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Monday, 20 June 2011
Page: 6611

Ms O'DWYER (Higgins) (21:22): Tonight I raise in this chamber evidence of this government's gross incompetence and negligence—the latest chapter. It is the latest twist in the home insulation saga, which has cost Australian taxpayers more than $1.7 billion, in addition to destroying homes and, most horrifically, four young lives.

You will recall that I came to this place to highlight what had happened to my constituent Mr Geza Horvath as a result of insulation installed under the government's Home Insulation Program. Mr Horvath was doorknocked, like so many others, and agreed to install insulation in his roof because he was advised that it was a government program. Within eight weeks of having this insulation installed, part of Mr Horvath's bedroom ceiling collapsed while he and his wife were sleeping. He described this incident to Neil Mitchell on 3AW, and I will read you a little of what he said because he best describes it in his own words:

NEIL MITCHELL This must have given you an almighty fright, did it?

GEZA HORVATH Yeah, I thought it's an earthquake because it happened at one o'clock in the morning. We were in bed.

NEIL MITCHELL Did it come down on you?

GEZA HORVATH Not exactly on us. It's about a metre from us. It came down on the wardrobe, top of the wardrobe, and it probably slipped over to the bed or hung down right on the end of the bed.

NEIL MITCHELL Well, you're very lucky.

GEZA HORVATH We were lucky because it could have come down, the whole lot, because the weight of the concrete, this is the slab, the concrete … into the timber and then plaster closed up on the front, so it's really heavy. When we cleaned it up, it was four wheelbarrows topped up of rubbish.

NEIL MITCHELL And you're quite sure this was caused by the insulation work?

GEZA HORVATH Definitely, because the timber … where it's squeezed into the plaster, it's broken.

I contacted the minister's office to get an inspection done as a matter of urgency. This was off the back of Mr Horvath's own attempts. Again I quote from his interview with Neil Mitchell:

NEIL MITCHELL And you still haven't had a government inspector out to look at it?

GEZA HORVATH No, I couldn't cope with it because I'm on chemo, and the second chemo now, and I couldn't cope with it. But I was expecting, I got a call from Sydney about the first time I reported it, and these people they rang me up and they asked me if I have any spotlights, and I tell them I haven't got. But the crack was already there, and what he was saying is, 'Look,' he said, 'you'll be alright', and boom, he dropped the phone.

I pursued the home safety inspection with some vigour, yet it was only after Mr Horvath appeared on Neil Mitchell's program that a date and time was provided for the inspection, on Friday, 29 April. I made clear when asking for the home inspection that the key issue was to ensure the structural integrity of Mr Horvath's ceiling, given that part of the ceiling had come down. That was the whole reason for requesting the safety inspection, as was made clear in my conversations with the minister's office as well as in correspondence. I read from the letter that I sent to the minister, the Hon. Greg Combet AM, Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency. First I wrote:

Today I was contacted by one of my constituents, Mr Geza Horvath of Carnegie, regarding the collapse of his plaster ceiling as a result of faulty installation of insulation under your government's Home Insulation Program.

I went on to say:

I am further advised that during the installation the contractor damaged Mr Horvath's plaster ceiling, resulting in its recent collapse in the early morning. The ceiling collapsed in the bedroom in which Mr Horvath was sleeping. Thankfully Mr Horvath was not injured despite the ceiling collapsing around him.

I went on:

Minister I request you immediately send an inspector to Mr Horvath's house to assess the safety of the installation and rectify any faults or issues that are a result of the installation.

I sent a second letter to the minister after I was notified by my constituent that the minister's office had made a time for the home safety inspection with him after his interview with Neil Mitchell. I stated:

I would appreciate it if your office would keep me personally updated. My concern is that Mr Horvath's home is made safe and that he is compensated for any damage as a result of the insulation installation.

After the inspection, I spoke with Mr Horvath, who was none the wiser as to whether his home was safe. He asked about his ceiling. The inspector told him that he simply performed the inspection and provided the information to the government. I contacted the minister's office and requested the result of the inspection report, and a copy of the inspection report, so that Mr Horvath could be made aware of any ongoing safety concerns with his ceiling.

That night at around 8.45, the night of the Royal Wedding, I received a telephone call from the parliamentary secretary, Mr Mark Dreyfus, who expressed his extreme displeasure that I had been in contact with the minister's office and not with him. He went on to express his displeasure that Mr Horvath had spoken with the media. We had quite a willing exchange. I reiterated to Mr Dreyfus my concern that Mr Horvath was still none the wiser about whether or not his home was safe after the inspection in relation to the structural integrity of his ceiling. Mr Dreyfus provided me with an assurance that Mr Horvath's home was safe. I asked for a copy of the inspection report, which was supplied to me the next day by his office. The safety report concluded that the safety inspection result was 'a pass'. It also stated in the comments:

… hip insulation is safe with quality issues … old insulation batts not removed. Installer has stepped on ceiling causing a massive crack which later collapsed. Half the ceiling has fallen and broke at 1 am one morning in the hh bedroom. Hh is old and has cancer. He has been in and out of hospital the last year. The house is about 80 years old and is in immaculate condition. Hh has tried to contact installer but no one speaks to him.

