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Interview with Fran Kelly, ABC Radio National Breakfast
11 February 2010
KELLY: Well, the Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett is the man in the hot seat, and he's making his way into our Parliament House studio right now. He has been listening to that interview with the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. And I'm hoping he can hear me now.
Peter Garrett, good morning.
No, I think he's still putting on his headphones. So… it's a quick changeover
there in that tiny Parliament House studio of ours.
Peter Garrett, good morning.
GARRETT: Morning Fran.
KELLY: Minister, you heard the Opposition Leader there calling for you to tell what you know, when you knew it, and why you didn't move sooner in terms of the problems within the home insulation.
GARRETT: Look I did Fran, and the first thing to say is that there's no advice that's ever come to me that I haven't acted on at an appropriate time to make sure that the delivery of this program is both safe and also meets the governments objectives.
And that is clearly what I said in the Parliament yesterday. If the Opposition chooses to ask me more questions today in the Parliament, I welcome them.
And I must overall…
KELLY: Can I ask you some now: what does that mean when you say that you haven't acted on an appropriate timeframe - for instance, when you got that letter in March from the electricians' association, warning you the inherent dangers of this kind of roll out, what did you do with that information?
GARRETT: Well that letter referred specifically to training issues, and their views that they wanted to have raised.
It was responded to by the department, and pointed out where the Australian Standards actually sat in the current module of material that's there for installers, and also inviting them to participate in the consultation process and the stakeholder processes that I've got underway - which we've done. And which we continue to do.
It didn't raise the question of foil insulation specifically. When this issue has been drawn to my attention specifically, I have acted on it, following consultations - not only with the electrical trades, but with the Master Builders, with the Housing Industry Association, with relevant state authorities as well.
Now I mean there's a fair bit of talk around about what I haven't done, but there's not much talk around about what actually did happen. And it's important to know that as a consequence of that early set of negotiations, we then entered into memorandum of understanding with the state safety authorities.
This is an area that's traditionally been regulated by the states. It's always been the case that the Australian Standards' requirements in state jurisdictions have to be met under the program.
Occupational health and safety. Proper standards in terms of installation and the like. But our response to that issue on the basis of the advice that I received from my department was to consider a nationally accredited training module for the installation of insulation. And we set that underway.
KELLY: But when was that training module set up?
GARRETT: Well the discussions began straight away, and 1 July, it was underway. But in…
KELLY: But by 1 July, thousands of homes had already had insulation laid, and there were many, many roof fires because they'd been laid improperly.
GARRETT: Well I'd - there weren't many, many roof fires, and the point is simple, Fran, about…
KELLY: There were. The WA Commission was warning in June that they were getting a fire a week in roofs.
GARRETT: Well let me just deal with the question of standards and guidelines under the program. There have always been requirements under this program for insulation to be installed safely and properly according to the Australian Standards and every person installing insulation under this program must have occupational, health and safety training.
And there is a training requirement that we've developed - as a consequence of rolling out this program.
I mean, that's what we've done - it wasn't regulated before. It is now. It didn't happen overnight. I'd be the first to admit it.
KELLY: And isn't that the problem? You lost control of the scheme because you allowed the scheme to roll out before everybody got trained?
GARRETT: Well no. I disagree entirely, because the guidelines that were in place to ensure that safe installation of insulation should have happened were always there.
And look - there was another issue around this scheme which people will know very well, listening to me on the program - and that is the question of those new entrants into the market who came into the market, who jumped in, and wanted to start installing insulation…
KELLY: In their rental homes, up and down our streets, we all saw them.
GARRETT: Well that's right. That's right. But I mean, this was a fiscal stimulus package. I make the point in response to the Opposition Leader's comment about rolling out these programs - this is the largest energy efficiency program that we've ever seen in the country. We've insulated over 1 million homes since the inception of the program in February, and its formal start in July.
That is a significant achievement by any measure.
And in each step along the way, we have been absolutely - and I have been absolutely keen - to make sure that we get the training in place to lift the standards that were there, that safety is a priority, and that issues that are drawn to my attention by my department at that time - bringing advice to me, following the consultations with industry, are acted upon.
Now I'm happy to take any questions the Opposition want to throw at me today in the house. Very happy to do that. And I make one other point about foil insulation - and that's this: there was never unanimity of agreement amongst the bodies that we consulted with on what the appropriate measures for putting foil insulation and having additional measures for that in the program should be.
I took the view on the basis of one terrible death that we needed to take an extra step in relation to foil insulation. Yes - we did ban metal fasteners as a consequence. That was the right thing to do.
KELLY: In November.
GARRETT: Yeah, but it was the right thing to do under the program, as a consequence of the advice that came to me. And I was very clear about that - and I also suspended foil insulation once the inquiry program that I put in place identified that there were five cases of live roofs because of the continuing use of metal fasteners, something that's prohibited under the program.
So we've taken that step as well.
KELLY: Prohibited under the program. Again nevertheless it was used, presumably because some of those rolling out the program were not trained. It all goes to the management, the smooth and close management of this program. Yes, a million homes have been insulated.
And people might think that's a great idea.
But four people have died in that process, which completely undercuts the credibility of your roll out. Do you accept that?
