Senate debates

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Matters of Public Interest

Green Loans Program

12:55 pm

Photo of Sue BoyceSue Boyce (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am a very practical person. I do not pay extra money so that I can use clean energy in contrast to dirty energy. I have the view that clean energy should, in fact, be cheaper than dirty energy, and when that happens, as it must under an emissions trading scheme, I will certainly be supporting that. But I am a very curious person and I became interested recently in what happens to all the carbon offsets that conscientious Australians pay in their use of air travel and all manner of other things. It turned out to be a very interesting tale.

On 3 February this year the Senate agreed to a motion from Senator Milne which, while it dealt principally with the government’s hopelessly bungled Green Loans Program that does not have loans in it, noted with grave concern:

… the company Fieldforce has consistently received preferential treatment through the program including being allowed to book as much work as it wanted during the shutdown period, despite thousands of other assessors being forced to go without work …

In response to this motion the Special Minister of State and Cabinet Secretary, Senator Ludwig, admitted that Fieldforce was the single largest operator under the Green Loans Program and he added that, to accommodate this, a special arrangement had been made so that their bulk bookings were processed by the environment department once a week. This was confirmed by the Minister for Climate Change and Water, Senator Wong, the following day. The coalition’s sustainable cities spokesperson, Mr Bruce Billson, also raised the matter of Fieldforce on 4 February in the House of Representatives and referred to the relationship between the government and Fieldforce as ‘cosy’.

According to the Age of 5 February, a spokesman for Mr Garrett, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, said that Fieldforce was given a computer link to the department to streamline approvals for it to assess homes. It was and is—despite the program not being a program anymore—the only company to have this preferential treatment. The Age that day quoted the managing director of another firm, Melbourne based Alpha Green, Mr Fraser Clayton, as saying that he had two people who were working 12-hour shifts calling the department’s hotline to get approval for assessments, and that it would usually take 15 or more attempts to get into an automated queue and then another two-hour wait to get through to an operator. Happily, Fieldforce did not have the same problem; they had their hotline.

So just what is Fieldforce? The company commenced operations in 1993 in New South Wales supplying services to the water, gas and electrical utilities, including meter reading, meter maintenance and replacement plumbing, electrical and gasfitting. Throughout the 1990s Fieldforce expanded nationally and now has offices in every state and territory except Tasmania. In 1999 Fieldforce ventured into the environment sector, partnering a pilot water conservation program with Sydney Water to provide a residential demand management service. This proved successful to the point that Fieldforce has now retrofitted more than half a million homes. Based on the success of this program, similar demand management programs have been delivered by Fieldforce to many of the major utilities and government agencies around Australia—and they have been delivered very successfully from all reports. In 2004 Fieldforce joined the UXC group of companies. It is now fully accredited under the Department of Climate Change’s Greenhouse Friendly scheme and similar government schemes in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Fieldforce has done very well in recent years and, as Senator Milne’s motion regarding the Green Loans Program shows, Fieldforce apparently has friends in high places.

But there is one other aspect of their remarkable success that I want to raise today, and this is the tale that my curiosity led us to discover. I refer to the voluntary carbon offset program introduced by Qantas. The program and its principles are admirable and Qantas is to be congratulated for introducing it. According to the Qantas website, all payments, other than the GST, made by customers who decide to pay the extra for the voluntary carbon offset program on their tickets are used to acquire abatement approved carbon offset projects. Qantas is of course to be commended for carrying the necessary administrative costs of this program. The Qantas website once—and I stress ‘once’—stated:

In August 2008, Qantas announced that Fieldforce, a Greenhouse Friendly accredited provider, will supply the next group of carbon credits for the Qantas carbon offset program. Fieldforce operates across Australia and generates carbon offsets by providing energy efficient light bulbs and water saving showerheads to eligible homes and businesses.

The Qantas website went on to quote at the time it was looked at:

You can register at for a free home energy assessment and, if eligible, receive the free installation of the energy efficient light bulbs and showerheads.

