House debates

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Prime Minister

Suspension of Standing and Sessional Orders

3:01 pm

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

I seek leave to move a motion of censure of the Prime Minister.

Leave not granted.

I move:

That so much of standing and sessional orders be suspended as would prevent the Deputy Leader of the opposition from moving immediately—That this House censures the Prime Minister for failing to remove his minister who has now received no fewer than 13 separate warnings of fire and safety risks associated with the government’s Home Insulation Program, over a 12 month, period, that has now cost the taxpayer millions, homeowners their safety and, most regrettably, four young Australians their lives.

In particular for:
the Prime Minister’s failure to uphold his own standards of ministerial ethics, that Ministers must ,and I quote, “accept the full implications of the principle of ministerial responsibility”; and
failing to act to remove his Minister after Mr Garrett received urgent and repeated warnings in relation to fire and electrocution risk from the National Electrical and Communications Association, EE OZ, the Master Electricians of Australia, the Insulation Council of Australia and New Zealand, Archicentre, South Australian Labor Minister, Ms Gail Gago MP, NSW Labor Minister, Mr Steve Whan, state and territory fair trading agencies, the WA Department of Commerce and others;
But most of all for allowing his incompetent minister lay the blame for his own dereliction of ministerial responsibility at the feet of installers by saying on ABC radio this morning, “It’s negligent or inappropriate, slack behaviour on the part of a very tiny majority”, rather than his own failures, that has seen tragedy unfold under his watch.
The Prime Minister must go.

This program has been a total shambles from the beginning. But this motion today is not about the waste; it is not about the backpackers who are recruited by bodgie installers; it is not about the pink batts that have been dumped by the roadside because of the complete shambles of this program; it is not, in the end, even about the detail of his administration—this is about death: the deaths of four young Australians flowing from the maladministration of this portfolio by this incompetent minister.

What we have seen in question time today is a complete derangement of values by government ministers led by the Prime Minister. Here we have a government program from which four deaths have flowed—four young Australians have died from events arising from a government program—and all they can talk about is Senator Joyce. It is a complete disgrace and a sign of the complete loss of a grip on reality by this Prime Minister that that is all he is interested in—trying to score political points about a few misstatements, rather than worrying about the maladministration of a program that has actually resulted in people dying. That is why this is important, and that is why it is so gutless of this Prime Minister to leave the chamber rather than face up to the consequences of his incompetent minister and his failed programs.

I did listen to the minister’s statement in the parliament, and he said he did take action. The action he took was all on paper—he took no action out there in our streets. He took no action that would protect the workers working in the roof cavities in this country, four of whom have died because he was satisfied with paper solutions. He did not go out and insist on real solutions.

He also said in his statement today that he acted on advice. I say to this minister, ‘You cannot hide behind officials.’ It is ministers who must take responsibility under the Westminster conventions when their programs do not work. Particularly when, flowing from their maladministered program are four deaths. The basic problem here is that this government wanted to get insulation into two million homes in a matter of months and they did not care what it took. They wanted to get the money out the door.

Photo of Joe HockeyJoe Hockey (North Sydney, Liberal Party, Shadow Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s!

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

Why bother about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, as the shadow minister for finance said, when all you have got to do is get the money out of the door? The direct consequences of getting the money out of the door in a program that was completely maladministered and effectively unregulated is that four Australians have died. That is the truth.

The minister says, ‘It’s all the fault of the shonks.’ I say to the minister there were always going to be shonks in a program like this. As the minister for finance has admitted, that was built into the program. They expected shonks out there and they did not care about the undotted i’s and the uncrossed t’s. The environment minister was warned not once, not twice but repeatedly. He was warned on at least 13 separate occasions and he took no effective action. The first specific warning was back on 9 March last year, when the authoritative body, the national electrical association, warned of the inherent dangers. So concerned by this warning was this minister that it took seven weeks for these reputable and concerned experts to get even a pro-forma, fob-off departmental reply, promising of course that they were going to be consulted. But they then heard absolutely nothing.

Then in October there is the first death. The first death comes in October because the minister has failed to heed that warning. On 16 October the master electricians association calls for the suspension of this program—no training programs, no issuing of new guidelines and standards, but the suspension of this program because there was the risk that it would kill people. So what does the minister do? On 1 November he bans metal clips. The warnings kept coming and the deaths kept coming. He gets a warning on 26 November, a press release from the national electrical association. We have raised, this press release says:

… concerns of the risk of serious injury, death or house fires …

We have warned, this press release says:

… governments and consumers on a number of occasions in recent months of the dangers associated with installing insulation in roof cavities where cabling is present.

Listen to this, Mr Speaker:

The recent Federal Government stimulus package measures have exacerbated these problems without the establishment of adequate enforceable inspection safety measures and placed home owners and occupiers in serious danger.

This is what this minister has failed to do: he has failed to protect installers and home occupiers from serious danger.

