On 26 April Four Corners put to air a program “A Lethal Miscalculation”, about the Government’s insulation program. The program concentrated on the death of Matthew Fuller, who died from electrocution in October 2009. His girlfriend, Monique Pridmore, was seriously injured as well. The program purported to reveal that the Government had wilfully ignored multiple warnings about safety in the administration of the program, in favour of rapid rollout to support jobs during the GFC-induced economic slowdown.
Many of the claims centred on allegations made by a Departmental whistleblower. This was probably — given how rare APS leakers are — the same whistleblower who sold the Herald-Sun a load of garbage back in February. In that story, it was claimed Garrett had ignored “hundreds” of emails about safety issues — although this then turned out to be that a senior bureaucrat “who answered directly to the Minister” had received the emails, not the Minister himself.
As any public servant worth their shiny backside knows, no bureaucrats answer directly to Ministers. They answer indirectly, through their own Public Service superiors and the minister’s own advisers and chief of staff.
The confused Herald-Sun story might have alerted 4 Corners that their whistleblower was either so junior or new to the APS as to not understand the simplest management concepts, or knew less about the insulation saga than they claimed.
Four Corners also relied extensively shadow minister Greg Hunt and on the grieving family of Mr Fuller, who blamed the Government for their son’s death. “The cost of the government’s home insulation program has been great,” reporter Wendy Carlisle said at the end of the program. “Lives lost. Houses razed. A massive clean up. And for the Fullers, there is only the government to blame.”
Less than two weeks after the program aired, Fuller’s employer, QHI and its directors, father and son Christopher John and Christopher William McKay, were charged by Queensland authorities in relation to the incident in which Fuller and Pridmore were electrocuted. 4 Corners interviewed the older McKay for the program about the events leading up to Mr Fuller’s death, but McKay’s comments only served as a prelude to an extensive attack on the Government’s oversight of the program.
Four days before the program aired, the report by former bureaucrat Allan Hawke into the program was released. The report received widespread coverage. 4 Corners ignored the report entirely, whilst complaining that Peter Garrett and Greg Combet had declined to be interviewed for the program.
Crikey asked Four Corners whether the production team for “A Lethal Miscalculation” had read the report, and if so why it wasn’t mentioned. Executive producer Sue Spencer replied “the report was carefully read and its findings checked against the script of the program. Minister Combet refused to be interviewed by the program. The full Hawke report was provided on the Four Corners website.”
Spencer also pointed to the report’s conclusion that any replacement program should not proceed without a proper regulatory and compliance regime in place to ensure safety, and that given the priority of the rectification scheme the Government had put in place, consideration should be given to not proceeding with a replacement scheme.
That seems to be Four Corners’ single take from the Hawke Report Crikey reader John Kotsopoulos complained about the program via the ABC’s laborious complaints assessment process (laborious chiefly because it was made that way to fend off persistent Coalition criticisms of bias). Kotsopoulos was also told that the Four Corners regarded those conclusions as, in the words of ABC Audience and Consumer Affairs’ Kieran Doyle, the “bottom line” of Hawke’s report.
Four Corners appears guilty of cherry-picking. Hawke said in his report “any objective assessment of the HIP will conclude that, despite the safety, quality and compliance concerns, there were solid achievements against the program objectives” and, in relation to claims the program was “bungled”, “bungle is actually a furphy because the many positive outcomes (already and potentially) flowing from the [program] serve to address long standing problems besetting the industry.”
This is because the industry was remarkably unsafe before the HIP program, with 20% of Queensland homes found to have pre-existing electrical faults, and at least 80 and probably more fires a year due to faulty installation of insulation. Far from neglecting to address safety issues in favour of rapid roll-out, Hawke says the relevant Department, DEWHA tried hard to address them through training and accreditation programs, but was let down by taking too long to undertake a by-the-book procurement process for a proper auditing and compliance system to vet installers, and by underestimating demand and the bureaucratic resources needed to oversee the program.
As for the specific role of Garrett, “the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts was briefed on these issues and responses by both Mr Garrett and DEWHA were appropriate and timely.” Hawke went on to say “when issues arose, DEWHA and the Minister worked quickly to address them. DEWHA engaged with industry, listened to their concerns and briefed the Minister on necessary changes to the program. Warnings were heeded; however, this was largely reactive.”
None of this is addressed in Four Corners, which made what in hindsight is a remarkable decision to ignore a key report on the exact issues it was making allegations about. 4 Corners preferred the unevidenced claims of a whistleblower over the independent review of an experienced ex-department head from the Howard era. One got an extensive interview, the other got stuck on the website.
Asked why they cherry-picked the report in their justification, the ABC told Kotsopoulos “the ABC has noted the section of the Hawke report that you have highlighted [which I have quoted above]. However, it cannot agree that by not including that statement or focussing on that particular aspect of the report, that the broadcast lacked balance or unduly favoured any one view over another… balance was achieved in keeping with the Corporation’s editorial standards, through the presentation of a range of principal relevant perspectives. Audience and Consumer Affairs believes the broadcast is in keeping with section 5 of the ABC Editorial Policies.”
At worst, Four Corners is guilty of selectively using evidence in a manner that is downright deceptive. I don’t think that was the case. More likely, I’d suggest, is that the Hawke Report didn’t fit the simple narrative Four Corners wanted to run — not so much because it found no evidence that either Garrett or DEWHA had failed to act on warnings (thereby entirely contradicting the claims of their “whistleblower”), but because it offered a complex story of what happened.
The reasons why the program led to so many shonks badly installing insulation across the country lay not in simplistic stereotypes of bumbling bureaucrats or incompetent ministers, but in more complex issues: the designers of the program were worried about low take-up, and wanted to stimulate demand.
A proper Commonwealth Procurement Guidelines-based tender process for a compliance and auditing mechanism took too long, because DEWHA didn’t want to cut corners (when, of course, corner-cutting is one of the things they’ve since been accused of). No one expected householders to so readily abrogate responsibility for what was going on in their ceilings because they had no money at risk. And senior officials didn’t swing extra resources into the relevant area quickly enough.
None of that came through in Four Corners. It might have made for a less emotive and interesting program, but it would have done a better job of informing viewers of what really happened.