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Interview with Fran Kelly, ABC Radio National, Breakfast
22 February 2010
Kelly: The Federal Opposition will continue this week to pursue the Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett in the Parliament, and today, a Senate inquiry will ask more questions about when the minister was aware of serious safety concerns in the home insulation scheme. On Friday, the minister scrapped the program, the insulation program, following widespread allegations of rorts, sloppy safety standards, 87 house fires and four fatalities. The scheme will be replaced by a new kind of rebate to be up and running by June. Well, Environment Minister Peter Garrett joins us now on Breakfast. Minister, welcome to Breakfast.
Garrett: Good morning, Fran.
Kelly: Peter Garrett, you've been defending the insulation program for several months, and in recent weeks you've issued a strong defence of it on this program and other places. You've now been forced to close it down. Isn't this a humiliating backdown from you and an acknowledgement the scheme was flawed and dangerous?
Garrett: Well Fran, in every stage of this program I've always said that I take the advice that comes through to me from the department. I consider carefully issues that have been raised. And if I believe that safety issues need additional actions, then I'll take them. And as a consequence of the most recent advice received, I took that action, both to suspend and then close the program, and to move us to the renewable energy bonus. And I've done that consistent with the approach that I've taken right the way through the program. Now, at all times, I've been extremely clear and particularly clear in my public statements about why I was taking an action and what additional measures I was bringing to bear to ensure that we could continue to deliver large numbers of ceiling insulation to people's homes, but at the same time, make sure that it's done in a way which is consistent with safety and acceptable training levels. And, in doing that, I've responded to advice that I've received. Now, the final form of advice that I received most recently indicated that in terms of managing acceptable risk in the delivery of the program, the most appropriate course of action was to close that program and to move to a renewable energy bonus, such as I announced on Friday. I think that's the right thing to do. I stand by my decisions and my task now is to continue both to deliver the program in the future, and to make sure that any risk management issues that need to be properly addressed are.
Kelly: And we'll go to the renewable energy bonus, the new scheme, a little later in the interview. But can I just ask you first about the Minter Ellison report which is in the news at the moment, commissioned by the Government at the start of this process. You are now being criticised for not reading this report until 11 days ago. Is that true, you only read - received and read the Minter Ellison report on 11 February?
Garrett: I only sought that full report when we were asked about it and it was provided to my office very recently. But I think the point about this report, Fran, which is getting lost this morning is that it informed the risk assessment that led to us establishing the national program that led to us delivering from July 1 the nationally accredited training, the register for installers, the requirements for Australian standards and other measures to be included in the guidelines. And it was one of a number of documents and considerations that the department would look at and bring forward to me for advice in terms of totality of advice. And if you look at the report itself, those issues - a number of those issues in that report had been canvassed, had been canvassed publicly. The important point here is that it was the department seeking to deliver a risk management mechanism and framework for us to roll out this program, that not only had that report, but, you know, the result of consultations with industry, with technical experts and the like, which went to the totality of the program I put in place.
Kelly: So, just to be clear, you only read the Minter Ellison report 11 days ago?
Garrett: That's correct, I only saw the full Minter Ellison report and read it in its totality last week.
Kelly: And I understand what you're saying about the risk assessment being prepared for you by the department based on a whole range of advice. But given the Minter Ellison report, which was commissioned, presumably, by the department, said things like time available to develop and deliver the program in a properly controlled way may be inadequate. Quality of installation control by installers may be inadequate. Safety, house fire damage. Inadequate controls may allow fraudulent or inappropriate behaviours. And there's a lot more. If you had read that back then, do you think it might have made a difference to how you went ah... went forward with the program?
Garrett: Well Fran, those issues that you've raised, and others that are contained in the report, were also raised as a consequence of us initiating discussions with the industry, with stakeholders and with experts.
Garrett: And that's the whole point here is that from July 1, I put in place a mechanism and a framework for delivering insulation which included the identification of those risks and measures to make sure that they could be managed to an acceptable level. That's the key underlying point in all of this. I mean, any government department that is embarking on the delivery of a new program will go through a risk assessment process. That is standard practice and as it should be. And on the basis of that work, they will provide advice up to the minister, which will include elements identified there, but other matters as well. And the whole point of us bringing forward in the 1 July a scheme which had a number of additional measures in it, was to manage acceptably any risk issues that have been identified, whether it was through this risk assessment report or other matters as well, including discussions with industry, the states and others.
Kelly: So the point is, and this is the point the Opposition is making, you received a number of reports which had risk assessment that suggested this process was risky. This Minter Ellison report - just one report - seemed to ring so many alarm bells. Should someone in your department have told you to read the whole thing and you - are you angry you haven't seen it before now?