GARRETT: No. Look, no I don't Fran, and it's not that I don't feel very, very deeply any fatality in these programs - or anywhere, for that matter. But I make this point to you and to your listeners - people put insulation in their ceilings every day, and tradesmen come onto sites, and we know that the roof is a dangerous place to operate in.
And we have in place the appropriate guidelines and Australian Standards that are the norm, they are the requirement for trades people when they do that job.
It's not the rebate that is causing accidents in people's roofs, it's negligent or inappropriate or slack behaviour on the part of a very tiny minority.
Now I'm taking additional steps to deal with that, and I'm very mindful of the safety issues around it, which is why I've taken the extra step in terms of foil insulation, and the extra step in terms of making sure that we actually do an audit of all those homes that have foil insulation in them.
And the indicative early results of some of that survey say to us that in actual fact there are a number of pre-existing electrical faults in the roofs, particularly where foil insulation is being introduced. So this is a big program. It's delivering not only on - making sure we didn't go into recession - it's delivering the greenhouse cost. It's delivering the energy costs.
Yes, it's a program that should and has had continuing improvement on the way through.
And that's how I'm going to roll it out.
KELLY: It's five to eight on Breakfast and our guest this morning is the Environment Minister, Peter Garrett.
Minister, just to be clear, you've announced a safety audit - on how many houses will that be carried out?
GARRETT: That will be on all the homes that have the foil insulation in their ceilings…
KELLY: And how many is that?
GARRETT: It's a fair - I don't know the exact figure to hand, it's a figure of around 40,000 houses.
KELLY: And how quickly will you be able to make sure those inspections take place because the Opposition says that these audits should happen within three months. Can you make that happen?
GARRETT: Well I'm not going to start setting time lines according to what the Opposition's says. They've opposed this program from day one and they're doing a lot of political point scoring now on the basis of what's happened over the last couple of days of me actually adding standards, but…
KELLY: So what is your time line?
GARRETT: Well I announced yesterday that if people have a concern in relation to the safety of foil insulation in their ceilings, they can immediately get in touch with an accredited or registered electrician to have that concern properly explored.
In the meantime we will go out to the relevant organisations who can do this work and I expect that to happen within a very short period of time and I expect the audit inspection process to take place as quickly as it can be done and as thoroughly as it can be done.
And remember, we're already auditing and inspecting roofs right around Australia, with over 14,000 roofs we've already done under the course of the program. We already have a monitoring and compliance program in place to make sure that we stamp up and jump down on the stamp - stamp down I should say and jump on - dodgy behaviour and we've continued to do that as well and we're seeing a relatively small number of complaints in the system, given the scale of the system, about 0.5 per cent of complaints given the totality of the system. It has been a very successful program, it has delivered…
KELLY: It has also been a killer and that is the problem you're facing now. You're saying that people can apply for an audit, I mean we only have a certain number of electricians in this country, what's your advice from your department about how quickly you might be able to get to all these 40,000-odd homes.
GARRETT: Well I'm pretty confident that, you know, Master Electricians and other bodies who have expertise in this area will be able to do that audit within an appropriate and quick period of time and do it thoroughly, I've no doubt in their capacity to do that.
But I come back to the original point and that's this; governments bring forward these programs, they are big programs, we've unleased the animal spirits in the market which the Conservatives always like to do and in so doing we've created employment, we've produced the biggest energy efficiency program in Australian roofs and it has succeeded in the outcomes that we've set for ourselves.
Now I take the issue a of safety, terribly seriously and I want to make sure…
KELLY: [Interrupts] Minister, the safety standards have gone awry, you must accept that, there's been fires in roofs, there's been four lives lost.
GARRETT: Well Fran, I don't accept that the safety standards have gone awry at all, the standards that we have in place are in excess of the Australian standards, in excess of the building code requirements, we have actually got safety standards higher than they have ever been set before because of the Commonwealth providing a rebate for insulation to go into peoples roofs.
At the end of the day I'm also saying to installers that there's an expectation - it's an expectation at common law, it's an expectation in business, it's an expectation under the state regulations and it's an expectation under our guidelines and regulations that they will follow them and they will make sure that they do the job properly.
KELLY: Voters have expectations too. This is the third program under your department which has had problems, cost blow-outs, why shouldn't you lose your job?
GARRETT: Well on cost blow-outs Fran, all I can say about the beat-up - about the solar panels expenses is simply this; we committed to bringing forward significant support for solar panels, we provided support for some 120,000 when we discharged that obligation, 11 times what our opponents did and then we provided the transition to solar credits to enable the solar industry to have a sustainable path into the future.
So I have great confidence, both that that was the right decision to take at the time, more solar panels on roofs under the Rudd Government than ever before, than at any time before, and we brought forward that money in order to do it, it wasn't a cost blow-out, it was making sure that we provided the opportunity for people to have solar panels on their roofs but the fact is that the solar panel rebate itself and those kind of rebates place incredible pressure on the budgets, that's recognised by this government in terms of fiscal responsibility if not by the Opposition, so we transitioned to solar credits, giving people the opportunity to have that support for solar over the long-term.
KELLY: Minister, news is upon us, just very briefly, what number should people call if they have concerns?
GARRETT: 1800 808 571, the insulation hotline Fran, and the other number we'll make available to you in the course of the day.
KELLY: Okay, thank you very much Peter Garrett, Federal Environment Minister in our Parliament House studio.
GARRETT: Thank you.