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Wednesday, 16 June 2010
Page: 5560


Mr HUNT (4:27 PM) —Overnight we heard that the number of homes affected by house fires linked to the Home Insulation Program had jumped to 174. Think of a small country town—174 houses are enough to comprise the number of homes in a small country town. Every home in that small country town would in effect have been impacted by the Home Insulation Program. The figures released overnight showed an increase of 18 in the number of home fires and that was only 20 days after the last set of figures.

Let me run through this in this matter of public importance. On 14 May, the figures were raised to 144 house fires. On 26 May, 12 days later, the figures were increased by 12 to 156 house fires. Yesterday on 15 June, only 20 days later, the figures were increased by 18 house fires to 174 house fires. The defence that the government uses is that not all of those fires in fact occurred during that period; some of those fires occurred as long as eight months ago, in October. In other words, what the government is saying—its defence and primary basis for saying that things are not so bad—is that the actual number of house fires is likely to be far greater than those that have been reported at this moment in time. If we are only now receiving confirmations of fires which occurred eight months ago, if we are only now receiving proof of those fires and if fires that occurred as long ago as October are only now being recognised, heaven forbid what is occurring in the homes in Australia which have been the subject of the Home Insulation Program.

Let us be absolutely clear: if you consider the increase in the official figures for home fires linked to the Home Insulation Program over the last 20 days and you place that figure of 18 in the context of any suburban street in Australia, it gives you a sense of the magnitude of the situation. Imagine 18 homes in a single street afflicted by fire in its different forms of gravity—some of them catastrophic, others simply terrifying but all, however, placing home owners at risk of a perilous outcome. This is not confected. This is not something which the opposition has dreamt into being. These are the government’s own figures, forced from it last night after the figures relating to house fires were omitted from a statement which the Prime Minister’s own government put out after question time, after the television news was put to bed and after most of the deadlines had been met for the newspapers. What we know from this statement put out at 4.40 pm last night is that it did not say anything about the number of house fires or the increase in the number of house fires. I cannot believe that the minister was necessarily responsible for that. But I can believe that the Prime Minister was responsible for such a conscious and wilful omission of a fact which is relevant to more than a million homes across Australia. That is the scale, the scope, the magnitude of what we are facing right now.

Only a few weeks ago, we saw 80-year-old Edith Preston from Ormond in Melbourne having to beat back the flames herself. It was only the MFB arriving that pulled her away from the house fire caused by faulty insulation installed under the Home Insulation Program. The reason this situation is so grave is, firstly, the threat to home owners and, secondly, that it is the direct result of a program which is unparalleled in its incompetence. This is a government which has shown serial incompetence, and this program is the exemplar par excellence of incompetence on a systemic, gross and unparalleled scale. We also saw the Alaboudi family of Lalor fight for the life of one of their senior members. They faced a fire which was potentially catastrophic. Fortunately, there was no damage to life or limb but there was terrible damage to the home. So it must be made absolutely clear that every home should be inspected. Every home has to be inspected. For the government to fail to commit to inspecting every home is, I think, to ignore the warnings and to ignore them in a way which sits with everything that has occurred over the course of last year.

The government ignored the warnings of fraud, fires and fatalities that were contained in industry briefings from February last year. The government ignored the warnings of 29 April last year which were raised in a phone hook-up with state and territory officials. The government ignored the warnings of further fatalities which were contained in the advice from the Master Electricians of 16 October last year, and the government ignored repeated warnings of fires and fatalities which were contained within the Minter Ellison Risk Register, first obtained in early April and then updated on an ongoing basis—31 July, 17 September and 1 October last year. On each occasion it warned of risk of fires and fatalities. These warnings were clear and absolute. Right now, the same pattern of warnings is being given. The warnings from the Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade are also of fires and fatalities.

Let me now turn to what the fire brigade said—and this is not just one person speaking on one occasion but at least three senior members of the MFB on multiple occasions. The head of the MFB fire units, Commander Ian Hunter, said on 16 March of this year:

My gut feeling is that what we’re seeing is a bit like a war zone - the war might be over but all the mines are still there.

This is strong, clear, powerful and profound language and a warning which must be heeded by the government. Against that warning, which replicates the practice and pattern of warnings which we saw throughout last year, we are now seeing further warnings that every home must be inspected. Mr Hunter then went on to say on 26 April on Four Corners that the Rudd government must:

… definitely inspect every home that has had it—

insulation—

installed under the program.

