Senate debates

Monday, 15 March 2010

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Home Insulation Program

3:06 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray Darling Basin) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Climate Change, Energy Efficiency and Water (Senator Wong) to questions without notice asked by Senators Birmingham and Troeth today relating to the home insulation program.

The shameful debacle that is the Rudd Labor government’s Home Insulation Program continues to be a long and sorry saga. Questions have been continuously asked over the last few weeks both here and in the other place of the Prime Minister, Minister Garrett, Minister Arbib, Minister Combet and Minister Wong. None of them have been able to give the Australian people any confidence that the government has the slightest idea of either what it was doing when it was implementing the Home Insulation Program or what it will do now to clean up the mess that was the Home Insulation Program. They have no idea.

There are a few sad facts that we do know about this program. We know that, tragically, four lives have been lost. We know that more than 100 homes fitted with insulation under this program have suffered house fires. We know that 1.1 million homes have been fitted with insulation and that thousands and thousands of them are at risk. We know that the government has already spent $1.5 billion on this program—that is $1.5 billion of taxpayers’ money on a program to create this disaster, this mess, this debacle. We know that there are now thousands of workers who are unemployed—workers who were involved in insulation manufacturing and insulation installation. These workers are unemployed, out of a job and languishing because the government could not get this program right in the first place and had to call an abrupt halt to it. That has pushed workers out of a job and hundreds of businesses out of work. Hundreds of employers are being pushed out of the industry. Installers, manufacturers and importers of insulation are all feeling the pain of this mismanagement.

We know plenty about the results of the government’s mismanagement. We know plenty about the disaster that is the government’s mismanagement of the Home Insulation Program, but we know very little about how the government is going to fix it up. We have explored the issues around how they got into this mess. We know there were lots of warnings. We know there was a lot of evidence. We know the government failed to heed those warnings. It failed to heed that evidence, it failed to act appropriately and it failed to put in place the right standards and safeguards to avert disaster. As Senator Abetz said: they all failed from the Prime Minister right through to Minister Arbib. The kitchen cabinet group failed. And now we have Ministers Combet and Wong left to desperately try to clean up this mess, but we know that they have no idea how they are going to do it.

Last week, Minister Combet delivered a 23-page ministerial statement that is heavy on platitudes but light on detail. What we do not know from this ministerial statement far outweighs what we do know. The government claims it has a clean-up plan, a fix-up plan, in place. But we do not know when that plan will start or when it will finish. We do not know when the first lot of foil insulation installed in a home will be removed. We do not know when the last home with foil insulation will have its foil removed. We do not know where the foil will go after it has been removed. We do not know whether it will go to landfill, whether it will be recycled or what the government will do with it. We do not know when the first inspection of the remaining 1.05 million homes fitted with other types of insulation will take place or when the last inspection of the 1.05 million homes with other types of insulation will take place. We do not know how much this will cost overall. We do not know where the money will come from. And wherever the money comes from, we do not know what impact that will have on the planned new home insulation program. We do not know how many fewer rebates will be offered as a result of that. We do not know how many fewer households will end up with insulation as a result of that.

We do not know whether the homes that have their foil insulation removed will have another type of insulation installed. While we know that some in the insurance industry have given an assurance that nobody has been denied insurance, we do not have a commitment from the government that all home owners will definitely be protected should, indeed, they face a house fire. We do not know this. And how do we know that we do not know it? Because we have heard it from Minister Wong and Minister Combet themselves. We have asked them countless times in this place about each of these issues. We have asked them very direct, very specific questions and on each and every occasion the quickest answer the minister gave was, ‘Don’t know.’ That is not good enough. This chamber and Australia deserve better.

