We all know how the media can engineer a beat-up on almost any issue, but can anyone recall a more flagrant beat-up than we’ve seen around the Government’s Home Insulation Program?
It’s hard to determine whether this beat-up is groupthink gone ballistic, with almost everyone swept along by the media-generated frenzy, or whether it is serving another purpose – to demean the Government and those in it associated with the program, as part of a more widespread attack on the Rudd Government. As so often is the case, it is probably both.
The events that have given the program a bad name are incontrovertible. Four who were installing insulation funded by the scheme have died – three of electrocution and one of heat exhaustion; many houses have had fires that have been associated with insulation installation – the exact number is uncertain; and some of the insulation has been substandard or incorrectly installed. Moreover, some installers have been shown to have doubtful qualifications, and some appear to be shonky operators who are in it for the money rather than providing a quality installation. We also know that because the program was structured so that Government funding passed directly to the installer rather than the householder, the way was open for scams and fraud by unscrupulous operators, and the quality control function, instead of being exercised by the consumer, relied on monitoring at a state level.
It is these facts that have been propagated endlessly by the media embellished with the tragic overtones of deaths, fires, poor workmanship and rackets. No one has minimized the tragedy for the affected individuals, their families or the community. Such tragedies ought to have been respected; the fact that the media and the Opposition have exploited them ruthlessly is reprehensible.
Most of the media has gone along with the line that the Government is to blame for the deaths, the fires and the shoddy workmanship. It has insisted that ‘someone has to take the blame’ and what better target than a Government already in the media’s sights. It insists someone must be punished, indeed it implies that such punishment is necessary to salve the pain of those affected. The prime target was the responsible minister Peter Garrett, with his department not far behind and of course the Government and the PM as the ultimate targets. When Garrett was relieved of responsibility for winding up the program and initiating its replacement, but still remained a Cabinet minister, that was not enough punishment for the media and the Opposition, not enough pain inflicted on Garrett to sooth the pain of the victims. While in criminal matters it might be possible to understand victims wishing to see perpetrators who have personally inflicted on them pain and damage, physically punished in ‘an eye for an eye’ manner, it is harder to understand why victims of this program require punishment to be meted out to someone so remote from the ‘scene of the crime’.
This is the media stream that has been aimed like water cannons at the public and the Government. We’ve seen and heard the details endlessly, along with heart-rending stories designed to add a highly emotional element to the story. I’ll refrain from repeating these stories here – you know them well enough.
Has any journalist shown the guts to expose the other side of the story, has any journalist had the patience to garner the salient facts and reveal them to a public already made sceptical by the torrent of adverse coverage day after day? Yes, there have been just a few, a few to whom we should be grateful. Sadly much of what they have had to say has not appeared in the MSM; rather it has been exposed in specialist publications or less read papers.
In response to the Opposition’s invoking the principle of ministerial responsibility to insist that ‘Garrett must go’, Bernard Keane of Crikey wrote on 12 February Foiled logic: under Garrett rule, most ministers have blood on hands. He said inter alia: “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 anymore. 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.”
In similar vein Keane wrote on Crikey on 23 February in The problems are bigger than Garrett. He concluded: "Somehow the workplace deaths of four men have nothing to do with their employers who had a legal obligation to provide a safe workplace, and everything to do with a Labor Government program. Apparently it’s not the shonks' fault that the Government made money available and they rushed to take advantage, possibly putting at risk their employees along the way."
Fearless blogger Possum Comitatus of Crikey’s Pollytics began the rebuttal of the notion that house fires had increased under the program with Did the insulation program actually reduce fire risk? on February 24 that begins "Has the Garrett insulation scheme actually reduced the rate of installation caused fires? It’s a strange thing to say – well, it’s strange if you don’t think about it too hard. What we often forget is that Garrett’s insulation program dramatically increased standards in an industry where there were previously very few." He concluded: “Under the Garrett insulation program, the rate is 1 in 11,828 – a much smaller rate of fires than what existed before the program.” You’d need to read the whole analysis to understand the maths. In his Crikey piece he says: “Let us be clear: the insulation scheme was only shut down after the Minter Ellison document became a pivotal issue, suggesting that Garrett not only failed to read a document back in April 2009 that seemingly highlighted every problem - both real and imagined - that has come to pass in the scheme, but that if he had read the Minter Ellison document and acted upon it, if he had followed the advice of Minter Ellison, homes would not have burned, people would not have died, the scheme would not have failed. It was definitive proof, so the media narrative went, that Garrett was a poster boy for ministerial incompetence writ large.” Keane concluded: ““This Minter Ellison Risk Register was a report that, according to The Australian, ‘warned of an “extreme risk’ of house fires, fraud and poor quality installations”. On top of these frightening risks, The Australian stated that, “Peter Garrett was kept in the dark by his department about warnings it received that the home insulation scheme should be delayed for three months because of ‘extreme risks’.” Possum finishes: “The only problem here is that this – and I mean all of this – is complete and utter bullsh-t.”
How much airplay did this well-argued rebuttal get in the MSM? None that I saw.