On 29 January this year I wrote to the Chief Executive Officer of Qantas, Mr Alan Joyce, about his company’s relationship with Fieldforce and I quoted that full two-paragraph transcript from their website. I wondered in my letter to Mr Joyce whether I was missing something, because a visit to the Qantas website did not provide a readily identifiable way of registering for that advertised alleged service. Equally, a visit to the advertised Fieldforce website failed to provide any way of registering for the same free service. Perhaps it is sheer coincidence, but the Qantas website has erased the second paragraph of the section I have just quoted from the website since I wrote that letter. This, in its own way, gives the answer to why I could not find any way to register for a free energy assessment service with free light bulbs and free showerheads from Fieldforce apparently being subsidised by Qantas carbon offsets, because it does not seem to exist.

Prior to writing to Qantas on 29 January and failing to have had any success on either the Qantas or Fieldforce websites about how to arrange for the free inspection, a member of my staff telephoned the Brisbane office of Fieldforce to be told that the way to make the arrangement was to call the free number 132040. This is actually the freecall number of the Queensland government’s Climate Smart Home Service. The operator there advised that this service was in fact provided by Fieldforce and was paid for under contract by the Queensland government. Thus it would seem that environmentally conscious Qantas passengers are happily paying the voluntary carbon offset when they purchase their tickets and that money is ultimately being channelled to a commercial operation which, in Queensland at least, is being paid by the state government for providing this service. This Queensland government service, unlike the elusive one once allegedly provided free of charge by Fieldforce, according to the Qantas website, costs homeowners $50. The Qantas 2009 annual report stated:

The voluntary carbon offset program was integrated in the booking process, also enabling customers to use Frequent Flyer points to offset their share of emissions when booking a Classic or Any Seat award flight. Qantas and Jetstar customers paid to offset almost 250,000 tonnes of CO2-e.

There is no mention at all of Fieldforce, as far as I have been able to discover, in the Qantas annual report.

The Fieldforce website provides an excellent profile of the company, which, as I noted earlier, has been a part of the UXC Ltd group of companies since 2004. However, the Fieldforce website makes no mention of the company’s relationship with Qantas. It would seem to me that a reasonable assumption would be that it is proud of this association and the success it is having with greenhouse gas abatement work on behalf of the generous and public-spirited Qantas passengers. What the website did say was that when Fieldforce joined the UXC Ltd it was offered:

... considerable financial support and this support allowed us to invest in the company’s future, which in turn, propelled us into the realm of the Greenhouse Gas abatement sector. Today, we are the leading supplier of energy efficiency and carbon offset services in Australia.

According to the Executive Chairman of UXC Ltd, Mr Geoff Lord, in his AGM address in November last year, the company has a ‘successful record of creating shareholder wealth and dividends over an extended period’. It has an annual revenue approaching $800 million and has about 3,600 employees. UXC Ltd is obviously a great Australian success story and all associated with it should be proud of that success.

But my concern is that Qantas customers who are voluntarily paying the extra for the carbon offset program may not be aware—as I certainly was not until I conducted this inquiry—where their money is going. Until my discoveries I had presumed—obviously quite naively—that these funds would be going to not-for-profit community based organisations with volunteers doing selfless, practical, useful on-the-ground environmental work.

In my 29 January letter to Mr Alan Joyce I asked him why Fieldforce had been chosen in August 2008 to receive these funds from Qantas, how much has been paid to them in that period and how long it was intended to keep Fieldforce as the paid supplier of carbon credits for the program. I have had no reply to that letter and I have since written to Mr Joyce, on 23 February, asking him why the second paragraph of that information about the free Fieldforce service that was on their website in January was no longer there. I had asked him in my first letter how people could register with Fieldforce to get the ‘free home energy assessment’ proudly advertised on the Qantas website, what the eligibility criteria were and who decided. Quite obviously, from my investigations, there appears to be no way of registering for such a service because the service does not exist now, if ever it did exist.