3:11 pm

Photo of David FeeneyDavid Feeney (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of the answers given in response to questions from Senator Troeth and Senator Back. Senator Birmingham has just detailed for us a number of questions to which he does not know the answers, but let me perhaps mention some to which he does know the answer. When we look at the stimulus package and its effect more generally on the Australian economy, we do know that it achieved a number of very important outcomes. We know that Australia did not have a recession. We know that there were not two quarters of negative growth in this country. We know that the economy has continued to have strong employment and a strong employment outlook. We know that there are low interest rates and that the interest rate outlook continues to be strong. We know that Australia’s four top banks are now amongst the top 10 in the world in terms of their security and standing. We know that Australia continues to have a very strong economic future. We know that that future was underpinned by the stimulus package, and we know that that stimulus package saved the Australian economy during a period of extraordinary uncertainty. Those are things we do know.

Senator Birmingham has talked about the Home Insulation Program. This government has acknowledged and accepted responsibility for the failings of that program. But context is everything. In an environment where the government was required to get as much of the stimulus package into the economy and into the community as possible and for it to be working immediately, we understood that to be extremely necessary. It is in that context that we find the Home Insulation Program has hit these unfortunate problems. Those are problems that Senator Birmingham has detailed for us. But let us remember that, when he looks at the roll call of the failings of this program and, most tragically, the lives lost and of course the homes that have been destroyed too, there is one thing we must all remember, and that is that those dreadful events, those dreadful happenings, were not enabled by government guidelines or government laws but rather by people flouting those laws and guidelines. They were flouted by individual companies and by individual shonks.

The integrity of this scheme was destroyed by a small number of operators who, to everyone’s regret, have successfully destroyed the integrity of this program. They have undermined community confidence in it and also the capacity of it to go forward. That is why Minister Garrett has, on several occasions, sought changes and improvements to and further strengthening of the guidelines that governed this program and that is why, despite those improvements, he finally recommended to the government that the scheme be discontinued. Minister Garrett made that recommendation because he appreciated the fact that the scheme’s integrity had been undermined beyond repair and that it needed to be discontinued. Of course, it will re-emerge with new guidelines in due course.

But when we consider those events—obviously events that were not welcomed or appreciated by anybody in this chamber, least of all the government—let us remember what the opposition are doing. The opposition are complaining about a danger to jobs they never wanted saved in the first place. The opposition are complaining about an investment they never wanted made in the first place. They are shedding crocodile tears for an industry and for a suite of employees who they sought never to exist in the first place.

When we look at what is to happen to the workers in this industry we can see that the government has already announced a $41 million adjustment package. That is a $41 million contribution to assisting workers who have been made redundant and perhaps lost their jobs during this time. But again I make the point: they are workers who those opposite sought to have never employed in the first place. Businesses and jobs have grown extraordinarily over the past 12 months under the stimulus package and the Home Insulation Program. Those opposite now wail about the inventory costs of these businesses and the fact that these businesses have invested so dramatically in the Home Insulation Program. We on this side understand that there are a lot of strong, legitimate and longstanding businesses in this space, businesses those opposite did not care about until some weeks ago. But we on this side have understood for a long time that those businesses have real and legitimate problems and we will do everything practicable to assist them. Those 23 pages of the ministerial statement that Senator Birmingham referred to includes important comments from this government, important commitments from this government— (Time expired)

3:16 pm

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Feeney refers to 23 pages of bumf put out by the government and then says they contain important comments. The important comments, Senator Feeney, are about action; they are not about words—empty, hollow rhetoric that you and your government pursue down every path you can. Actions speak louder than words. Speaking of actions, we see Senator Feeney leaving the chamber—just like this government have walked out on their responsibility to identify and fix the problems that have come through their cobbled together, poorly planned, ill-considered and badly managed Home Insulation Program.

We have seen $1.5 billion of taxpayers’ money spent on a flawed scheme that has resulted in about 1,500 potential death traps. There have been 105 house fires attributed to this poorly managed scheme. And who is to blame? No-one is to blame! Senator Feeney claims that the government has accepted responsibility. I would ask: who has paid the price for this? Minister Garrett is still a minister—and a first-rate minister, according to this Prime Minister. He has less work to do; he still gets the same amount of pay. He has not paid the price. Who has paid the price? The four poor installers, the young fellas who were given a chance and have had their lives cut short due to bad training and bad administration by this government.

