Monday, 22 February 2010
Minister for Environment, Heritage and the Arts
The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts knew about the risks of fire and fatality under the Home Insulation Program, but he failed to act. This minister knew about the Minter Ellison report, but he failed even to open the front cover. This minister knew about the warning from the National Electrical Communications Association of 9 March which warned of systemic failures, but he failed to act. This minister knew about the warnings of the state and territory governments on 29 April, when they warned of fires and fatalities under his program, but he failed to act. This minister knew about the warning of Master Electricians Australia on 16 October last year, when they called for the foil insulation program to be suspended and warned of further fatalities, but he failed to act. Above all else, this minister, charged with the duty of bringing this program into being in a way that protected public safety, ignored not just his technical duties as minister, ignored not just the 20 warnings, ignored not just the advice from the opposition or the numerous calls through the media in August, September, October and November but also the basic duty of courage to stand up to the Prime Minister and say that he knew there were significant problems in delivering this program. He also ignored common sense.
Common sense is what would have told anybody in this chamber given the task facing the minister that to proceed with this program irrespective of any paper changes was to put public safety at risk. I turn to common sense as a very simple proposition, and that is because we know that the minister was aware of the Minter Ellison report. We know that, on three occasions today, the minister refused to answer the simple question: was he briefed on any part of the Minter Ellison report over the last 10 months? On three occasions in this House he refused to answer the simple question: was he aware of, was he briefed on or did he read any part of the Minter Ellison report? That was his own department’s risk assessment. That was prepared to bring this program into being in a way which was safe, and yet, although he was informed and he was aware, he ignored the 20 warnings. Most importantly, the very reason that the Australian public elect somebody to be a minister is to accept responsibility and exercise not just the word of the department but basic common sense, because if you create a program of this size you will attract, like a honey pot, the shonks, the spivs and the dangerous installers, and, in the words of the state and territory authorities of 29 April, there will be fires and fatalities. The warnings could not have been more clear; the warnings could not have been more absolute, and the consequences could not have been graver. In human terms, this is perhaps the most significant public policy failure of the last 20 years in Australia, and the reason why it is such a significant gross and systemic failure of ministerial responsibility is because of the human consequences.
First we begin with four young Australians. I think it is important that this House records the names of those young Australians, who will not be with their families again: Matthew Fuller, 25; Rueben Barnes, 16; Marcus Wilson, 19; and Mitchell Sweeney, 22. This House, this government, this parliament has failed them. We put forward the warnings but, if we did not warn loudly enough—even though we did everything we could—we are sorry for that. It is a matter of profound regret that, no matter how loudly we made our warnings, they were not heeded by the other side. This is a moment where we all sit and say, ‘Let us not forget the very reason we are here: to create an environment in which Australians can proceed with their lives in safety and security and to give them the chance of a better opportunity for the future.’ This House knows that what has occurred is an element of high human tragedy. But beyond those four human tragedies, of which there were warnings by the states and territories, of which there was a warning by Master Electricians Australia—of which there have been multiple warnings—we know that, beyond those tragedies, there have now been, as the minister has just admitted to this House, 93 house fires under his program.
It is a matter of extraordinary disbelief that we had to inform the minister that an extra six house fires had been missed along the way. There have been, perhaps, 1,000 deadly electrified roofs created under this program. There have been 6,000-plus jobs which are likely to have been lost, not created, as a result of this program. We now know that there are 80,000 houses with potentially dangerous insulation installations. We know that there are potentially 160,000 houses—in the words of the minister’s own departmental officials—with potentially substandard insulation, which is effectively worthless and meaningless and could be of more consequence than that. So almost a quarter of a million Australian households now have insulation which is either unsafe or improperly installed and of no value. This is a massive public policy failure on a gross and systemic basis with real human consequences. It is these human consequences that bring us to this moment. They cannot be ignored. They cannot be wished away. They cannot be washed away. They are real and profound, and it will take years to undo the damage that has been wrought through improper administration, gross and systemic failure and an inability to heed the warnings. We know that the minister was aware of the warnings, and that is what is profoundly important.