In the February 27-28 issue of The Weekend Australian Financial Review, Geoff Winestock wrote in Insulation fears: more hype than actual fires: “Data from fire brigades and workers compensations supplied to the Weekend AFR casts doubt on opposition claims that the ceiling insulation program has caused a significant jump in the danger of house fires and industrial accidents, especially after adjusting for the massive jump in insulation use....Based on data from fire brigades in NSW, Queensland, South Australia and metropolitan Melbourne, the only ones with comparable data, the Weekend AFR has found that there were 115 house fires in 2009 that were caused by faulty insulation. That may sound like a lot, but it was only slightly higher than the 75 house fires caused by faulty insulation in 2007, before the scheme was operating. In the meantime, about 1.5 million houses have been fitted with insulation compared with an average of about 60,000 installations in 2007. In terms of fires per installation, the risk has fallen dramatically.”
He goes on to say: “There are no statistics on whether installers were electrocuted before the program began, but it has always been dangerous work.”
The deaths are subject to coronial inquiry, but that has not stopped the media from concluding that the Government’s program is to blame and that Garrett is culpable, or as the Opposition asserts, he is guilty of ‘industrial manslaughter’.
Has any of the above been replicated in other papers, or been featured in the electronic media? Not that I’m aware of – but please tell me if it has.
To add fuel to the already blazing insulation fire, house fires have been attributed to the installation of solar panels. In Crikey on 18 February in Garrett fingered over dodgy solar panels, but story 'a beat up' it was stated, inter alia: “The ABC’s ‘investigation’ into solar panel installations has fingered the embattled environment minister for putting about 2000 homes at risk of electrical fire by incorrectly installing the panels. Garrett’s fortunes - already under fire over deadly home fires sparked by roof insulation – ‘appear to be going from bad to worse’ the AM program declared this morning. But the firm charged with auditing solar panel installation - and used as the key source in last night’s Lateline story - calls the concerns a ‘beat-up’ and points out most were installed under the Howard Government. A spokesperson for the Clean Energy Council (CEC) told Crikey ‘people are making it more political than what it is’. Of the thousands of solar panel installations sparked by the rebate scheme, none have caused a home fire.”
On February 19 Keane wrote in Peter Garrett and the perpetual present of politics. "Here’s some examples of our political journalism mired in a sort of ‘perpetual present’ in which what happened two days ago, let alone two years ago, is forgotten. And how once journalists get the smell of ministerial blood in their nostrils, the old higher brain functions start switching off and the pack instinct kicks in. When Tony Abbott suggested last week that Peter Garrett could be charged with industrial manslaughter in NSW over one of the four deaths related to insulation installation, he should have been laughed out of town. Coming from a former health minister - how many people died from medical errors in Commonwealth-funded care then, Tony? - it was particularly absurd.”
Ross Gittins was one of the few MSM journalists to write a contrary view on the insulation program in the SMH in Libertarians silent on insulation bungle. He says: “The government says one good thing to emerge from the disaster is that the insulation installation industry is now tightly regulated. It reminds us that deaths occurred in the industry before the subsidy was introduced, that employers had the usual duty of care to their workers and that the industry is covered by state occupational health and safety legislation. But libertarians have never been enthusiastic about occupational safety laws and have long disapproved of licensing arrangements, which they believe are used by the industry to restrict supply. And whatever happened to individuals accepting responsibility for their own affairs? What happened to caveat emptor and civil remedies? Isn't any of the blame to be shared by cowboy businessmen?”
On 26 February Bernard Keane seemingly in exasperation wrote on Crikey in Dear media -are we all vented now?
“Dear Mainstream Media
"Feeling better now, are we? Finished your raging about the Government? Or does there yet remain some spleen unvented about ‘insulation debacles’, ‘bungling Ministers’ and of course those four deaths that you couldn't care less about but that provide such a handy hook for efforts to bring our highhanded, manipulative and arrogant Prime Minister down a notch or two?”
The whole piece is worth a read.
There may be others with the courage to take a contrary view to the bulk of the MSM and the electronic media, but I have seen few. Please post any other you know in comments.
As Bernard Keane said: “...once journalists get the smell of ministerial blood in their nostrils, the old higher brain functions start switching off and the pack instinct kicks in.” He’s right. What we have seen from most of those who have commented in the MSM and on radio and TV is a disgraceful disregard for the truth, an obsession with destroying a minister with spurious assertions, and an unremitting attack on the Government and the PM. Their pieces have been devoid of many of the salient facts, poorly argued, filled with contaminating emotion, laced with vicious sarcasm and vitriol, and of a journalistic standard that disgraces what ought to be an honourable profession. Worst of all they seem unconcerned that they have thereby brought their craft into disrepute to such an extent that people are avoiding their columns and their outlets and looking to the Fifth Estate of the alternative media and the blogosphere for truthful content and balanced opinion.
What we have witnessed over the last fortnight is a grotesque Great Big Home Insulation Program Beat-up.
During QT in parliament and last night on Q&A we saw Peter Garrett explaining the actions he had taken over the insulation scheme. Did he sound convincing to you, did his actions seem reasonable, his arguments plausible? Or did he sound like a typically devious politician?
What do you think?