When you act in haste, you repent at leisure. Unfortunately, the Australian people do not have the opportunity to repent at leisure, because this is billions of their taxpayer dollars that are being wasted and squandered by this government in an effort to try and ingratiate themselves with people. Well, they have failed. We know they have failed—we have accepted and acknowledged that. Now what we are asking for is simply the timeline and the accountability for fixing the problems that they have created—but we cannot get that. The minister responsible, Mr Combet, and his senior minister, Minister Wong, are refusing to answer simple and sensible questions that the coalition and the Australian people are seeking a response to. We want to know some answers. Out of the houses that have dodgy or faulty or potentially fatal insulation, how many are going to be checked? How soon will that process begin? How soon will it finish? How will it be managed? How will the reinstallation of insulation products be managed? What will be the disposal mechanism? These are all very sensible and very pertinent questions, and the responses are allegedly contained in a statement of 23 pages of ‘comment’, as Senator Feeney refers to it. That is not good enough. The Australian people want firm action. Labor have proven again and again that they are all talk and no action. But on that rare occurrence that the Labor Party do take action, we know that it is mismanaged: they get it wrong and the potential waste of taxpayers’ money and the consequences are sometimes catastrophic.

There is a pattern of failure here, and it is a pattern of failure that is too great too ignore. We cannot just accept the platitudes, no matter how well meaning they sound. I know the ministers over that side of the chamber and the Rudd government fake sincerity very well, but we cannot put up with it anymore. The Australian people are tired of this. We need to protect the lives of Australian workers. We need to protect the houses, and their contents, of Australian families which are at risk through this government’s maladministration.

Is it too much to ask for a government to actually provide us with some answers? Is it too much for a government to provide the Australian people with the accountability measures that would reinforce integrity so that, when they take advantage of a government program, they know they are not going to be placing their very lives, or their livelihoods, in jeopardy? Is that too much to ask from any government? Apparently it is, when you are dealing with the Rudd government. They have a shameful pattern of failure, because they are more interested in using four- or five-syllable words than in getting it right on the ground. They should be appalled. They need to apologise to the Australian people. (Time expired)

3:21 pm

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Our government does not shy away from the difficulties that were experienced through the Home Insulation Program. We have accepted responsibility for the problems within the program and the response of the Minister Assisting the Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, Mr Combet, has been terrific in being able to answer questions that our communities are looking for answers to. I note that Senator Bernardi is leaving the chamber, given that he made the same comment about—

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

I’m still here; don’t mislead the Senate like that.

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

And I note Senator Bernardi is leaving the chamber.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

I know where I am; do you know where you are?

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

And now he is sitting down—given he made the comment about my colleague. There were problems with the program and in my state of Queensland the foil installation has been significantly problematic. Mr Combet has received advice from the Electrical Safety Office in Queensland recommending that horizontally laid foil installation be removed or, alternatively, that safety switches be installed in household electrical circuits.

I have foil in the ceiling of my home. It is installed against the corrugated iron roof. In my view, and certainly it is the advice from the Electrical Safety Office, that is the appropriate place for it to be installed if it is in a ceiling. We now have advice from that office that horizontally laid foil should not be used. That information was not previously available to the Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts, Mr Garrett, and Minister Combet is now responding to that. Mr Combet has advised that the Australian government will fully fund the removal of foil from or the installation of safety switches in houses that have had foil installation installed under the program.

Senator Bernardi was asserting that our ministers are being less than cooperative in answering questions. Some of the questions being asked are unanswerable. They are foolish questions and simply, at this point in time, cannot be responded to. Minister Combet, Minister Wong and Minister Garrett, when he had responsibility for this work, were being totally cooperative with questions that were being asked in this place and elsewhere. Mr Combet has said, ‘An announcement concerning the details of these further measures will be made as soon as possible.’ That is a reasonable response to what is—

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

So the answers weren’t there in the 23-page document? You can’t have it both ways.

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Would you listen to me instead of just jumping in?

Photo of Alan FergusonAlan Ferguson (SA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Senator McLucas has the call.

