Federal Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, developed an amazing amnesia about the repeated Opposition calls for a Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program (HIP).
Just 53 days after the call on June 16, 2010 by Shadow Minister for Climate Action, Environment and Heritage, Greg Hunt, for a Royal Commission and 24 days after the July 15, 2010 majority Senate committee report recommending the same thing, Abbott launched the Coalition 2010 election campaign in Brisbane on August 8, 2010.
The only reference in his policy speech to insulation was the following: “Within a month of taking office, the Coalition will reassure people frightened that Labor’s insulation batts might burn down their homes. In addition to the existing inspection programme, we will reimburse householders who organize their own inspections by qualified tradesmen and further reimburse householders whose insulation has to be removed.”
So, not only does the idea of a Royal Commission disappear from the Coalition radar, so too does Hunt’s calls that every home “should be inspected” let alone “has to be inspected”. In fact, the Coalition adopts Labor’s inspection programme and tells householders who have any worry about the safety of homes that they can arrange their own inspections by qualified tradesmen, then seek reimbursement and the Coalition will reimburse those whose insulation has to be removed.
Suddenly, it is all right for “the protections that have been recommended and the warnings given by the Melbourne Fire Brigade, the National Electrical and Communications Association and the Electrical Trades Union” to be ignored. Attention span of gnats
Mainstream media journalists, together with radio shock jocks, gave plenty of publicity to the various Opposition calls for a Royal Commission into the HIP. Was it incompetence, bias, or the fact that most of these journalists seem to have the attention span of gnats that less than two months after Hunt’s call and a little more than three weeks after the Senate majority report call for the Royal Commission, Abbott was not questioned about this omission or, indeed, of why it was no longer necessary to inspect every home?
Then, some 15 weeks after Abbott’s policy speech where there was no commitment to either a Royal Commission or inspection of every house, Hunt repeated his call for a Royal Commission when he said in the House on November 22, 2010: “Four young lives were lost through association with this program. The coroner’s cases will follow. There have been prosecutions, but it is absolutely clear that there have never been a full and thorough investigation of the linkages that this program has had to those tragedies. That is why the opposition fully supports a royal commission. The Auditor- General was not empowered to examine the linkages between these tragedies and the program: the quality of the program design at ministerial level, the execution of ministerial conduct, or any of those elements. The Auditor-General was only empowered to deal with the program delivery by the administration, not by the executive. It is a fundamental failing of transparency under this government and there must be, and should be, a full royal commission, and we will prosecute that case going forward.”
Besides being factually wrong, besides ignoring the fact that the Opposition squibbed calling for a Royal Commission in its 2010 election policy speech, this attempt to justify a Royal Commission by using the four deaths is squalid political opportunism.
Far from there being no full and thorough investigation of the deaths, the three Queensland deaths resulted in the companies involved being charged with breaching Queenslandʼs Electrical Safety Act 2002 and being fined $135,000, $100,000 and $100,000 for these breaches.
One company was fined on September 17, 2010 (two months before Huntʼs statement in Parliament) and another was charged on May 16, 2010 (some six months before) and a third was fined $100,000 on August 30, 2011. The charges against the three companies following investigations by Queenslandʼs Electrical Safety Office and Workplace Health and Safety Queensland, both part of the Stateʼs Department of Justice and Attorney-General. Installation safety a State matter
Hunt obviously could not bring himself to acknowledge that the responsibility for ensuring safety in installing insulation rested with the States and Territories under their occupational health and safety and fair trading laws. He could not accept what the Hawke report said about workplace safety, namely “clearly there would seem to have been some unsafe work practices by employers operating under the HIP.”
The responsibilities for workplace safety with the HIP were spelled out to the Senate inquiry
on February 22, 2010 by Robyn Kruk, then Secretary, Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts in her evidence to the Opposition-dominated Senate inquiry at ECA 3, when she said: “Firstly, the department took advice on technical, safety and compliance issues. They consulted with the industry and training bodies. They took external advice on risk assessment and they had a governance structure with external representation to ensure a wide range of views could be rolled out as the program commenced. Secondly, the department had a clear design whereby the contractual relationship was between the household and the installer. The installers were not contracted by the government to install insulation under the program. Information was, however, given to the householders to support them to make informed choices. Thirdly, as I have indicated, we relied on the existing state and territory workplace, occupational health and safety and fair trading laws. Employers in the insulation industry have always been required to meet these laws. Employers have a clear obligation and duty of care to their employees, and where a householder is unable to resolve a concern over product quality or the installation job with the installer they have the recourse to the state or territory fair trading bodies.”
Hunt’s call for a Royal Commission in his speech on June 16, 2010 relied heavily on the fact that there had been 174 house fires in the 50 weeks from the effective start of the HIP on July 1, 2009 until June 16, 2010.
Another 50 weeks later, on June 2, 2011, Hunt issued a media release headed “Scrutiny denied: Government Blocks Royal Commission into Insulation Debacle”
in which he referred to his private member’s bill to set up a Royal Commission (his third attempt) being voted down in the House of Representatives.
In this media release, Hunt went on to say: “The $2.45 billion insulation scheme was a massive waste of taxpayers’ money, and was linked to 200 house fires, 1500 electrified roofs, and four tragedies.” Huge fall in figures for fires
Hunt seems blissfully unaware of the actual meaning of the house fires figure he was quoting. On Hunt’s figures, the total number of house fires dropped from the 174 in the 50 weeks from July 1, 2009 to June 16, 2010 to 26 in the next 50 weeks to June 2, 2011 to give a total of 200. Actually, the official figure at June 1, 2011 was 207 fires, but this still means that in the second 50 weeks the total had dropped from 174 to 33.