Qantas has removed all reference to any allegedly free service provided by Fieldforce—a prudent if yet unexplained decision. The government seems to continue to be under the impression that Fieldforce still provides a free service. The Department of Climate Change lists Fieldforce Services Pty Ltd in its list of abatement providers as providing what is called an ‘enviro saver program’, which provides:

Free of charge residential CFL and low flow showerhead installation/giveaways ...

But, as I have noted previously, it is nonexistent, at least as far as Queensland is concerned—and, apparently, also as far as Qantas is concerned.

I also wrote to Fieldforce, using the contact details available on the Department of Climate Change website—to Mr Wayne Blanch, the financial controller of the company. In that letter I asked him exactly what the relationship between Fieldforce and Qantas was, what funds had been remitted to Fieldforce by Qantas from its environmentally conscious passengers and what free services had been provided by these funds. I asked Mr Blanch to let me know what free services were available under its enviro saver program listed on the Department of Climate Change website, and how they could be accessed. I have yet to receive a reply.

In my second letter to the Qantas CEO I drew his attention to the statement on the website of the Department of Climate Change. I pointed out that if the Department of Climate Change was under the impression Fieldforce was an altruistic company providing a free service, why had Qantas chosen to take away this reference to this apparently free service? Who is right about Fieldforce? Is it the Department of Climate Change or Qantas? Is it the receptionist in Brisbane who thinks that all these services must be paid for?

In any case, why is Qantas channelling money from its passengers who generously pay the carbon offset payment to a company which in the last financial year had annual revenue of almost $800 million? How much money from Qantas passengers has been given to Fieldforce? Why is its relationship with Qantas being kept so deliberately low key—and by both parties? I would like to add that I do not believe that Qantas is acting in bad faith here; I am suggesting that in fact there has been a lack of due diligence. In my view, both Qantas and Fieldforce have some serious questions to answer.

1:09 pm

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

There are a number of issues that I wish to cover today. I am very interested in the contribution just made by Senator Boyce, and it just adds further questions. First of all, I want to talk about the Green Loans Program and to indicate that the government has mismanaged the fix of its own mismanaged program. This is a pretty stunning effort. It would be pretty hard to match the level of mismanagement that has gone on with the Green Loans Program. You would find this hard to believe, but the fix was announced last Friday and people were told that they had until 22 March to go to the bank and get their loan—that was the cut-off date. We are now told that some of the banks are refusing to provide those loans because their understanding, at least in a couple of cases, was that the Green Loans Program finished last Friday and that people who had already applied had until 22 March to finish their paperwork and for the loan to be provided—but, as of last Friday, new applications ceased. Other financial institutions have been told something different. How is this possible? How is it that when you are trying to fix the problems you have got that you cannot make phone calls to all your financial institutions, or send letters, to make sure they have the same information?

Now the community does not know. Out there, people think they have until 22 March to get a report from the government, to go to the bank and get a loan. It is unclear whether that is the case. It really behoves the minister to come out and tell people what he meant when he said that green loans would still be available until 22 March. If he meant you could still apply up until then, he had better go and tell all his financial institutions that that is the case.

Secondly, how many outstanding reports are there? A lot of people who had assessments are waiting for their report from the government in order to be able to get the loan. And it is the government’s fault that there has been this extraordinary delay—sometimes, I am told, eight to 12 weeks. I am told there are people who had an assessment in October who are still waiting for their report so that they can go to the bank. So it looks like they are going to be left high and dry.

The thing that is fascinating, too, is that there is still no audit of this program. There is still no audit of the quality of the assessments that have been made. We now know that 205,000 assessments—more by now—have been made and there is no-one out there checking to see that the assessments have any level of quality and are being done properly. There are no audits on the ground, yet I have seen the documents from the pilot part of this program. There is a whole audit facility imbedded in the design of the program. Why are there no auditors on the ground? This matters because the minister has said he is going transition assessors from this program to the Green Start program, which was a retrofit for lower socioeconomic households. If you are going to transition people into that program you have to be sure that the assessors that you are transitioning into that program are properly qualified and know what they are doing. Otherwise, you are going to have mistakes.