After that public warning there were three more deaths. Three months went past before finally he took action to suspend the foil insulation program. It is just not good enough. As a result of this minister’s incompetence 37,000 houses have had this foil insulation installed and over 1,000 of them, according to his own departmental audit, are now electrified. We have live houses, houses that are a potential risk to their occupiers because of the ineptitude of this minister, and he thinks none of this is his fault. If he was a company director in New South Wales he would be charged with industrial manslaughter. That is the truth.

The Prime Minister obviously does not want to lose this minister. He does not want to lose this minister after a very bad fortnight. I can understand why he does not want to lose this minister. But it shows a complete lack of any sense of proportion that he is standing by this minister, who has presided over four deaths. Instead of talking about this minister he would rather talk about Senator Barnaby Joyce. I have to say, Barnaby Joyce has not been responsible for programs that have killed people. That is the truth. That is why this minister must go. He might give doorstop interviews outside church, but this Prime Minister has completely lost any sense of values. This minister deserves to go and the Prime Minister should censor him. (Time expired)

Photo of Harry JenkinsHarry Jenkins (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

3:11 pm

Photo of Greg HuntGreg Hunt (Flinders, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Climate Action, Environment and Heritage) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion. Let me be clear from the outset that under every principle of Westminster government the environment minister deserves to go. We have a government that is in denial about 1,000 electrified roofs, a government that is in denial about the tragic human consequences of a program and a government that is in denial about at least 13 different warnings from credible authorities. That is why this minister deserves to go. These results came about directly because of a program which was put in place, which was not audited, about which there were warnings and about which the key things were ignored.

Let me set out very briefly, so the House knows, the 13 different occasions on which this minister ignored his fundamental duties. The duty of a minister and of a government is to protect their citizens, not to endanger them. On 9 March we know that the CEO of the National Electrical and Communications Association warned the minister in a direct letter, which was only dragged out of him yesterday, that there were real and inherent risks. Beyond that, in March of 2009 EE-Oz, the union trainers, wrote to the minister’s department. They also warned of dangers. They also warned of the need for action. On 2 April, in something which was not acknowledged today in the minister’s statement, the South Australian Minister for State/Local Government Relations, Gail Gago, also warned about risks under his program in terms of human safety.

Most damningly, in an item which was neglected from his answer yesterday, on 29 April there was a teleconference between state and territory fair trading agencies which warned about the program being effectively unregulated and which protested at the risk of loss of human life. But it goes beyond that. On 18 May there was a media release by Master Electricians Australia entitled ‘Insulation scheme prompts timely fire safety warning’. And there were more warnings. On 16 June the Western Australian government warned of the fire dangers of roof insulation and warned more generally of real risks under the program.

15:14:34 On 16 October in a letter from Master Electricians Australia to Mr Garrett, not acknowledged previously prior to today, we know that the minister was warned of the risk of death—‘further fatalities’ were the exact words—if the program was not withdrawn for foil batts. There was no qualification: withdraw the program for foil batts or face the risk of ‘further fatalities’. That was a tragic warning, and that foresight was ignored with fatal consequences. We know also that on 16 October, Master Electricians Australia put out a press release to that effect, again not acknowledged today in the statement.

On 20 October, Master Electricians Australia met with the minister. On 23 October, the National Electrical and Communications Association warned of the dangers of fire and other risks in installing insulation. In 27 October, there was an all-industry meeting with his department—again warnings were given. On 4 November, there was a meeting with the department between the National Electrical and Communications Association. Then on 18 November, the New South Wales Labor minister for emergency services and consumer affairs referred to ongoing fire safety concerns around poorly installed installation.

Throughout this process, as the minister was silent, as the minister was inactive and as the minister was passive in the face of the most prominent warnings a minister of the Crown could receive, the opposition made it clear that there were real issues. We called for an Auditor-General’s inquiry on 26 August last year, before any lives were lost. We called for an Auditor-General’s inquiry on 27 August last year, before any lives were lost. We called for an urgent and comprehensive Auditors-General’s inquiry on 28 August last year, before any lives were lost—and again on 7 September, again on 6 October and again on 10 October, all before a single life was lost.

This is a minister who had forewarning not just once, twice, or three or four times, but on 13 occasions. He had approaches from us on multiple occasions. This is a minister who failed the Australian public in the most derelict way who must go and who has breached every Westminster principle of responsibility, and the Prime Minister must be censured for failing to do the right thing. (Time expired)

3:17 pm

Photo of Peter GarrettPeter Garrett (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

The government does not agree with this motion. I want to begin by reprising the statement that I already made to the House, outlining in some detail the approach that I have taken in terms of the discharge of this program, ensuring there were appropriate levels of training in place and also that safety at all times was a priority.

I am going to begin, though, by addressing the remarks from the member for Flinders. I come to the dispatch box with correspondence that has come to my attention in relation to the Audit Office—and I have already addressed this in the parliament today. I think it is understood by most of us here that the executive does not direct the Auditor-General in this parliament and neither should it. On that basis, though, the Auditor-General did write to me confirming that he had received a letter from the shadow minister for climate change, asking that he give consideration to an inquiry into the package, particularly the Homeowner Insulation Program. The Auditor-General goes on to say:

Prior to receiving Mr Hunt’s letter, we had already planned an audit of this package to commence towards the end of this financial year. In the light of this correspondence, we consulted with your department on developments of the new program. In this context, we were informed of the new guidelines and the compliance and audit strategy being implemented for the program. If implemented effectively these resources may address some of the concerns raised by the shadow minister. Given that the package is at an early phase of implementation, I have decided not to advance our existing plan of commencing the audit towards the end of this financial year.