Apologists for Hunt can forget any argument that the end of the HIP in February 2010 made it inevitable that the fire numbers would drop after June 16, 2010.
The reason is that Hunt went to considerable lengths in his June 2010 speech to quote various sources predicting an increase in insulation fires.
He quotes Commander Ian Hunter, head of the Melbourne Fire Brigade (MFB) fire units, saying on March 16, 2010: “My gut feeling is that what weʼre seeing is a bit like a war zone – the war might be over but all the mines are still there” .
Hunt also quotes fire investigator Rod East as telling radio 3AW on May 31, 2010 that he was worried about the risk of even more insulation fires over winter. When East was asked by the radio interviewer whether he believed that there could be further deaths from home insulation fires and whether they were inevitable, East is reported to have said: “Unfortunately, yes.”
(It was misleading, to say the least, of Hunt to quote this response and the radio interviewer in asking about whether “he believed there would be further deaths from home insulation fires and whether they were inevitable”. Hunt would have known, and the interviewer should have known, that there had been no confirmed deaths from insulation fires attributed to the HIP. Hunt was obviously unconcerned about having the impression of home insulation fires causing deaths being recorded in Hansard).
Hunt also refers to a statement by MFB Commander Frank Stockton on the same day ( May 31, 2010) saying there had been a “marked increase” in insulation fires and warning that with winter arriving “these fires wonʼt stop”
because “more lights were being left on for longer which would lead to more roof insulation fires”.
(In fact, figures supplied to the CSIRO by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council show that in 2010 there were 31.5 fires attributed to HIP in January and February, 32.5 in the autumn months of March, April and May and 12 in the winter months of June, July and August – (see Table 5.5 for months 40, 41 and 42 on page 36 of the CSIRO report). Purpose was to create community fear
Huntʼs purpose in quoting these officials in June 2010 can only be to create fear in the community by leaving the impression that there was going to be a rise in home insulation fires, particularly in the coming winter months.
Yet in his June 2011 media release, Hunt fails to set the record straight about the dramatic fall in house fires, nor explain how his earlier claims (and those of the experts he quoted) just did not eventuate in the 12 months after they made them.
Far from a rise in home insulation fires after June 2010, the official figures quoted above show that in the 2010-11 year, the total number of house fires was 33, a fall of 141 on the previous 50 weeks. (To put that in perspective, the generally accepted incidence of home insulation fires before the HIP was 70-80 for around a maximum of 80,000 insulations a year).
The CSIRO figures using official fire reports, which ends at December 2010, show that in the six months to December 31, 2010, there were 17.5 fires attributed in HIP homes – 12 definite and 11 classed as unsure of which the CSIRO allocates half to the HIP. This indicates the accuracy of the 33 total for the full 2010-11 year.
The Opposition, with enthusiastic backing from large sections of the mainstream media, carried out a successful (though unprincipled) campaign against the HIP. It was a crass war on a program that was much more successful than most people believed.
Most of the media adopted an unquestioning attitude, simply regurgitating the untruths of Abbott and Hunt. Why Victoria had the most fires
Just to clear up some other questions that might arise.
The first is that the CSIRO report (commissioned by the Federal Government) explains why Victoria with 270,431 (24.4 per cent) of the then 1,108,151 insulations records 50.2 per cent of the then 207 confirmed fires and has a much higher ratio than either NSW (with fewer fires and more insulations) or Queensland (with less than one-quarter of the fires but only slightly fewer insulations).
The CSIRO says: “Further the safety risk rate is higher in Victoria and the ACT relative to the other states. In particular, about half the differences attributable to States are in fact attributable to the presence of previous insulation, which occurs in a higher proportion of dwellings in these states. The presence of previous insulation increases the safety risk rate by approximately a factor of 2.5.”
On page 94, the CSIRO Risk Profile Analysis shows that Victoria had 53.0 per cent of dwellings with previous insulation, NSW had 19.8 per cent and Queensland 8.2 per cent.
Another point that needs to be made is that there still has not been any charge over the death of Marcus Wilson, 19, during the Sydney heat wave on November 20, 2009. Both Hunt and Ray Hadley referred to this death in an interview on February 7, 2011.
Apparently it did not occur to Hunt, a shadow Cabinet Minister with two staff, to try to find out why before going on the Hadley show. Nor did Hadley, who would have the resources of 2GB to follow up on this case.
But then, why bother with trying to provide accurate information when they can play political football!
The Opposition, with enthusiastic backing from large sections of the mainstream media, did succeed in its unprincipled campaign against the HIP. It was a crass war on a program that was successful in providing jobs for unskilled workers at the height of the global financial crisis. The program also resulted in a lower rate of insulation fires than previously.
Articles demonstrating the success of the HIP can be found in the analysis of the CSIRO report by Possum Comitatus
on April 24, 2011 and “A mess? A shambles? A disaster?”
by Rodney Tiffen, Emeritus Professor of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.
These articles show just how how unprincipled has been the political campaign against the HIP, almost from its inception. Abbott and Hunt waged this campaign with claims such as “houses catching fire right around Australia”
and by demonstrating a blatant disregard for truth or fairness in the pursuit of their political mission.