Tuesday, 1 November 2011
Home Insulation Program
On 17 November 2009 the Tiaro home of Ricky Walker and his partner Billeena Chapman and their six children was engulfed by fire and reduced to a smouldering wreck of stumps, ashes and twisted iron. Ms Chapman and her children were lucky to escape with their lives, fleeing from the flames which quickly gutted the old Queenslander. The fire totally destroyed their home and all their family possessions. It began approximately three hours after insulation was installed under the government's disastrous Home Insulation Program. Sadly, the Walker family, who are of limited means, had not renewed their insurance on the property and suddenly found themselves homeless. Unaware of local support services, they tried to manage the situation as best they could, by living in a tent, a shed and eventually emergency accommodation for quite some time before coming to me for assistance.
The Home Insulation Program has been linked to more than 200 house fires. It has become infamous as one of the worst programs ever administered by a government for its waste, mismanagement and loss of property and lives. In response to the tragedy that the program caused, the government revised the safety regulations, but the Walker home installation occurred before these changes were made and even before authorities were alerted to the dangers of insulation-caused fires.
According to the fire report, the fire started in the laundry area where the electrical switchbox was located. If the installation of the insulation interfered with this old home's electrical wiring—cables were disturbed, broken, stapled, cut or shorted—I think it is reasonable to conclude that it could have caused a fire to begin in the switchbox. Such was the intensity of the blaze, Queensland Fire and Rescue were unable to determine the ignition factor. After Mr Walker contacted my office for assistance he lodged a right for information request in an attempt to gain a better understanding of the cause of the fire. In an internal email exchange between Queensland Fire and Rescue officers on 6 September 2010 it was revealed that the reported cause of the fire would likely have been different had the national warning been received earlier. The email goes on to say:
On the balance of probabilities (it is more likely than not), this fire was a direct result of the installation of ceiling insulation. Queensland Fire and Rescue cannot make a more conclusive determination.
I raised the Walker home fire in question time on 29 September 2010 and later discussed the case with the Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency. I acknowledge his assistance in the case, although the government was not willing to pay the compensation I was seeking. While the Walker family home was not insured, the parliamentary secretary confirmed that the insulation installers were required to have insurance cover for the work that they performed, and in this case the insurer was QBE. Mr Walker contacted QBE to make a claim against the installer's insurance policy but QBE denied the claim. I contacted QBE, providing more details on the links between the insulation and the switchbox in the laundry, and asked them to re-investigate the matter. They re-examined the claim and, after interviewing the person who installed the insulation, they formed the conclusion that insulation was not the cause of the fire as the installer said he did not enter the laundry area where the fire started.
The QBE decision is most disappointing. It is just the kind of action that gives insurance companies a bad name. In this instance, they were happy to collect millions of dollars in compulsory premiums but unwilling to pay a reasonable claim where the cause cannot be established without any doubt. QBE is asking me to believe that it is just a coincidence that a 100-year-old house burnt down just three hours after insulation was installed. Only a cold hearted, uncaring, ruthless, out of touch, multinational corporation could treat a poor battling family like this. I am disgusted with QBE and again I appeal to the company to reconsider their rejection of Mr Walker's claim and help this family to get a new start.