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The Hon Peter Garrett AM MP
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts

Home insulation program; household Renewable Energy Bonus scheme

E&OE Transcript
Interview with David Speers, Sky News PM Agenda
19 February 2010

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SPEERS: Welcome to PM Agenda. I'm David Speers.

After defending the safety of his ceiling insulation program for much of the past two weeks, Peter Garrett this afternoon bowed to pressure and cancelled the whole thing.

He's replacing it with an entirely new rebate scheme, a much safer one, the rules tightened significantly. The rebate, itself, will also be smaller, going from $1200 to only $1000 and it won't be available from the end of today, for another three months, until June. And importantly households will then have to pay for ceiling insulation out of their own pocket and then claim a rebate from the Government. No longer will they have a contractor knocking on the door offering to do it all with the stroke of a pen.

The result is likely to slow down the roll-out of the Government's insulation program and is likely to see many, if not most of the 7000 businesses that have started up since the Government announced this scheme, hit the wall.

Here was Peter Garrett announcing these changes today:

[Start of excerpt]

GARRETT: Our objective remains to see insulation installed up to one point nine million homes - in up to one point million nine homes - including those already installed under the home insulation program.

[End of excerpt]

[start of excerpt]

ABBOTT: If you're going to scrap the program, you've got to sack the minister responsible for the program. It's not good enough to fundamentally recast the program, because of the terrible problems that we now know were inherent in it from the very beginning and because of the terrible failures of administration about which the minister was warned repeatedly and took no action.

[End of excerpt]

SPEERS: Well the Environment Minister Peter Garrett joins us now on the line.

Minister, thanks for joining us.

Firstly, in making these changes, are you conceding that you rushed and, in fact, botched the initial insulation program?

GARRETT: No, I'm not David and I'm not bowing to pressure either, despite the significant media hoop-la of the last week or so on this issue. And neither am I responding to what the Leader of the Opposition has said in relation to warnings. In fact most of the issues that have been raised about issues in this program were processes I initiated myself and then I responded to them.

However, it is the case that this was a very big program. We've already delivered over one million homes with household insulation. And along the way we've established a national training module for installers. We've set guidelines in place which exceed the Australian standards and, in many instances, building codes as well. And yet it is the case - and I acknowledge it - that there have been instances of fraudulent and dodgy behaviour, unethical behaviour, by a minority. But that minority, in this program, poses additional issues in terms of risk and compliance.

I'm not prepared to allow that to continue any longer. We are fully committed to insulation playing a really important role for households. My announcement today transitions this program. It also provides the opportunity for additional consultation and work, not only with the industry, but with state authorities who have regulatory roles here too. And it means that householders will now be the ones taking direct action in relation to a choice as to whether they want to have insulation in their ceilings or not.

SPEERS: All right. Well you say that you're transitioning this, but you are scrapping the program you have been defending for the past two weeks and starting an entirely new one with much tighter guidelines. If the old scheme was okay, if those safety guidelines were adequate as you had been saying, why didn't you just stick with that old scheme?

GARRETT: Well I've always said at every stage along the way with this program, as I continue to add to either training requirements or safety requirements, that if I needed to take any additional steps on the basis of advice that I received, then I would take those steps. Now I've always acted consistent with the advice that I've received. I've always consulted with the industry, even when it's had different views about issues in this program - I've listened to them. I'm just meeting right now with Master Electricians and others, who are commending the Government on taking this step, and working closely with us in order to ensure that ceiling insulation can continue to be rolled out in the future and that risk and compliance issues are addressed.

Remember, we've had an auditing risk and compliance program in place with this program and what happens with that is as you start to get the results, as you properly should, you take account of what they say, you take account of advice. I am extremely, extremely focused on safety. I'm extremely focused on the potential for a very small number of people to go past the good guidelines and the strong guidelines that were put in place, and I recognise that we will take independent, third party advice. We will look very closely at whether there are additional measures that we can work through with state authorities as well. And we will set the bar at a level to ensure that householders will continue to be able to put insulation in their roofs safely.

It's important to say that the insulation industry and installers - if they follow the guidelines under the home insulation program - initial insulation installation generally provides safe product in people's ceilings, which does the job of reducing energy costs, you know, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But where you've got small numbers of rogue operators in the system, it was important to act and today I did.

