Senate debates

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Matters of Public Interest

Green Loans Program

1:11 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today as a passionate supporter of energy efficiency and renewable energy to say how absolutely appalled I am at the maladministration of the Green Loans Program by the federal government. It is time there was a full and thorough investigation into what is actually going on. The Greens want to see the transformation to a low-carbon economy. We want to see the community reducing their energy use and increasing the energy they use coming from renewables. We brought out our own scheme to retrofit all of Australia’s houses, first of all using an energy assessment of how people could save energy and then arguing that the Commonwealth should pay upfront for those technologies that have a payback period of 10 years, and then we promoted a scheme for how that money could be paid back.

The Rudd government picked up on some of the Green ideas about going out and having home assessments. I agree with that—that is exactly what needed to happen. The government’s scheme was for a Green Loans Program. It was planned and funded for sustainability assessments for 360,000 homes over four years from 2009 to 2013. We were supposed to be having that rolled out and creating new green jobs, all of which I totally support. The tragedy here is that the mismanagement is such that people have been misled, people have lost their cars and people are losing their businesses because, once again, the Commonwealth has so badly failed to administer this program properly.

Let me start with the first thing. The government said that this would be restricted to between 1,000 and 2,000 assessors. So people making a decision about going into a small business or getting training and paying for that training themselves assumed that there would be sustainable, equitably provided work for over four years. They made a decision to pay for their own training in that context. The Commonwealth also made promises about providing properly accredited training, and quality control over that training, so that you would see everybody being able to offer a pretty uniform product to consumers and households across the country. But what has happened? What has happened is that this has been a botch-up from the beginning, and that is the most generous thing you can say about it.

Now we have rorting occurring in this program. I want to go through why. First of all, the 1,000 to 2,000 assessors has now blown out to 5,000 people who have been trained and have their accreditation and another 5,000 people who have done the training and are awaiting accreditation. That is 10,000 people. The government promised there would be sustainable work and, given the level of funding for this program, there would have only been sustainable work for 1,000 to 2,000 assessors.

So how is it that the Commonwealth, having made that promise, has allowed the numbers to blow out such that there is not sustainable work for the people who have made this investment in their own training and this investment in trying to get a new and worthwhile career in a green job? The Commonwealth was told that this was the situation. The Association of Building Sustainability Assessors told the Commonwealth and requested a cap on accreditation from 30 September last year, so it is not as if they did not know. The assessors association came and said, ‘This is blowing out badly. You have to put a cap on it.’ They did not put a cap on it at that stage, and we now have 10,000 people expecting to have this work when the program is not funded for them. That means that people are going broke.

To make it even worse—and the Senate will remember that I raised this issue last year in September—the Commonwealth had promised to provide an online booking service for the assessors who would go out, do the assessments and put in the information. They promised to get this scheme running properly. I raised in September the fact that the software was not working at that point. Assessments had been done but reports had not been issued. Hardly any green loans had been issued. It was a complete mess. The minister told me in here that it was all sorted out, that the software was fixed and that all of the issues around the invoices and paying the assessors were fixed. Well, it was not fixed. They have never had their online booking service. They are still relying on a call centre.

I want to go through for the Senate what has happened over the last couple of months. The Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts call centre unexpectedly closed for 14 days over Christmas with just one day’s notice. This left assessors with no work for two weeks. When the call centre was due to open again, software issues caused it to remain closed for another two weeks. That is a month without work for people who had planned for this to be their income. When the DEWHA call centre finally opened four weeks after Christmas, the software was very unstable and for two or three days assessments were allowed to be booked by email. The emailing of assessments was then stopped.

Call centre staff consistently told assessors that they could proceed without booking numbers, country to the advice from Green Loans staff. Many assessments that were emailed have never been acknowledged or confirmed. Some assessors have proceeded with assessments without booking numbers, believing that DEWHA would pay them. They were advised on 1 February that all assessments must have a valid booking number before proceeding. Some assessors cancelled assessments because they did not get confirmation; some assessors, having received a booking number, arrived to conduct an assessment to find that another assessor had already conducted the assessment.

Currently, the call centre has extended call wait times, which are regularly 45 minutes or more. They restrict the assessor to five assessment bookings per call, randomly choose not to talk bookings, say that they will call back to solve issues but never return the calls and were closed to all bookings on 1 February. No-one can leave a message. The average number of assessments able to be booked per week is in the range of five to 10. There have been six weeks of no work or sporadic work for assessors.

