Monday, 22 February 2010
Minister for Environment, Heritage and the Arts
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.
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.
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)
I rise on the 35th time that those opposite have attempted to move a censure motion, suspend standing orders or move a dissent motion in this term of parliament. We have had almost 30 hours of debates on censures and suspensions. Why? It is because those opposite do not actually have an alternative view about running this nation to put forward. The Leader of the Opposition said on Sky News on 8 December:
… it is a two stage process. But the first stage is making the Government look bad.
He went on. Once he became leader he said on 11 January:
I mean, if in doubt our job is to oppose.
That is what those opposite are about. They are all about politics and nothing whatsoever about substance. We saw it again today during the debate where the Leader of the National Party interjected across the chamber while the environment shadow was speaking that one million homes would be burnt down—all of them will be burnt down. That says it all. What we have here is a Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts who has acted responsibly. He put in place risk management at each step of the way. There were extra measures every time an issue was raised and they were raised most of the time because this minister had initiated the inquiries and made the appropriate changes along the way.
The minister put in place safety and training measures in home insulation where for 12 years previously there were none from those opposite. They were not interested. Most of the 20 warnings that they talk about were the minister’s initiatives. This minister ensured that he moved forward at each step. This is a classic example of the Abbott habit: talk first, think later. The Leader of the Opposition always goes that one step too far. He is always overreaching. You make allegations and then you look for proof later. You make policy announcements then you come up with costings later. You make extreme statements and then you roll out excuses for them later.
This is the Leader of the Opposition who is the most extreme conservative to ever lead the Liberal Party, and he is an extremist in both ideology and in the way that he conducts himself in this House. Occasionally, he tries to pull himself back a little bit. We saw that just a couple of weeks ago.
The Leader of the Opposition went on Radio National in the morning and he said:
Now, you know I don’t want to be unfair on the bloke because I understand that administrating a complex portfolio is difficult …
Reasonable Tony. It lasted a matter of hours because later he came into this chamber, as he has again today, and essentially accused this minister of being guilty of industrial manslaughter. He went that one step too far as he always does. There is some irony I have to say in the party of Work Choices speaking about the safety of workers. Here we have the Leader of the Opposition who wants to reintroduce Work Choices but he is going to give it a different name. I say to him, good luck to you. If you can get away with still calling it the Liberal Party, maybe you can get away with anything because the fact is that this opposition leader goes too far no matter what the issue is. He does have the Abbott habit. Just last week we saw it again. He accused the government of bribing the networks for good coverage—he said we have Channel 7, Channel 9 and Channel 10 in our pocket; Laurie Oakes, Mark Riley and Paul Bongiorno are all in our pocket.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. The standing orders are clear. This is a censure on the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts. The speaker is talking about every other subject but the minister—
The member for Sturt will resume his seat. The member for Sturt will resume his seat! The member for Sturt is warned! The member for Sturt fails to listen to the directives of the chair and was asked to resume his seat on two occasions.
That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:‘the House condemns the Leader of the Opposition for his extreme and reckless statements regarding the Government’s Economic Stimulus Measures, his statement that he would oppose Government measures as a matter of policy, and his failure to advance fully costed alternative policy proposals.’
What this debate is about is the future government of this nation. The government’s economic stimulus plan has resulted in an unemployment rate of 5.3 per cent. Had we not taken that action there would be more than 200,000 Australians more out of work. This is about whether we continue with a government that is interested in policy and moving forward or whether we move to a reckless opposition led by an opposition leader who at every point goes one step too far.
The Leader of the Opposition went further again on homelessness. On 16 February in the Sydney Morning Herald he said we just:
… cannot stop people from being homeless if that’s their choice.
That is his attitude, the great man of compassion, to homelessness.