I feel some sympathy for the minister. He is not a person of bad character. He is a person with a long history of contributing to Australia. But his ministerial career is over. We all know this. He knows this. It is a derogation of duty on a grand scale which it is almost impossible to reconcile with the last 20 years of Australian history and to match. This is not some trivial matter of administration. This is not maladministration on a minor scale. This reaches into a quarter of a million Australian homes. It reaches into 6,000 jobs. It reaches into a thousand potentially deadly electrified roofs. It reaches into 93 house fires. How can you create a policy which causes 93 house fires and not recognise from the outset that this is a bungle on a scale which is unlikely ever to be repeated over the next 100 years in Australia? Above all else, it has reached into four families. I believe the Leader of the Opposition made the point in a very sensitive and reasonable manner: the minister did not commission or take the action which caused those tragic losses but he failed to take the steps which could have prevented those losses. All members of this House know that.
The only reason that the minister is here now—the only reason that the minister has not embraced the principles of Westminster democracy—is that the Prime Minister will not let this minister take the fall and the Prime Minister will not let this minister do the right thing. The reason why is that it is a gross and systemic failure of cabinet responsibility as well as of individual ministerial responsibility. There can be very fewer higher breaches of a minister’s duty. There were not just one or two but 20 official warnings, including from the Master Electricians of Australia, the ACTU, the CFMEU and the ETU. These are profound warnings from within the minister’s own camp. There were warnings from the National Electrical and Communications Association. There were also warnings from the state and territory governments on 29 April last year.
Then there was the Minter Ellison risk assessment. What we have seen today is not just a failure of ministerial administration and responsibility but low-grade evasion, by which that failure has been compounded. The low-grade evasion is that the minister was clearly briefed on the contents of that report. He had weekly briefings from the secretary of his department. By her own words today, he had many reports along the way. Three times he was asked whether or not he had received any part of that report. Each time he retreated to a technical defence about never having received the totality. Everybody in this chamber knows that is code for saying: ‘I was aware of it but I didn’t bother to open the cover. I was briefed on it but I didn’t bother to open the cover. I was aware that there were risks which were unacceptable but I chose for reasons of political cowardice to plough ahead, irrespective of the human consequences.’
There is a duty which was fundamental, and that duty was to take steps to protect and prepare Australians for this program. That duty was to stand up to the Prime Minister when it most counted and to say: ‘Prime Minister, I am sorry. I understand the political desire and the political haste to rush this money out the door but in good conscience I cannot allow this to happen, because there are risks of which we have been warned.’ That is the sacred trust you undertake when you step before the dispatch box in this House as a minister of the Crown. If the Westminster system means anything in the Australian parliament today, if the Westminster system means anything under the Rudd government, there must be accountability and the buck must stop with the minister for the environment.
This is of profound importance. It is of profound importance to the families of the four young men who have paid very dearly for this program. It is of profound importance to the 93 homeowners who have had ceiling and deeper house fires as a consequence of this program. It is of profound importance to the thousand Australians who live now under potentially deadly electric roofs. It is of profound importance to the 48,000 Australians who have foil insulation and do not know whether theirs is one of those thousand roofs.
At current rates of inspection it will take 12 years to find and fix every one of those roofs. It took three months to inspect 1,000 foil roofs under the minister’s program. It would take one year to inspect 4,000 houses under the current rate of the program. It would take 12 years to find and fix, through the 48,000 houses, all of the 1,000 potentially deadly roofs. Even as we speak, whilst the program has been dispatched the solution has not been achieved. One thousand deadly electric roofs are potentially out there. One thousand homeowners are at risk. At some stage, whether it is two or three years from now, some of these people will sell their homes, and somebody else will crawl into the roof to check for a possum or to check the wiring and will not be aware of this risk. This is not naive. This is totally foreseeable. It is foreseen and forewarned about, and there must be a plan. It is extraordinary that there is no plan to find and fix the thousand deadly roofs immediately.
This motion is of profound importance to the 240,000 Australian homeowners whose homes have been equipped with either unsafe or substandard insulation. There has arguably not been a greater public policy failure in terms of its real-world human consequences over the last 20 years, and right along the way it was foreseen and forewarned. Everybody knew that this was happening. Everybody with common sense in Australia knew about the dodgy installations. The minister himself on 26 August last year said it was ‘bleeding obvious’ that there needed to be an inquiry, yet that inquiry never happened. Those were the statements. We have it recorded. That is the moment. This minister must go under the principles of Westminster democracy. He stands censured. (Time expired)