The other issue here, and it is a very big one, is that the Commonwealth allowed several large companies to get involved in the act. This should have been stopped before it began. The Commonwealth should have accepted that this was a big risk. These are very large corporate training organisations. One of them is Fieldforce. I have been told that Fieldforce has a direct IT link between their call centre and DEWHA’s booking database, so they do not have to engage the call centre at all. How is it that there is a special arrangement for Fieldforce that does not apply to all the other small business people, who have to go through the call centre and who are told that they cannot have any more than five bookings a day, which has now become a week? Fieldforce can busily book as many as they like with a direct link. How is that possible? That is discriminatory and unfair.

Worse still, the Commonwealth said that there were rules to do with this program and one of them was in relation to promoting the business of particular companies. The assessors were told that they were not allowed to go into a home and spruik for one company or another or one product or another in relation to what they were recommending in terms of the assessment. Now we discover that in fact Fieldforce is offering bonuses to the assessors working for them in relation to what they provide to the consumer. I am also aware, for example, that Fieldforce is using telemarketing companies to cold call and canvass businesses. That was not part of the rules. The assessors were told that they were not allowed to do that. Assessors have now become so desperate that they are buying bookings from the telemarketers.

This is a huge rort of Commonwealth money. Equally, this is about putting small business out of business—people who are self-employed and who have made decisions to change their jobs to go into this, because it is a very worthwhile thing that assists in the transformation to a green, low-carbon economy. It should provide worthwhile work and experience in the long term. But I have never seen such mismanagement. We saw mismanagement when it came to the photovoltaic rebate: one minute it was means-tested; the next it was stopped without notice. Then we have the renewable energy target, which has been crowded out by energy efficiency technologies and the multiplier such that it is not working properly. Now we have the Green Loans scheme.

You would have to think that either the bureaucrats overseeing this are incompetent or the ministers are not actually looking at what is going on. Why isn’t Minister Garrett overseeing this program? When is he going to start explaining why they allowed the blow-out in the number of assessors? Why has he allowed these big training companies to come in and why do they have special rules for them that do not apply to small business people? Why is it that he has allowed this complete failure of their call centre and the failure to have the online booking service up and running as they said they would? At the rate things are going, this program is going to probably run out by March this year in terms of the number of assessments, and there has been no quality control. Some people are going into houses and doing an assessment in half an hour, ticking the boxes and saying, ‘Here you go: I’ve done that assessment.’ They put in the report and then go onto the next place. This is because Fieldforce is taking a large amount of the money. You get $200 per assessment. If the company is getting $100 for the assessment, then the assessor has to do twice as many assessments in order to get a reasonable return.

We are seeing rorting and gouging of this program and we are not seeing what we hoped to see—that is, a genuine energy efficiency assessment which assists consumers to make the change and get a green loan. We need to look at the variable quality of the training. There is no quality control over the assessments. There is a blow-out in the number of assessors. There is a ‘special deal’ arrangement in DEWHA’s booking system for Fieldforce, with a very high number of assessments being booked to one provider—and I understand these providers are bragging that they will have cornered a large percentage of the market in a very short time, which clearly they have been doing. Finally, I am told that the green loan is being issued to householders with the $10,000 deposited into their bank accounts. That was never the arrangement. There was a control so that that money would be spent on what was assessed. The whole idea was that a report about what would be funded would go in and then those things would be funded. It was to be designed to have third-party cheques issued, and now this is not happening. There does not even seem to be oversight so that the $10,000, when it finally gets to the green loan, is spent on what the green loan was issued for.

In summary, we have a minister who has run around promoting green loans but has not actually overseen the implementation and rollout of the program. We have Commonwealth money being spent in a way that was not envisaged by people in this parliament when we talked about green loans. We have a situation where small business people are going out of business, where preferential treatment is being given to large businesses over small businesses and where, when it comes to running the scheme, you have total incompetence in the provision of information technology support.

I would like an immediate investigation into this by the Commonwealth. The minister really must start overseeing his department, and, frankly, it is time to look at how well people who are charged with administering this program are doing so. It is time that the Senate had a full investigation and a full report from the government. No doubt we will get to this next week in estimates, when I am sure that the non-government parties in this parliament will be working very hard to get to the bottom of the Green Loans Program. How many loans have been issued? How many reports have been issued? How many assessments have been done? What percentage of those assessments has been allocated to one or two providers? What is the quality control? And why did the government allow for such a disgraceful blow-out in the number of assessors, undermining the financial viability of those people who in good faith trained to be energy efficiency assessors under this program?