When this program was first announced by the government, it was announced with a specific purpose and it was announced in the framework of existing state regulations about occupational health and safety and work safety that would be brought into effect in the event that there was any delivery of ceiling insulation into the homes of Australia. It is important that we recognise that fact from the outset. My absolute desire and very firm commitment has been to ensure that the existing standards that Australia had in place, as a modern democratic state, for activities of this kind were properly reflected in the guidelines that we established to develop the program and to ensure that if there were any additional measures that needed to be addressed and implemented then we would, with careful consultation and with due consideration, taking on board expert advice and consulting with the industry as a whole, make those necessary additional steps. That is what we have done.

This motion fails on a number of bases but at its very heart does not recognise what the government’s program has actually done. I have made a detailed statement to the House. It is the case that the opposition always took an alternative view to this program. They were not going to support the fiscal stimulus package and they have been particularly patronising about the insulation industry and the installation of the pink batts—you often hear it shouted across the chamber. But the fact remains that the initial rollout of this program was consistent with the Australian standards as necessary, and that upon the full rollout of this program, following on from consultations with all of the relevant bodies that the government ought to have negotiated and consulted with at that time, a nationally accredited training module was put in place—not only that but also a register for installers.

The shadow minister referred to one particular matter, claiming that this shows the neglect that I as minister showed in discharging my duties in relation to warnings that we have had about electrical safety. He referred specifically to EE-Oz. I want to take this opportunity to advise the House of advice that I have received in respect of that matter—that is, that EE-Oz requested minimal changes to the pocketbook that installers use and that the CEO of EE-Oz stated that the relevant information relating to electrical safety was covered. It is important to understand this point, because what I have had to do over the last week is amplify the level of safety requirements under an existing program which already has safety requirements above the Australian standard and greater than is required by the building codes of Australia. That is the situation that we found ourselves in as a consequence of the tragic death on 14 October.

As I pointed out in my statement to the parliament earlier today, I did not accept the advice of my department and I did go on to ban the use of metal fasteners, considering those issues that were in play. At the same time as doing that, I demanded that we audit the ceilings of homes in Queensland where this foil had been installed. I wanted to know what the results of that audit would be. When I got those interim results in the very first instance—they dribbled through to us—and five instances out of the early 400 interim results showed prospectivity for live insulation, I suspended the program. That was the right thing to do. When the advice came to me and I saw that material, I reacted straightaway to that, as I have done to a range of issues that have come through to me in the life of this program.

Additionally, Mr Speaker, I need to point out through you to the opposition that claims have been made to me that, by diligently observing the appropriate consultation processes and increasing the regulatory burden on a previously unregulated insulation market, I would in fact stop the effective discharge of insulation under this program. My response to that has always been the same: safety is a priority and appropriate levels of training are a priority. I stand by that. I stand by my statement that I gave in the House, and I stand by the decisions that I have made in relation to this program.

The Leader of the Opposition sought to censure the Prime Minister and raised comments about the discharge of my other responsibilities, and I just want to address the terms of that censure very briefly. I have discharged my responsibilities to the fullest capacity that I can muster and with a specific knowledge that, for 12 years, those opposite completely dropped the ball on a wide-ranging series of matters under the environment portfolio. In doing that, I have been specifically clear about what the requirements are for the environment minister: firstly, to believe in protecting the environment, to take regulatory decisions that provide certainty and set the bar high for environmental protection and to discharge a program of putting solar panels on the roofs of homes around Australia that is 11 times what you ever did and then providing a sustainable growth path for the solar industry, because everybody in this chamber is well aware—notwithstanding the shadow minister’s views about rebates for solar panels—that it is an industry that requires some certainty and continuity over the longer term.

There are many other matters in relation to the discharge of responsibilities that the environment minister has to make sure that he or she does properly. The most important one is to provide an effective discharge of the policies that the government brings forward: the largest energy-efficient program that the country has ever seen, over a million households insulated, significant economic stimulus, the provision of a national standard for training, and increasing the standards for safety so that, when we complete this program, not only will Australians have reduced greenhouse gas emissions and reduced energy costs but they will have a regulatory framework for the insulation industry that is more robust and more appropriate than was the case when we first came into government.

Photo of Harry JenkinsHarry Jenkins (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The question is—

Honourable Member:

Honourable member interjecting

Photo of Harry JenkinsHarry Jenkins (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The time has expired. He has accepted my wise direction. The time for the debate has expired.

Photo of Bob KatterBob Katter (Kennedy, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Katter interjecting

Photo of Harry JenkinsHarry Jenkins (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The member for Kennedy will resume his seat.

Question put:

That the motion (Mr Abbott’s) be agreed to.

In division—