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.