INSULATION SCAM: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Wheel turns full circle for Peter Garrett
, March 6, 2010
Twenty years ago, the rock group Midnight Oil, whose lead singer was one Peter Garrett, released a hit song called Blue Sky Mine, which denounced the dangerous work practices of CSR Ltd, in mining blue asbestos at Wittenoom, in Western Australia. For years, the mining company denied liability for asbestosis and other lung diseases caused by blue asbestos, which killed people associated with mining and the installation of asbestos sheeting into houses.
The wheel has now turned full circle. Peter Garrett is now the federal Minister for the Environment, and last year was charged by the Prime Minister with responsibility for the government's multi-billion-dollar scheme to rush insulation into a million homes, as part of Kevin Rudd's bid to establish his green credentials and to assist the government's economic stimulus package.
Mr Rudd said, in the run-up to the December 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Summit, that the scheme would significantly reduce Australia's carbon footprint.
Under the scheme, home-owners were given up to $1,600 of free insulation, to be installed in the roofs of eligible houses. Due to massive demand, the grant for free insulation was reduced to $1,200 from November 2, 2009.
However, the scheme has turned into a fiasco, with four people being electrocuted over the past nine months while insulating homes. Some 160,000 homes had defective insulation batts installed. Some 80,000 homes received defective metal foil insulation. Up to 1,000 roofs have been electrified by contact between electric wiring and metal-foil insulation. And, at the time of writing, 93 houses have caught fire due to faulty insulation.
Mr Garrett's initial response was similar to CSR's — to deny liability for a scheme which has clearly failed even the most elementary safety standards. He blamed shoddy workmanship, although it has emerged that the federal Department of Environment received many warnings last year from the manufacturers of insulation and reputable installers that the scheme was being abused by get-rich-quick operators who were importing cheap and unsafe products and using unqualified installers.
Additionally, The Australian
revealed on February 22, 2010, that consultants from Minter Ellison lawyers had advised the Environment Department and the Prime Minister's Department in April 2009 against the hasty implementation of the scheme.
Minter Ellison warned that if the scheme commenced in July 2009, as planned, it risked the use of sub-standard batts and unqualified installers, with the potential for house fires and property damage. It further warned that hundreds of millions of dollars could be wasted by the hasty introduction of the scheme. The warning was prophetic, but it was ignored by the Government.
When Opposition leader Tony Abbott raised concerns about the scheme and Garrett's competence in administering it, Kevin Rudd stuck by his man, fending off attacks in Parliament by calling Peter Garrett a "first class minister".
Garrett's handling of the evolving affair was, if anything, worse than his initial response. After reports that houses had been electrified by faulty insulation and several installers had been killed, Garrett insisted that safety was his first priority.
Later, faced with further revelations that installation was defective, he ordered full inspections of tens of thousands of homes, but the inspections fell far short of the million homes into which insulation was installed.
Later again, he unilaterally cancelled the use of metal-foil insulation, alarming tens of thousands of home-owners who had received metal-foil insulation, and damaging many businesses.
When the controversy continued, he then cancelled the whole insulation program, leaving manufacturers with tens of thousands of rolls of fibreglass or polyester insulation to gather dust, hundreds of businesses closed, and thousands of people out of work.
The most Mr Garrett could offer was that a new home insulation scheme would be established later this year.Massive waste
The affair has acutely damaged not only the Environment Minister, but the Prime Minister who has stood behind him and the Government's stimulus plan, already under attack for massive waste over school building refurbishments.
More broadly, it damages the Government's credibility for economic management in the run up to the 2010 election. Mr Rudd repeatedly claimed that his Government's stimulus package saved Australia from being sucked into the global financial crisis.
In the meantime, Mr Garrett hangs onto his job while his actions have forced thousands of ordinary Australian workers onto the dole queue. He is learning that it is harder being a government minister with responsibility for his portfolio than being a moralising rock star.
Who knows? If the worst happens, he might have to go back to being a lawyer, the profession he abandoned for the more lucrative career as lead singer with Midnight Oil.