He is also a great defender of workplace safety. There has been a workplace safety issue in this country over many decades, and that is the issue of asbestosis. People such as the member for Charlton and the trade union movement have ironically been quoted in here, for a change, by those opposite. The trade union movement led the charge to make sure there was justice for those victims. What we had from those opposite on that issue was extraordinary hypocrisy. On 30 October 2007, the late Bernie Banton had an appointment with the then Minister for Health and Ageing, the member for Warringah, in his office. That appointment was to submit a petition of more than 17,000 Australians to the then minister, a petition pleading for Commonwealth government support for action—something that this government has now put in place, it must be said. The then minister failed to turn up for the meeting—maybe there was something else on—but he could not resist going that step further. He blamed and condemned Bernie Banton, saying:
… it was a stunt … I know Bernie is very sick but just because a person is sick doesn’t necessarily mean that he is pure of heart in all things.
He was questioning this late, great Australian about his motives for wanting to protect his fellow Australians in his dying days. The member has form for crassness and crudeness. It is not just people in the Labor Party, the labour movement or the union movement who have suffered at the hands of the Leader of the Opposition. From what we saw in the battle in New South Wales between the hard Right and the extreme Right where the extreme Right won the preselection and knocked over the member for Mitchell’s candidate, we know that Tony has a long history of intervention in these disputes. On 31 August 2005, the day after the former New South Wales Liberal leader John Brogden attempted suicide, he went along to a meeting of health industry executives and said:
If we did that, we would be as dead as the former Liberal leader’s political prospects.
That is an indication of how this Leader of the Opposition treats his friends—treats members of his own political party. We have seen it before. We saw it during the last election campaign, and that is why this Leader of the Opposition, three leaders ago when he stood for the leadership after the 2007 election, could only get six votes in the ballot. It was front and centre of how this Leader of the Opposition performs during election campaigns. Remember him coming along to the National Press Club half an hour late—which was bad enough—and then choosing to abuse the now Minister for Health and Ageing because he could not defend his health policy: the billion-dollar cuts to health and freezing GP places. He said to her:
That’s bullshit. You’re being deliberately unpleasant. I suppose you can’t help yourself, can you?
We saw it as well in his comments about the Deputy Prime Minister and others. The fact is that this Leader of the Opposition does always go a step too far. His extremism and the opportunism that we are seeing during this debate are typical of the way that he acts.
The Leader of the Opposition is suggesting that the environment minister is personally responsible for the deaths. As Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, I have some responsibility for the national road network, but it is not my fault or my personal responsibility if there is an accident on a road. We have a responsibility to act upon advice. We have a responsibility to do what we can to improve safety in whatever area we are in. That is why I have set up the National Road Safety Council. It is like suggesting that the current Leader of the Opposition is responsible for what occurred in the hospitals while he was health minister. If there was a mistake—and mistakes occur in hospitals funded by the Commonwealth government—it is like saying he was personally responsible for everything that happened in the industrial relations system. The opposition cannot resist. So desperate are they, according to their own words, that they are not prepared to put forward a positive agenda. Essentially, we have a Leader of the Opposition who, in his own words, says he is not interested in economics, he is not interested in fundamental debates that go to the heart of how we move forward and, of course, he is not interested in home insulation and other measures that are about dealing with climate change because this Leader of the Opposition has said that climate change is ‘crap’. That is his position. Once again, he went that yard too far, as he always does.
I conclude with this. Yesterday he had this to say in the Examiner in Launceston:
The only one of the Ten Commandments that I am confident that I have not broken is the one about killing, and that’s because I haven’t had the opportunity yet.
Once again, always that step too far. The problem is that, come the federal election campaign, we know and they know in the back that he will go that step too far yet again, as he always does. (Time expired)
That the minister be granted an extension of 11 minutes in which he can actually defend the minister for the environment.
Order! The member’s time had expired. The motion needs to be moved before the member’s time has expired. The Manager of Opposition Business should remember his status in the House.
Mr Albanese interjecting
The Leader of the House is not assisting.
Mr Billson interjecting