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you very much, Mr Deputy President. The detail of the further measures will be announced as soon as possible. That is absolutely appropriate in the circumstances. I have had discussions with North Queensland installers over the last couple of weeks. They are very concerned about the future of the program. They are seeking, understandably, the reinstatement of the program as soon as possible. That is what the government is doing. They are concerned at the capital investment they have made—a gentleman told me this morning that he has $70,000 worth of batts in his shed; that is concerning—and we have to work quickly and effectively to get this program back on the road as soon as possible. They are concerned about their employees, as is the government. But, most importantly, they are concerned that the confidence in the insulation industry has been affected. We share that concern. Let us not forget that over a million homes in Australia have had insulation installed absolutely appropriately. I met a constituent on the weekend who told me her bill has reduced by $100 since she has had her insulation installed. What we have to do is tell the positive story. Many of these installers, whilst recognising the concern in the community, are calling on all of us as politicians to do this properly, to do it sensibly, not to make hay or make political mileage out of the concerns that have been raised or experienced. (Time expired)

3:27 pm

Photo of Mary FisherMary Fisher (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of answers given in question time today by the Minister for Climate Change, Energy Efficiency and Water, Senator Wong, in respect of the Home Insulation Program. It is clear that we know more about that which we do not know in respect of the government’s Home Insulation Program than that which we do know. What is clear is that the government has not learnt the lessons of the past, nor is it learning lessons from the fast-unravelling present. It has not learnt any lessons for proceeding in the future with the new program, which we hear is going to be rolled out from 1 July this year.

If there were any compelling lessons from the mess that is the present, they came very early on in warnings in the independent risk assessment by Minter Ellison, which centred around the haste with which the government and the department were rolling out the Home Insulation Program. They are the lessons—not to unroll the program with the haste in which the government did and to make sure that those tasked to deliver the program are equipped and resourced to do so.

Exactly the same mistakes are writ large, looming large, to be repeated from July 2010. The Home Insulation Program was announced by Rudd Labor in February last year and implemented in July last year. In February this year, the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, Mr Garrett, and Prime Minister Rudd announced a new program to be unrolled and implemented in July this year. The Home Insulation Program was in gestation for some five months last year from its announcement last February to its implementation last July. That is exactly the same time frame for the new program—announced in February this year to be rolled out five months later, in July this year. That is five months in the making again, so what has changed? The time frame and the haste are the same. The warnings are being ignored—‘Oh, but we’ve got a new department to deliver the program.’ We have a new department whose CEO—Lord love him—said on the day he was effectively told he would be tasked with delivering it, ‘But, but, but we’re more policy wonks than we are program wonks.’ Mr Parkinson told his own department that. When he was told about it, he thought, ‘Oh, my God, I know little about program delivery, yet we are being tasked with doing this.’ So we do know that the government has learned nothing from the past and nothing from the fast-unravelling present and yet is hell-bent on proceeding, plagued with the same problems, into the future.

This is an interesting contrast with Rudd Labor’s proposed time frame for paid maternity leave. When asked why the government has not proceeded with its scheme, Minister Macklin told ABC NewsRadio:

There’s been a lot of detailed issues that needed to be worked through that’s been done in a very systematic way and a thoughtful way … The Labor Government wants to do this properly. We … want to make sure we get this right.

Look at the contrast between paid parental leave and the government’s Home Insulation Program. The paid parental leave scheme was announced by Rudd Labor in May last year and we are still waiting for it some nine months later. It has been some nine months in gestation, and we are talking about human gestation—mums and dads. Maybe the government is waiting for something more like the elephant’s gestation period, which is 22 months, for its paid parental leave policy to be implemented. We know not, but why is Rudd Labor saying to Australian families that the need for detailed, systematic and thoughtful implementation—the need to do it properly and make sure it is done right—is more important in respect of paid parental leave than it is in respect of insulating the homes of Australian mums and dads? There was plenty of detail, to use Minister Macklin’s words, to which the government did not attend in respect of home insulation, including the difference in laying processes and practices between alfoil, polyester and cellulose. What is the purpose of insulating? Is the purpose to keep the cold out or to keep the cool in? (Time expired)

Question agreed to.