For the avoidance of doubt, Peter Garrett should be in a world of political pain at the moment. His capacity to manage a portfolio and large-scale programs should be under the microscope.
But not for the foil insulation business.
The Opposition yesterday finally got around to doing what it should have done on Tuesday and Wednesday, focusing most of its Question Time fire on Garrett. Because he’d had time to shore up his defences, Garrett looked relatively relaxed. The ensuing Censure Motion lacked any bite, not least because it was painfully obvious when it was coming.
Greg Hunt opened his statement in the censure debate by saying that under the Westminster system, Garrett should resign.
I’m a fan of Hunt’s. He’s a smart bloke who has done great work to pursue this issue from the outset. And, unlike pretty much anyone else in his party other than Malcolm Turnbull, he actually gives a rat’s about environmental issues.
But come off it Greg – a member of the Howard Government talking about accountability under the Westminster system? Are you kidding?
There’s a more perverse logic at work, though, than the usual political hypocrisy (and the now well-worn cliché about Garrett — who apparently used to be a rockstar — struggling in politics. Because what we need is more party hacks).
The crazy logic of the pursuit of Garrett is that he must take responsibility for the actions of everyone who has received Government funding, no matter how irresponsible they are in their own actions or their oversight of those for whom they’re responsible.
To take up Greg Hunt’s point about Westminster accountability, in the days when such principles meant something, a program like the insulation program would have been implemented by bureaucrats. That is, Government employees would have fanned out across the country, entering homes, climbing into ceilings and installing the stuff. It would have been done with remorseless bureaucratic efficiency, house by house, street by street.
Fortunately, Governments don’t work that way any more. There are no standing armies of road builders or PMG workers or engineers. Programs are outsourced so that the private sector can do them, ostensibly more efficiently, certainly for lower cost.
Somehow, though, Garrett is apparently responsible just as if an army of his bureaucrats were crawling through ceilings across the land. We’ve changed how we build infrastructure, but the political and media rhetoric is of another age. Responsibility has been transferred to the private sector, but not the political risk.
This is another symptom of the great Australian conviction that governments are responsible for making their lives risk-free, that if something, somewhere goes wrong, regardless of whose fault it actually is, the Government is to blame. Done your money in a too-good-to-be-true investment scheme? Blame the regulator and the bank that lent you money. Mortgaged yourself to the hilt only to discover interest rates are going up? Blame the Government. Kids overweight? Blame the Government and the advertisers.
Kevin Rudd has been a beneficiary of this obsessive belief in the power of governments to negate risk, because he ruthlessly exploited it to make the Howard Government look out of touch with voters’ concerns. Now it has returned to bite him, and hard.
Perhaps we should apply the foil insulation logic to every Government program. What about road accidents? Roads might have been designed to the highest safety standards, but people still die on them. Ministers responsible for roads should resign. Health ministers should resign whenever there’s a medical error in a taxpayer-funded hospital. To say nothing of Defence Ministers, who should resign whenever there’s a death in the ADF. Because you can always argue that somehow, a responsible Minister could have done something that might have prevented deaths from occurring.
The four deaths that have occurred are all tragedies and have been or are being investigated by the appropriate OH&S authorities in Queensland and NSW. These men died at work, like over 100 other workplace fatalities every year. In the foil insulation logic, bank executives should resign for approving property loans for sites where construction workers are killed.
What’s ironic is that the Coalition’s “direct action” climate plan is foil insulation on a massive scale, with $10b for private sector activities for energy efficiency, carbon sequestration and renewable energy. Presumably Climate Action Minister Greg Hunt would resign if a farmer died while spreading taxpayer-subsidised black carbon, or a worker was killed during the construction of a new gas-fired power station built with government handouts, or a sparky fell from a roof installing new solar panels funded by a government program.
But our programs would be better managed, the Coalition would maintain. Undoubtedly, especially with the cuts in public service numbers Barnaby Joyce wants.
While we focus on four deaths – each as tragic and unnecessary as any other workplace death – the absolute debacle of the Environment Department’s Green Loans program has been lost from sight. This is a program where the Department knew the risks associated with massive government subsidization of a small-scale industry, poorly designed the program and then exacerbated things by what looks at the very least like blatant favouritism to one provider over others. Garrett should be under the hammer on that, not foil insulation.
It’s a textbook case of what happens when Governments start pumping money into new industries without the disciplines of the market place present.
Which of course is exactly what the Coalition wants to do, on a $10b scale.