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Wednesday, 2 June 2010
Page: 5096

Mr HUNT (12:37 PM) —I want to begin with some simple numbers as we look at theAppropriation Bill (No. 1) 2010-2011 and associated bills. The simple numbers relate to one of the government’s programs which was emphasised in last year’s budget—that is, the Home Insulation Program. This program was set out as a $2.45 billion program which would achieve 2.7 million homes as being subject to insulation. Instead, what we have seen is a program which delivered 1.1 million homes with insulation, of which it appears that almost 300,000 are dodgy, defective or have to be pulled out. So at best case it will achieve 30 per cent of what it set out to achieve. But it is the costs of achieving the program which have been highlighted in this budget and it is the costs in human terms which outweigh any other possible conceivable benefit.

Let me begin with very simple numbers. Firstly, overnight we have heard that what was 144 house fires only as recently as 14 May had increased to 156 house fires by 26 May. With at least two more over the weekend in Melbourne in the suburbs of Ormond and Lalor, we now have 158 house fires from this program which are known and confirmed. That does not include what else may have occurred. That is house fires alone.

Yet we know that not every house will be checked. Over 800,000 houses under this government program will never be checked despite the warnings of Commander Ian Hunter of Melbourne’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade, who said on April 6 that every house must be checked, and despite the warning this week of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Commander Frank Stockton, who noted 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. Against that background, it is inconceivable that in this first area of fires alone, with 158 house fires across Australia, this is not being seen as a national emergency. The advice of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade that every home must be inspected is being ignored. How can this be?

The numbers continue to grow. There are 1,500 potentially deadly electrified roofs. That is an extraordinary thing and we know that the advice was such that now foil will either be ripped out of every home or a safety switch will be installed. At the same time, the Master Electricians have said that even ripping the foil out will not reduce the risk where staples have been placed in the vicinity of live wires. They believe that the only thing that will guarantee safety for the 50,000 foil roofs is a full set of safety switches, because these are ticking time bombs which can last for years and years. A decade from now, a homeowner, an electrician, an insulation installer or a pest controller could face a further fatal complication.

Beyond those 1,500 potentially deadly electrified roofs, which have necessitated the complete refit of 50,000 roofs with foil in them, mostly in Queensland, we have the fact that up to 240,000 dangerous and dodgy roofs have been identified under the non-foil component of the Home Insulation Program. That is almost a quarter of a million homes that previously did not have an issue but now have a dangerous or substandard insulation job in their roofs. The magnitude and scope of that is extraordinary to behold. It is inconceivable that any Australian government could oversee such a level of mismanagement. These are 240,000 homes out of over one million non-foil homes; we just do not know which ones are the dangerous ones.

Against that background, it beggars belief that the Prime Minister continues to ignore the warnings, as he ignored the warnings through August, September, October and November of last year that there were looming tragedies in the installation process. Now he continues to ignore the warnings that every home must be inspected. Be it upon his head if there are further tragedies, as the Metropolitan Fire Brigade warned of just this week. They could not rule out and were fearful of the potential for further fatalities, let alone further fires. We will know that the Prime Minister has continued, for whatever reason, perhaps stubborn and wilful blindness, to ignore further looming tragedies.

Beyond that, let us look at the human dimension. Four young lives have been lost in the course of this program, which the government was warned about in advance. There were warnings about the risk of fire, the risk of injury and the risk of death in the risk register reports and updates that were within the government. We know that on July 31 a risk register update was issued that made reference to fire, injury and death. We know that, on September 17 last year, a risk register update was issued with a reference to fire, injury and death. We know that on October 1 a risk register update was issued with a reference to fire, injury and death. These are at the heart of the government’s system within the project control group, a group which specifically included some of the most senior officers within the government and within the Prime Minister’s own department, a group which reported to Senator Arbib and provided reports to Minister Garrett. These warnings were at the highest levels. Sadly, the warnings were never adequately respected. The warnings were never treated with the gravity they deserved.

We also know that Mr Garrett wrote letters to the Prime Minister on at least four occasions. Three of those letters have been disclosed, revealing 12 separate warnings within them. These letters, dated 27 August, 28 October and 30 October, include 12 warnings to the Prime Minister about safety and about unacceptably high risks to homeowners and others in the installation process and in the ongoing maintenance of people’s own homes—their sanctuaries.

We do not know what was in the 14 August letter from Mr Garrett to the Prime Minister. Given the degree of shock about what was included in the other three letters, what was in the 14 August letter must be extraordinarily powerful as it has been buried and remains within the Prime Minister’s office, locked away in his desk. That letter must be revealed, because this is about the circumstances in which young lives have been lost. This is about the warnings that the highest office in Australia received from a cabinet minister. These issues are profound and real.

First and foremost, we have the tragic consequences of fires, 240,000 potentially dangerous and deadly electrified roofs and, most importantly, the loss of young lives. In addition to that, we have the profound waste of public money. Up to $1 billion will be spent, as the budget papers reveal, in order to rectify the problems created by spending $1½ billion. Thinking of it as $10,000 in tax paid for an average worker on $55,000, 100,000 workers will have to work for a year of their lives just to fix the problems created by the Home Insulation Program. These 100,000 workers will toil—whether they are in a supermarket, in a shop, on a factory floor, in a trade or a profession or in a small manufacturing firm—for a year in order to simply pay off the cost to fix the nation’s roofs. The budget papers reveal these costs.