The other issue with this, and it is a real concern, is that the Green Start program is not just an assessment program; it is to actually do some of the work. How will I or anyone in the community have confidence that the people going into the house can actually do the work? After the insulation debacle, how are we going to be assured that the people going in to do the assessment are qualified? And if they are doing any of the work, are they qualified for that even if they are qualified to assess what might need to be done? So it is a real concern to me. Of course I am pleased that people have a pathway to additional employment but we have to make sure they are qualified people or we are simply going to compound the problems that we have.

We do not have any auditors out there. The banks issue is a big problem. Then there is the software tool. If you are not going to provide loans, and you are going to give people reports, you have to make sure those reports have integrity. The only way they will have integrity is if you can be confident that the software provides you with a report with integrity—and there is no guarantee of that because the software, it seems, is still not finished. The program is finished but the software that was meant to deliver the assessment—the calculator to generate the report—has been recalibrated several times. We do not know whether it is finished. Has the government paid out RMIT? Will they give people a guarantee that the thing is actually finished?

Finally, what about the contract it has already got? I understand the government has now said that all contracts are null and void and you now have to get a new contract. The government could give you two weeks—and that is in the original contract—but who out of the 5,000 people who have already been accredited and the 3,000-odd who previously had contracts will make a decision about who gets the new contracts? There has to be some principle behind this. Now that it is only individuals who can get contracts—so one would assume there will not be contracts with companies—some companies, for example, have 400 auditors and are those 400 auditors going to automatically be reregistered? What is the basis on which you will choose one person to be reregistered or another person not to be reregistered? There are some really serious issues here which still have not been addressed in the government’s fix. We deserve to get some answers about the basis on which, and to whom, they are going to issue the new contracts because there are many more people trained and accredited than there will be contracts on offer.

Senator Boyce just mentioned Fieldforce. I know that they as a company spent nearly $1 million in training their assessors, in paying registration and so on. What is going to happen now if their 400 assessors are not 400 who are reregistered? They have got 100 people in their call centre, 25 support staff—525 people—and who is going to pay the cost of redundancy because the government messed up this program? There are really big issues here. There are people out there who do not know if they are going to have work. They do not know what circumstances they are going to find themselves in. They are already out of pocket.

The government yesterday was saying that the censure motion about the implementation of the program was a joke—it had contempt for the censure motion. I can tell you that out there today there are thousands of people across the country who want to know how the government is going to fix this program. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts still has not provided answers. I would like him to come out today and tell me whether they sent the same letter to all financial institutions with which they had an arrangement for the loan subsidy, whether the letter went at the same time, whether all financial institutions got the same information and to clarify the position as to whether last Friday you could not apply for a loan and whether only those with paperwork saying that it could be dealt with by 22 March or whether you still had until 22 March were eligible. Please, Minister, tell us how many people are awaiting their reports. What is the backlog and when do you intend to get them out to people so that they can make a choice to have a loan, if indeed it is still open?

The Greens are also moving to try to fix the next government debacle—the renewable energy target. As we all know, we have had Roaring 40s in Tasmania stall the Musselroe wind farm. We have had an announcement that there will be no more wind farms in South Australia until after this is fixed. We had an announcement today from Portland, Victoria saying that people in the wind industry would be put off at the end of the month because the government has not moved to fix the renewable energy target. I am bringing legislation in here today to address this issue. The Minister for Climate Change and Water, Senator Wong, was told on the very day she brought in the renewable energy target that the price would collapse because there would be a flood of renewable energy certificates from solar hot water, from heat pumps and from the photovoltaic multiplier. She took no notice. She said that was not the advice from the department and that I was wrong—the department was right and the people advising me had got it wrong. No; she was wrong—her department was wrong.

