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Monday, 23 May 2011
Page: 4001

Mr LAMING (Bowman) (11:29): In calling for a commission of inquiry into the pink batts scheme, I support the opposition environment spokesperson who has moved this motion today. While I welcome the words of the government—in particular, acknowledging the tragedies that were inherent in this program—I think it is a shame that this motion involves such heart that the government cannot speak from it today but instead reads a carefully prepared statement that varies not a syllable from what appears on paper and has almost certainly been provided by the minister's office. I think it is a great shame that there cannot be some free discussion in the chamber.

The inquiry conducted by the Auditor-General showed us just a hint of some of the great fiscal policy-making disasters but it goes nowhere near far enough in unravelling the cause of many of these problems. There are 1.1 million Australian dwellings that have now been insulated, and the previous speaker pointed out that the 17 million tonnes of carbon abated, at $140 million a tonne, represents a completely crazy investment if it were purely environmental, and if we want to look at the stimulus effect, which I will focus on today, it was just as irresponsible policy-making.

My role for the first half of this speech will be to look at the context in which this home insulation package evolved from the then Rudd government—what drove this government to be so stubborn that it ignored every warning throughout 2009. I will then move through some of the collateral damage that has often been ignored by the Labor government, and that further underlines why we do need this inquiry for Australians the length and breadth of this nation, many of whom suffered enormously as a result of the government's actions.

Of course, back in 2007, with a newly elected Labor government, optimism was high. There was a massive surplus on the table and this Biafran and starved administration looked forward to spending a lot. They got the tick of approval at G20 meetings, and a small man came back from the large meetings intent on spending every cent. He had the support of finance ministers who were genuinely worried about where the GFC could take Australia. And Treasury obliged, performing TRIM modelling which, in the 2009-10 budget, indicated a massive drop to Australia's real GDP if we did nothing. History will not remember that a government saved us from the GFC. When all nations have negotiated the GFC, history will remember who did it most efficiently and most effectively and who did it wastefully. TRIM modelling of the 2009 budget predicted a 4.5 per cent collapse in Australia's real GDP, based predominantly on US inputs.

What is important is not that a pilot loses control of his instruments but that he heeds those instruments once they work again. The MYEFO in August 2009, a few months after the budget, made it inherently clear that the fiscal gap was only about 40 per cent of what had been predicted months earlier. The coalition joined with this government and supported stimulus 1 without significant question. But with stimulus 2, in the face of the unfolding evidence coming from overseas, and with Australia hitting bottom in March/April but stabilising, the Rudd government ploughed on, ignoring the evidence then, and all that has rolled in sense, that a more cautious and responsible stimulus would have done the trick. So they were left with a $2.4 billion installation package and they were intent on spending every cent of it regardless of the warnings. And that is where it first went wrong.

We had DEEWR, a department that is not usually in the position of rolling out social packages, being responsible for a multibillion-dollar program like few Commonwealth entities are. They provided the government with recurring advice that this program needed to be rolled out not with pedal to the metal but over five years to ensure that training and resources were adequate, that the backlog of other programs was taken care of, that staff accommodation was adequate and that the IT systems could manage the massive movement of money. When an Auditor-General's report fails to find that the minister had any responsibility for this very program, when the architects of it were the Rudd-Gillard administration, it is utterly clear that we need to look at this one more time and see how many more warnings the environment minister received on his desk and when.

As we passed through 2009 the evidence appeared in electorates around the country. I asked the banana republic question when installers were coming to me saying packages of insulation batts that were $19 were now $32 and rising. It was clear that the stimulus package was being gouged by wholesalers along the supply chain who provided the batts to Australia. So the great stimulus package was actually helping businesses that had no need to be helped. This was a completely overheated subsector of the Australian economy and we had a government that could not see it.

We calculated that the inflation rate in mid-2009 was 317 per cent—a little bit outside the RBA target range! No wonder everyone was in it up to their elbows. Were there any training units? Was there any supervision? Was there any provision of safety advice from this government? I do not expect the federal minister to deliver the safety training but I expect the federal minister to have the wit to realise that, if thousands of young untrained people move into ceilings around this country and start fiddling around with electrical wires and using stapling guns, something needs to be done. And now, hidden as best they could, out come the warnings that were there all the time from state agencies, federal agencies, unions and, most importantly, those who have been installing insulation for decades.

This place owes an apology not just to installers but, in particular, to Northern Australia, the tropical and subtropical parts of this great country, where foil insulation was mostly used because it has a slight advantage in that it does not trap hot air. Foil was very popular in Northern Australia and small companies have done a great job of installing this foil safely for decades. They watched on as a fly-by-nighters came in, lured by the offer of thousands of dollars, hiring schoolkids to carry the stuff up into ceilings. It was an abomination. It is too much to expect this government to be effective; it is too much to expect this lot to be efficient. All families wanted was that this administration protect people. All we can ask of a government is: if you take money from one person and give it to another, make sure you do not leave an abomination; do not leave people damaged and careers destroyed. But it is not limited to home insulation. No, this is not an isolated problem. This was a problem that, as I will show, runs right across the green sector. Those young people who put their studies on hold and those who gave up their small businesses and entered Green Loans training completely lost their training, registration and indemnity fees, as they never had a chance to enter the green economy. This place should be saying sorry. And so for the people who are sitting at home and had a knock on the door—one of the lucky 10 per cent—and had their homes inspected and were told, 'The insulation is unsafe. Have it removed or we want you to indemnify us.' Then, when the insulation was removed, there was no offer of a replacement. And for those young single mums living in tropical accommodation, for whom it was the first chance in their lives to have some insulation and they then had it taken out with no replacement because that is not part of the program. It is an absolute disgrace for those low-income families in my electorate. They were given that Hobson's choice of having it ripped out and not replaced or signing their life and that of their kids away. That was appalling treatment. And to think 90 per cent of households have never been looked at. We are right to ask: what are the odds of faulty, ineffective, dangerous or flawed installation of insulation—30 per cent, 25 per cent or 20 per cent? Let's see the numbers. But this patronising administration says: 'You're not worthy of knowing the numbers because you might panic. You might not be able to take the truth.' Imagine if a police force refused like that to give data because you might not be able to take the truth. That is the job of a government—to be transparent and honest.

We do not pretend that this was ever going to be a wonderful environmental program, but there was hope that it could abate some carbon. But two-point-something billion disappeared into nowhere and did damage, not just to those immediately but to the many who bought up stock and filled storerooms with insulation, trusting that a government would not let them down. Don't ever forget that this lot told you that vulnerable employees were being fired by SMS through the Work Choices exchange, because this lot fired all of them by SMS. People were up in ceilings putting the foil up and they got an SMS: 'You're fired; the program's over. Bad luck for any insulation you've still got in your possession,' and that was appalling.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms AE Burke ): The member for Bowman might use another description for the government.

Mr LAMING: It was appalling to treat employees that way, having only a few years before blamed small business for doing the same thing. We expect better of a government. An inquiry is the right way to get to the bottom of it. This minister still skates along without having been brought to justice, and there are many elements of the way these warnings from ordinary Australians were ignored that need to be revealed.