I turn now to the items within the budget papers. The Home Insulation Program, which has been discontinued, has $507,662,000 in its estimates for the remainder of 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12. The industry program has $15 million in it. The foil inspection safety program has $84½ million. The home inspection safety program has $339,750,000. It is unclear whether or not the insulation installers training program is contained within those figures or is an additional $41 million. If the insulation installers program is contained within those existing figures, there is a total provision of $946,907,000 for fixing up the nation’s roofs. If the insulation installers training program is in fact a separate line item, it is $987,907,000 which has been provisioned.

Either way, this is an extraordinary and unparalleled waste of public money, coupled with a catastrophic impact. It is an impact which continues at this time because the Home Insulation Program is out of control. It is out of control when we have statements from Melbourne’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade that these fires will not stop and when we have statements from the MFB’s chief of the fire investigation unit that ‘every home must be inspected’. These statements by the independent heads of state authorities are not lightly made. These are considered, profound statements of grave warning about grave risk—yet they are being ignored as we stand here.

The revelation overnight that we have now had 14 fires in 15 days is an extraordinary indictment, firstly of the design and inaction during the early stages of the program but now of the inaction in implementing these inspections at a time when Australians are at risk. The fire in Ormond—where a senior pensioner, Edith Preston, fought back flames of up to five metres high with her own bare hands—must surely be a warning that no minister, no officer of the Crown, no Prime Minister of Australia could ever ignore. How can it be that pensioners are standing with buckets of water fighting back flames up to five metres high which are the consequence of a government program? And the Prime Minister still refuses to ensure that every home is inspected. That is a derogation of duty. That is a failure of the most basic responsibilities to protect Australian homes, homeowners and lives and it is a statement of wilful contempt towards the consequences of what has already been a catastrophic program.

I make those points about the Home Insulation Program, and three things must occur now. Firstly, there must be a commitment to inspect every home. The money is there in the budget. The one thing that has happened is that the money has been allocated to fix the nation’s roofs. It is simply not being directed to the purpose, which is a national emergency. Make no doubt about it. We have a phoney national emergency for which $38 million has been expended by the government for advertising, but we have a genuine national emergency of 158 house fires, and that number is growing.

Secondly, beyond the inspection of every home, there must also be a package for the small businesses who have suffered. Almost every day I have approaches made to me from small business people who have been longstanding members of an industry without any issue for 10, 15, sometimes 20 years. People such as Helen Curkpatrick of Horsham, who runs Wimmera Home Insulation, have found that their businesses have collapsed. They had no problem before. They ran successful small businesses which did not return a king’s ransom but they were proud, independent, self-employed people who now, through no fault of their own, face the fact that there is simply no demand for their product. The bubble created has burst and, through a combination of the fact that there are simply no takers and there is a stain on the reputation of the entire industry, work has dried up. But that story is repeated not just in Horsham but in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast. People I have spoken to and met up and down Australia’s east coast and right through Australia have suffered and lost their businesses. They are losing their businesses in the absence of any meaningful program.

The program which was put in place provides a 15 per cent cost rebate for surplus insulation which is held, but that does not deal with the fact that the good business people, the sensible business people, often managed their inventory so they had no overhang. But they had long-term, ongoing fixed business costs for buildings, for telecommunications and for staff. They are having to put off staff. As we see, 3,500 staff have been sacked or retrenched—all against the desires of their employers—because insulation has simply collapsed as a successful industry.

The third thing, beyond the package for inspections and beyond the package for legitimate longstanding small businesses in good order, is a royal commission. This program must never be allowed to occur again. It is clear that the lessons have not been absorbed by the government. It is clear that the government has no deep concern for what has happened, because how else could the Prime Minister sit in a room with the parents of Matthew Fuller, inject himself into the room, inject himself into the conversation and, when asked to apologise, remain mute? That is not the act of somebody who understands the gravity and the consequence of that which has occurred on his watch, under his program, under his guidance. So there has been no lesson learnt by the government. It has simply been about avoidance of responsibility for moneys allocated with catastrophic consequences.

So the royal commission serves two purposes: firstly, and most importantly, to make sure that we never again see a catastrophe of this magnitude repeated under any government program over the next 100 years in Australia. Let the Home Insulation Program be a leitmotif for what governments must never do again. Secondly, it is about bringing to account those who have ignored the warnings and who have evaded responsibility. It is about bringing to account those at the highest levels of government for errors which are unforgivable. The reason they are unforgivable is that the environment minister had at least 26 warnings from industry, from unions, from the government’s own legal advisers and from state and territory authorities; the Prime Minister had at least 12 warnings from his minister alone. For those reasons it is unacceptable that no royal commission is being held.

My focus today in examining the budget appropriations has been to address one particular element: a catastrophic failure of management on the government’s part which must never be allowed to occur again, which is yet to be rectified and which is still to be received with the warnings which are implicit within the way the program has been carried. Right now the Prime Minister has three tasks: first, to listen to Australia’s fire authorities and ensure that every home is inspected; second, to listen to the voices of small business men and women who are desperate and who still have no package that has any meaning for them—this needs to be addressed; and, third, to stand up and take responsibility for ensuring there is a royal commission so that the lessons learned can never be ignored again and so that those responsible are brought to account.

Debate interrupted.

Sitting suspended from 12.57 pm to 4.03 pm