The words ‘every home’ are clear and precise and cannot be contradicted. But it is more than just the view of Commander Hunter. Fire investigator Rod East on 31 May, only a few short weeks ago, told radio 3AW that he was worried about the risk of even more insulation fires over winter. He said:

This is our gravest concern.  We’ve had two that I would determine as very near misses and the problem is the fire’s in the roof before the occupants actually know it’s through the roof.

When he was asked whether he believed that there could be further deaths from insulation fires and that they were inevitable, he is reported to have said, ‘Unfortunately, yes.’ These are warnings from fire authorities of not just fires, not just catastrophic loss of property, not just injury but fatalities. On 31 May, Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade Commander Frank Stockton said that there had been a ‘marked increase’ in insulation fires and warned that with winter now arriving ‘these fires won’t stop’ because ‘more lights were being left on for longer which would lead to more roof insulation fires’. These are warnings from the most senior officers in a highly respected body—the Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade of Victoria—and they are clear, categorical and precise. These officers are not alone. We have also had James Tinslay, the head of the National Electrical and Communications Association, call for every home to be inspected. We have had the Victoria union leader, the head of the Electrical Trades Union, Dean Mighell, also call for every home to be expected.

There cannot be any doubt that those who know, that those who are expert, that those who have seen the risks attached to the continued failure to treat this program with the gravity it deserves are warning. The warnings which were germane and prescient last year are germane and prescient this year. The fires continue. The numbers mount. The risks accrue. There can be no doubt that the government is being grossly negligent. In the words of the PricewaterhouseCoopers report—another secret report revealed on the weekend—‘They have a high appetite for risk.’

What we are seeing very clearly is that this risk is the risk of injury and damage. I warn this House of potential fatalities through houses which have not been inspected but have had insulation installed under the Home Insulation Program. The examples are clear. We see this against a background of a home insulation program with an unparalleled impact, compared with any other government program since Federation in Australia, on the lives and houses of ordinary Australians. We have seen 174 house fires, 1,500 potentially deadly electrified roofs, 70,000 potentially deadly fire traps with dangerous insulation and 240,000 houses with dangerous or dodgy insulation. All of these figures are taken from the government’s own reports. We also see up to a billion dollars to fix this program which were provisioned, allocated, set aside under five different programs in the recent budget. Up to a billion dollars have been set aside to fix this, but none of this compares with the four tragedies which have occurred during the course of this program. Much has been said. I simply note that those tragedies are extraordinary and unacceptable. Everybody in this House offers their sympathy and apologies to the families, on both sides. If we were not able to stop this program in its tracks, then we are sorry and I am sure that they will say sorry on the other side at some stage.

Let us be clear. Against that background there is only one answer: every home must be inspected, every home must be subject to the protections that have been recommended and the warnings given by the Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade, the national Electrical and Communications Association and the Electrical Trades Union. These warnings are from the people who know and they should not be dismissed. Last year we saw the then responsible minister, Mr Garrett, ignore 26 warnings but he in turn provided 12 different warnings across three known letters to the Prime Minister dated 27 August 2009, 28 and 30 October 2009, but there is a fourth letter which has been sealed from the public for 30 years. This fourth letter, dated 14 August 2009, must be released. There can be no justification for keeping this letter sealed in a locked cabinet for 30 years because right now Australia needs the knowledge that every step is being taken to ensure that the safety of Australian homeowners is paramount.

At the moment, sadly, as has occurred throughout the course of this program, the safety of the Prime Minister’s reputation has been the number one concern. At this moment—and I make this statement after careful consideration—the lives of Australians are being put on the line by the Prime Minister’s failure to take all due and necessarily steps to protect Australian homeowners and to ensure that every home is inspected, as the leading fire and electrical authorities have recommended. I also note that we see many small business owners, such as Duncan Herbert from southern Sydney, whose futures are in the balance. They manage their inventory properly. They are not helped by the inventory program which the government put in place. They have issues relating to staff costs. They have issues relating to buildings. They have been in business for 10, 15 or 20 years and their industry has ceased to exist. They need support. They need a package. What we have seen from the government is the provisioning of money but the failure to execute the inspections and a failure to ensure that the longstanding, legitimate small businesses who have had their sector destroyed are protected. Against that background these things are evident: first, every home must be inspected and the failure to do so is gross and systemic negligence; second, small businesses must be helped; and, third, there must be a royal commission. (Time expired)