of great regret to me that there are a proportion of installers—individuals and companies—who have been associated with this program over its time and who have not complied with the guidelines that I put in place, have not complied with the duty of care that they have for their employees and have not complied with the common-sense requirements that would come down upon anybody who had the opportunity to put insulation into somebody’s ceiling.
To the charge made by the Leader of the Opposition to me, I respond by saying that I have not been able to create a regulatory framework under this scheme that would sufficiently manage the risk—on the basis of the most recent advice I have had—with the very small number of those delivering this scheme who have not observed the regulatory compliance requirements. Upon the receipt of that advice and the identification of that risk, I took the step of ceasing the program and putting in place a transition to a program which not only will continue the sustainable delivery of ceiling insulation, both for the industry and for Australians under this program—and to take the considerable benefits that that brings—but additionally, in consultation with state authorities, will draw on the third-party independent assessment and consider carefully the requirements for the appropriate delivery to enable ceiling insulation still to be put into people’s homes.
On the basis of advice to me, I announced a series of measures consistent with the original risk management framework set up for this program by the department and the government. In doing that, I recognised that there may be a need for additional steps to be taken and I took them. In some instances in taking those steps, there were mixed views about whether they should be taken or not, but I made the decision to go the extra step. I made the decision to ban metal fasteners. As exemplified in one of the instances that we referred to earlier, the breaking of the law can lead to a potential accident or a potential fatality. I very much regret that that has happened, but that is the situation that we face. I put in place the requirements for a mandatory formal risk assessment by installers prior to the installation of ceiling insulation and I put in place a series of other measures: a ‘name and shame’ register, a national register of installers and, of course, the compliance and auditing program that has been rolled out as a consequence of the advice that has come through to me.
There are many Australians who recognise that there are responsibilities which attach to anybody coming into your home and to anybody doing work in your home. That responsibility lies in part with those who are doing the work—to observe the appropriate and proper regulations that are in place, to be informed of them and to follow them. That is an expectation that I think everybody listening to me respond to this censure motion in the House will recognise. It is also the responsibility of the government to ensure it has in place measures that will enable that to happen. That is what has happened all through the period of the Home Insulation Program and, consequent on my receipt of the most recent advice, on our then embarking on a program to transition into the future.
In relation to the industry and the impact upon jobs, I make the following observations. The first is that there are hundreds of thousands of homes. I am not going to start making predictive assessments here, but given that the secretary of my department has provided material, statements, to the media and to the public on the existence of a percentage of risks and the existence of a percentage of homes that do not carry those risks—and that number of homes is very large—Australians can be reassured that, if they had a reputable insulation installer, if the installer followed the guidelines that were established under the program and if they signed the order form satisfying themselves that the job was done properly and that the installer had followed the guidelines properly, there are no additional safety risks as a consequence of this program. But in those instances where installers have not observed the guidelines and where additional risks have arisen the opportunity is there for householders to immediately contact the government. Any home where there is a suspicion of, or apprehension about, risk will be appropriately investigated and inspected as a consequence of this program.
The Minister for Employment Participation, Senator Arbib, has made a number of statements about the assistance measures that have been identified for workers in the industry. I expect to meet with the industry this Wednesday to discuss those issues in more detail. I also make the point that there are already Commonwealth programs in existence which enable householders to take, on reputation, any company that comes to them with a view to installing insulation safely. If in fact the work is done safely, then at a subsequent time the householder would be able to claim a rebate. My own very strong view, given the number of installers that would be subject to deregistration under the Home Insulation Program—those that would be suspended and those who complied with the regulations—is that there will be sufficient opportunity for the responsible and reliable parts of the industry to continue to do that work into the future.
I am advised that evidence was put to the Senate committee hearing today that there are some 93 homes, so I place that correction on the record. To people listening to this debate, I advise that there are additional phone numbers that they can call in relation to this program other than those that I have already given. These include the electrical safety check line 131792 and the installer line 1800686.
I conclude by making the following observations. At all times my goal has been to ensure that careful account was taken of the advice that I received. In taking careful account of that advice, I have listened to the views of the industry and of technical experts in determining the appropriate level of risk management for this program. We had the first nationally accredited training scheme and the first national register for installers. For the first time we instituted a requirement for installers to observe a set of standards higher than the Australian standards and the building code. At each step along the way, I added to that. In doing so, I acted on the basis of the advice that I received, which I believe and accept is the proper discharge of my duty. I am continuing to do that for the decisions that I make. I take safety seriously and I take the effective delivery of programs seriously, and I am going to continue to do that job in my capacity as minister.