The wind industry is now going broke. People are being put off as we speak. I moved amendments to actually address this at the time and I was very disappointed that the coalition voted with the government to defeat those amendments. It is rather cynical that Senator Barnett has a motion in here today condemning the government because of this debacle with the renewable energy target when he was one of the people who voted down my amendment which would have dealt with this issue at the time.

I want it very firmly on the record here that there was an opportunity to fix it. I note that Senator Minchin has said the coalition still will not support the proposition that I have on the table to fix it. It is beholden on the coalition, then, to say how they are going to fix it—what they would support—because I have got a very clear program here to add those certificates, that whole amount, to the top of the target. In that way you create the space for wind. We have to do it quickly—we must do it quickly—because people are going to lose their jobs in Victoria by the end of the month. There are profit results coming out at the end of this week for another company. You have got the one in Victoria at the moment. We desperately need this to be fixed immediately or else we are going to see not only the loss of opportunity for renewable energy in Australia but also job losses.

These job losses are in rural and regional Australia, where we desperately need to create jobs. This is one of the great things about the renewable energy sector. It can create jobs in rural and regional communities, and we want those jobs to be created. I want to see the situation clarified so that the Musselroe wind farm can proceed, so that jobs are not lost in Portland and so that we have not seen the end of large-scale wind in Australia.

I know that the advocates for the renewable energy industry are in the parliament today. For goodness sake, I do not want to hear the minister coming out and saying again that there is not a problem. Under the blaze of the distraction that was going on with insulation last week, the minister announced that he would change the rebate for solar hot water, reducing it from $1,600 to $1,000. That was because he thought it might dampen demand for solar hot water; therefore, dampening the number of renewable energy certificates. In some way, he thought he would deal with the situation in the House of Representatives. I have got news for the minister—it will not. It will make a marginal difference. All he has done is collapse the solar hot water industry and a whole lot of businesses associated with that. So yet further disasters are going on because it was ill considered and not thought out properly. We have now got businesses in the solar hot water sector on the phone saying: ‘What are we supposed to do? We have got all these orders for solar hot water systems based on a $1,600 rebate. Now these people are saying they are not going to pay the extra $600 on a $1,000 rebate and we will be out of pocket by $600.’ So small businesses now are going to have cash flow problems because they have brought in all these systems and they are now in a position where customers are cancelling. That is the latest effort of Mr Garrett, the minister for the environment, last Friday in crashing the solar hot water sector.

The Minister for Climate Change and Water is pretending there is not still a problem with the renewable energy target. The Greens have a solution on the table. We are ready to deliver the solution to the Senate right now. I would like more from the coalition than just their condemnation of the government’s program; I would like them to get behind what the Greens are trying to do to fix it, because the government is arrogantly continuing to claim that there is not a problem here, yet jobs are being lost as we speak.

The third issue I want to speak about briefly is water contamination in the George River in north-east Tasmania. The catchment of the George River, like many catchments in Tasmania, has been converted from native forests to plantations. The Greens have argued for years against the conversion of catchments in Tasmania from native forests to plantations. Eucalyptus nitens has been planted in that catchment—I understand up to 80 per cent of that catchment has been planted with Eucalyptus nitens. A toxin from those trees has gone into the river system and into the water supply of the town.

I notice today that Roscoe Taylor, the Director of Public Health in Tasmania, has said that the research first revealed in the Australian on Monday and featured on Australian Story on the ABC raised issues potentially relevant to aquaculture and forest management. Yes, that is right, but they were not raised first via those media outlets. He got the results of this research in 2008 and he did not open and study them. He did nothing about them until it became a national scandal, and now we are going to finally have an inquiry.

The inquiry needs to be independent. The inquiry needs to ask: why is it that the Director of Public Health did not act on the research results that were given to him some time ago? Why is it that he kept playing down the seriousness of this issue and dismissing the community concerns? Why is it that the government continued to dismiss these concerns, as Forestry Tasmania continues to dismiss these concerns? They are very real. As Dr Blamey has argued, there is a cancer cluster now in St Helens, which cannot be explained. We need an independent inquiry. (Time expired)