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Sep 3, 2014

Pink batts commission hands Abbott four explosive problems

Tony "the infrastructure Prime Minister" Abbott may well find that the report by the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program comes back to burn him, writes freelance journalist Alan Austin.

Royal commissions are like fireworks — spectacular to watch from a safe distance, but painful when they blow up in your face.

When the royal commission into the home insulation program (HIP) released its report on Monday, Commissioner Ian Hanger handed Tony Abbott a bottle rocket, a thunderflash, a cherry bomb and a penny banger — all with lit fuses.

Embedded in the report are at least four smouldering issues for the Coalition government.

First, Hanger found the training regime and regulations at the time of the first of four fatalities in October 2009 to have been seriously inadequate:

“With the exception of South Australia, which had a licensing regime for insulation installers, there was no insulation-industry specific regulation beyond the generally applicable occupational health and safety regulation.”

But here’s the thing: then-minister for the environment Peter Garrett and his staff had spent most of 2009 tightening regulations and procedures. Hanger listed more than 40 interventions to address safety deficiencies — all completed before October. So if the safety framework was still deficient by then, it must have been woefully, if not criminally, inadequate prior to 2008. Having presided over industry growth to the level of about 200,000 new and existing houses insulated annually, the previous Coalition government cannot escape culpability.

Secondly, Hanger opened wide the door to those wanting compensation for the program’s sudden termination:

“I find as follows:

“… the effect of the losses was to devastate many long-standing businesses … and to cause as well personal financial collapse and severe despair and emotional harm;

“that harm and such circumstances justifies pre-existing businesses being compensated.”

If compensation is won, it will be the Abbott government scrambling to find the funds.

This has a certain rough justice about it, of course. There is an argument that the scheme was not intrinsically dangerous and was not failing, rather that it suffered from extreme misreporting from the outset, by both Coalition MPs and a feral media.

Thirdly, the Commissioner was scathing about Abbott’s staff in the course of the inquiry:

“The Commonwealth did not suggest one witness that ought to be called. It did not generally volunteer documents that were not the subject of a summons to produce. It did not elicit any evidence of its own volition. All of this is despite the fact that it was the repository of the critical documents and the corporate knowledge of what had transpired.”

Not even Peter Garrett copped such a shellacking:

“Furthermore, the Commonwealth hampered the work of those assisting me by the way in which documents were produced … Other than in response to a specific request from the Commission, there seemed no logic in the order in which documents were produced. The Commission asked that documents be produced chronologically, however the Commonwealth did not oblige.”

Finally, the Commissioner made it clear that if the federal government initiated the program, then safety is definitely its problem. Never mind the long history of state responsibility.

“There was much debate about whether workplace health and safety issues were a matter that was of any concern to the Australian Government, or whether it was more properly the concern of the States and Territories. It was said, by a number of federal public servants, that the Australian Government had no regulatory power in the field of workplace health and safety, and therefore that it was not a risk that the Australian Government could control. In my view, this attitude was deplorable.”

So from now on, workplace deaths in all the bold infrastructure programs Abbott and his colleagues have planned all over Australia will be on their heads. There need only be four deaths on a port or airport or freeway construction site for there to be calls for ministerial resignations. Did Abbott consider these outcomes when he launched this political attack?

What’s that funny smell? Singed hair and burnt fingers?

*Alan Austin is a freelance journalist who divides his time between Australia and France. His topics are the news media, religious affairs and economic and social issues impacting the disadvantaged.

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37 comments

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37 thoughts on “Pink batts commission hands Abbott four explosive problems

  1. Bob's Uncle

    The idea that any of the logic or arguments set out in the HIP RC paper will ever be seriously applied to anything that the Coalition Government does is nice, but completely unrealistic.

    If all accidents occurring in a rebate scheme carried out by private companies under State jurisdiction can be blamed on the Cth on the basis of where the funding came from, a specific infrastructure project such as a road (or Green Army…) would result in an even higher standard for the Cth.

    In reality though there was never any intention for this RC to extend beyond an investigation of a single policy.

  2. klewso

    Those Ministers responsible for this should be tried and treated accordingly to gaol terms?
    Then we can have a look at Iraq, NPA and the bugging of East Timor – using the same standards?
    That is if this wasn’t just a witch-hunt?

  3. GF50

    So good to read you on this site Alan. Last sentence I hope so.

  4. zut alors

    The Abbott government believes it’s coated in teflon therefore nothing sticks. They are in for a rude shock down the track. The electorate was sufficiently naive & swayed by a complicit media to vote them in a year ago but it’s unlikely that mistake will be repeated consecutively.

    Now that Turnbull is gutting Rudd’s superior NBN there’s no logical reason for Murdoch to continue his support.

  5. Susan Timmins

    Peter Timmins Open and Shut Blog

    You can add these points to the list:

    . senior managers failed to provide candid advice to Ministers including briefings to Minister Garrett (14.3.2);

    . if “frank, honest, comprehensive, accurate and timely advice of the kind referred to in section 10(1)(f) of the Public Service Act had been given at key junctures”, there is little doubt the tragedies that occurred would have been avoided (14.3.4);

    .in a section on frank and fearless advice in the context of the public service today (14.6) a call for the Australian Public Service “to reinvigorate its willingness to provide in writing advice that is as frank and robust as the advice it is willing to give verbally. This requires cultural change of two kinds:14.6.6.1-senior officials and Ministers being aware they are entitled to act contrary to advice. The fact they received advice contrary to the way in which they act is no necessary or automatic basis to impugn the decision. 14.6.6.2- public servants giving advice must be encouraged to think clearly, to free themselves as much as possible from institutional biases and taboos and to have courage when giving advice.”

    . criticism of government over reach on public interest immunity claims that were advanced in a slow and cumbersome manner,

    .gaps in his powers for example to compel the production of a statement by a potential witness (despite a recommendation never acted upon, from the ALRC four years ago), and constraints on current and past public servants arising from section 70 of the Crimes Act (the ALRC recommended five years ago repeal of the current draconian ‘unauthorised disclosure’ provision and a replacement based on identifiable harm – that also hasn’t been heard of since);

    I imagine Senator Abetz Minister Assisting the PM on public service matters is already hard at work on remedial action.

  6. mikeb

    Have these findings been reported in the media? If so I haven’t read or heard of it.

  7. Gratton Wilson

    The Labor Gov. had to pay for the criminal behaviour of the Howard Gov against Vivianne Salonge, Cornelia Rau and Mamdouh Habib. Nobody has yet paid for Howard’s treatment of David Hicks but I live in hope that he may get some sort of justice one day. I understand that one of the installers who died was using a metal stapler well after employers had been instructed that they were not to be used. Employers should train their employees and never tolerate unsafe work practices.

  8. Yclept

    C’mon people, this is all clearly Labor’s fault. We just need to redo the RC to make sure it says it this time… Remember it’s labor’s fault!

  9. JMNO

    Cutting the Public Service and outsourcing its functions to the private sector will only decrease the APS’ ability to plan and direct infrastructure programs in the future. A number of years ago, the APS could much more easily have run a pink batts program because it still employed expert staff who knew industry and had networks.

  10. leon knight

    Abbott’s pathetic presentation of the report in Parliament showed pretty clearly that the RC was not the PR success he hoped it would be, and even his thick head might have been grappling with the ramifications still to come home to haunt him.
    Garrett was the very model of sensible and responsible ministership compared to any of this current bunch….

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