So it referred to the concerns raised but was silent on the substance of them. The inspection report left the impression that the home was safe. Following on from the inspection, however, I received a letter from the parliamentary secretary. In it he refers to a safety inspection being conducted but stated in his conclusion that no electrical safety issues were identified.

Senator Simon Birmingham, shadow parliamentary secretary for the environment, questioned the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, Mr Martin Bowles, during the Senate Estimates process on 22 May to try to get to the bottom of this situation about the safety inspections. Senator Birmingham asked the deputy secretary specific questions about Mr Horvath's case. Here is part of the transcript:

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Yes. Has the department looked as to whether there are structural issues related to the insulation in that regard?

Mr Bowles : As I said, a safety inspection was done on 29 April. It has been declared safe from that electrical perspective. But we have actually noted some quality issues in relation to the inspection. That is why we are helping him to talk to the insurers.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: The electrical perspective is at least one part of a peace of mind for Mr Horvath. But I think when the ceiling collapsed on him, he was probably worried about some other broader issues.

Mr Bowles : Again, Senator, that is why we sent the inspector out there on 29 April.

So, from the inspection report, the parliament secretary's assurance and the testimony of the deputy secretary it would be reasonable to conclude that the home safety inspections properly look to the issues that have been raised about safety. Yet you could come to an entirely different conclusion when you look at the correspondence from the parliamentary secretary where he only references electrical safety, which was not an issue in this case. This raises serious questions about the value of the government safety inspection program.

First, either a proper safety inspection—that is, one that went to the substance of the concern, which was the structural integrity of the ceiling as a result of the faulty insulation installation—was not conducted; or, second, if it was properly conducted, the parliamentary secretary did not communicate the outcome of this inspection in his letter. But there is a third issue here because, if the safety inspection was properly conducted, it failed in this case to identify a serious safety issue for Mr Horvath.

After the government wiped its hands of assisting Mr Horvath, my office and I stepped in to assist him in dealing with the installer and the installer's insurer. I have nothing but praise for CGU and their handling of this matter. They moved very quickly to assess the damage so that Mr Horvath could have his ceiling repaired. They understood that it is not healthy for a pensioner undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer to have a huge gaping hole in his bedroom roof. They also knew that he did not need the extra stress. So I have nothing but praise for how thoughtfully they dealt with Mr Horvath and how expeditiously. But it was in going through this process that the builder inspected the bedroom where part of the ceiling had collapsed and inspected the bedroom next door. The builder advised Mr Horvath that, in fact, the adjoining bedroom was not safe, that it too had been damaged and it was very likely that the same ceiling collapse could occur. The builder advised Mr Horvath to shut the door and not go in until the entire ceiling had been replaced—which is what he did.

How could it be that something as serious as this was missed? Either the safety inspection did not look at this structural issue, which is a damning indictment on the inspection, or it did, and was deficient. Either way, the home insulation mess just got messier. So what had to be done to Mr Horvath's place to make it safe? The ceiling of the second bedroom was entirely removed and replaced. The main bedroom was replastered. Light fittings in both rooms were replaced. The ceilings of both rooms had to be repainted, the skirting board fixed up because of the damage of the fallen ceiling and, finally, the curtains and carpet had to be cleaned.

There have been 1.2 million homes that have insulation installed under this program. There have been 205 known fires as a result of the faulty insulation to date. There have been, tragically, four deaths. The government's very own report into the program conceded that of the inspections carried out 24 per cent were found to be faulty; that is, these installations did not meet building standards. There has been fraud that has yet to be quantified because the government will not release this information. In fact, the government's response has been to refer people to the relevant consumer affairs office in their own home state. They will not take responsibility for it directly. Now, of course, as I have outlined tonight, there is a serious question about the safety inspections that are being conducted.

This government has to answer these questions. Are they conducting proper home safety inspections? Or are they leaving people with a false sense of security about the safety of their home? Are these safety inspections simply more dangerous spin by this government? Do the government stand by their safety inspections?

The home insulation scheme is but one of many examples of how this government has comprehensively failed the Australian people. One year on it is clear that the Gillard experiment is no different to the Rudd experiment. The arrogance, the spin, the waste and the incompetence that typified the Rudd reign of terror are all still there. If anything, the Greens-Labor experiment has set a new low benchmark for just how out of touch and inept a government can be.

This is not a government that cares about people. You only need to look to the treatment of Mr Horvath to see that. If this government had even a shred of integrity left, it would immediately call an election and let the people decide.