SPEERS: But why didn't you, from the outset - at the start of this program last year - install a program like you have today that requires those contractors to be registered and meet the additional quality and safety guidelines you've now laid down? And importantly also, to require households to pay the money themselves and then seek a rebate from the Government? Why didn't we see these rules in the first place?

GARRETT: Well the initial phase of the home insulation program and the national guidelines and the training guidelines that were subsequently put in place, were done on the basis of advice to me that this would enable a roll-out of insulation, providing the necessary stimulus to the economy, which was part of the original purpose of the program...

SPEERS: Okay, so that's it there. This was about stimulating the economy first and foremost?

GARRETT: No, David I need to finish. I just quickly need to finish.

And, doing it in a way which was consistent with appropriate safety and training requirements. Now we put those things in place, as a response to that. The risk assessments that were done identified that as something which should be put in place. And I put it in place.

What's happened...

SPEERS: But those risk assessments should have taken place at the outset. This was rushed because of the need, on the Government's part, to stimulate the economy.

GARRETT: Well again, the advice to me, including early risk assessment and consideration of both training and risk issues, meant that I took action as we rolled this program out. I mean, remember at the start of this, there was no national accredited modules for training. There was no national register for installers. There was no national requirement for a name and shame list. There was no national list of approved products under Australian standards. All...

SPEERS: So do you admit it was a mistake....

GARRETT: ...of these measures we put in place.

SPEERS: ...not to have those - was it a mistake not to have those measures in place before you started this scheme?

GARRETT: Well, the point I made to you is this; we put those measures in place as a consequence not only of advice that I took, but also of consultation with the industry as a whole and that the...

SPEERS: But why didn't that happen before the scheme started? I just want to see if you are willing to admit you got this wrong?

SPEERS: David, we established this scheme and immediately upon establishing this scheme started to go through the whole process of ensuring that a) it could be effectively rolled out and b) safety and training requirements would be in place to ensure that.

The point about today's announcement is this: that having done that, having gotten to this stage where we're now starting to see some of the results of the risk and compliance examination, the judgement and the advice to me is that in terms of acceptable management of risk under this program, all of these measures that we put in place on the basis of advice, cannot provide the necessary guarantees of management of risks to a level that I think is acceptable under the program. The responsible thing for me to do, having been through those processes, having put those measures in play - having mandatory training, having the safety standards lifted - is to bring forward a program which will do that on the basis of additional advice and working closely with state authorities as well.

SPEERS: I'm sure people welcome the additional safety that will now be in the new scheme, but I just wonder if people will expect you to acknowledge that you got it wrong initially. That there was a rush to get the money out the door, and after the deaths of four people installing this insulation, would like to hear some sort of acknowledgement that you got it wrong in the first place.

GARRETT: Well I said in the press conference today, when I asked similar kinds of questions certainly in relation to the tragic deaths that occurred; and our response is to that - immediate action was taken.

In relation to the overall question of was the system, in terms of both delivery and terms of guidelines, in terms of training, sufficient to be able to deliver that level of risk management that we thought - and I believe - is necessary. The answer clearly is we encountered some issues there which said, no, it's not going to deliver that on the basis of advice that I've just received. And the reason for that is that I acknowledge that the activity by unscrupulous, sometimes illegal and shonky operators, in blatantly contravening all of these regulatory measures that were put in place in the program, gives rise to potential risk in the future. And I freely admit that I did not think that there would be that many shonky installers who would take advantage of this program and not follow the guidelines that were properly put in place. That is something which has emerged over time. We put in place a number of measures to deal with them. They can get struck off the register. There's a name and shame file.

But the fact is, even when it came to the last measure that I proposed by way of mandatory training, I still - I still, only a week ago, had thousands of these installation companies who weren't in a position to be able to provide evidence that they were able to fulfil the mandatory requirements that I put in place to ensure that people were properly trained on the site.

That says to me that it is appropriate for us to transition this program, to close it down and to transition it with proper advice, over time, consulting with the industry and recognising that whilst we can't legislate against human behaviour, at the end of the day, that we will deliver the program in a way which gives householders strong incentive to ensure that the work is done well and a framework around it, to make sure that that happens too.

SPEERS: All right. Environment Minister Peter Garrett, we will leave it there, but thanks for talking to us today.

GARRETT: Thanks David.

[ENDS]

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