Garrett: Well Fran, I think the key thing about this debate is that this report was undertaken prior to me rolling out the national register, prior to the formal ramp up of the home insulation program in July 1. And to the extent that there were issues already that had been canvassed, that had been canvassed publicly, that had come through in meetings and stakeholder engagements and others, the whole purpose of putting down a set of clear markers about safe and accountable delivery of this program was to take those matters into account. Now, what I did in July was to do what hadn't been done before, which was to have the nationally accredited training module, which was to provide for the national register, was to ensure that there was an audit and compliance program to make sure that any risks that had have been emerged - that emerged could be identified, and could be monitored and could be responded to. And subsequent to that, as we go through the ensuing months, again, when advice comes through to me, on the basis of consultation, on the basis of stakeholder engagement, which requires additional measures to be taken, then I take them. So that by the time we get to the end of the year, not only do we have an extremely robust compliance mechanism in place, the existence of a nationally accredited training scheme, name and shame registers in relation to installers themselves, compliance and monitoring, which is also engaging specific actions where incidences have arisen, a requirement for mandatory risk inspection by any installer before they go into roof, mandating dowel light, dowel light covers in the ceiling, banning of metal fasteners, I mean all of these issues that I put into this program, came as a consequence of me responding to advice that came to me, including issues around how we needed to, and wanted to, acceptably manage risk.
Kelly: Minister, I think that the point here then is the timing of this, and as Minter Ellison, and presumably others who advise Minter Ellison, say the time available to develop and deliver the program may be inadequate. These things might have been in place by the end of the year, but the program had already been running, and a lot of the problems already entrenched and public. Whichever way you look at it, the risk assessment process you keep talking about, that was undertaken by you and your department, was clearly inadequate, you assessed the risk wrongly, didn't you?
Garrett: Well, Fran, my response to that is that the totality of advice that came through to me to begin the program on July 1, which included matters identified in Minter Ellison and others, was advice which said this is the framework that you need to put in place, to ensure that the risks that have been identified, can be adequately and satisfactorily managed. Now that came about not only as a consequence of a risk assessment report, that's just one of a number of processes and documents, it comes about as a consequence of meeting with relevant authorities, it comes about as a consequence of meeting with the industry, of hearing their views, and responding to them. And the point I make is this. From the 1st of July, when we began to roll out the home insulation program in its full measure, the advice that came to me, that determined the framework that we established to do that, was on the basis of risks that have been identified, in many instances, at the inception of either myself or the department. And I always said at the time, that if we needed to do more as the program unrolled, then we would. When we needed to do more, I responded on the basis of advice that I received, and I took action.
Kelly: It's 14 minutes to eight on Breakfast, our guest this morning is the Federal Environment Minister, Peter Garrett. Minister, you've now scrapped the home insulation program, just straight away, without warning, basically, you will bring in the renewable energy bonus, which you've mentioned, but how will that work, how will that be different?
Garrett: The renewable energy bonus, Fran, will be an engagement between the householder and Medicare, so it'll work to provide the householder with the direct action, in terms of putting insulation in their homes, and paying for it, and then subsequently being rebated. It'll require additional bonds on the part of installers, who will have to meet significant registration requirements under the program, and it will also be informed by a third party assessment, as to appropriate design of roll-out, including working with state authorities in this respect. I mean the existence of this program, and the delivery of insulation, has always taken place on the basis of existing state regulatory arrangements, both Occupational Health & Safety, and Workplace Safety. Now I think it...
Kelly: I think that clearly the difference is that while those regulations are in place, the workforce hasn't been, and this sudden workforce that has sprung up, has clearly not been trained well enough, that's the problem here, why would any householder now risk insulation in the future? Hasn't insulation got a very bad reputation right now?
Garrett: Well, I don't think insulation should have a bad reputation, Fran, I think that the majority of installations that have taken place under this program, are by reputable installers, have been safe, and proper installations. We've been installing insulation a long time in this country. You can go to Bunnings this morning, and pick up insulation at Bunnings, and you can go up into your roof and you can install it, it is a feature of the Australian building scene. But it is the case that our additional measures that we brought into place, to deal with non-compliant installers, still saw a small proportion who weren't willing to, or prepared, or deliberately breached the guidelines that we put in place. Now I'd always said that I wasn't prepared to accept unacceptable levels of risk, we took that action in relation to the installers when we closed that program, and we will be absolutely focused on ensuring that when the delivery of the renewable energy bonus takes place, those parties that are delivering it, have met the most stringent and highest levels of both authentication of their own capacities, quality assessment, the provision of a bond, and any other matters that are deemed relevant.
Kelly: Okay, Minister, just one final issue before I let you go, the Prime Minister's made a firm commitment now to take Japan to the International Court of Justice, if Japan doesn't agree to stop all whaling by November. This will be after the next election, almost certainly, the PM and yourself made similar promises before the last election, why should anyone believe you this time around? What's been stopping you going earlier?
Garrett: Well Fran, when I went to the IWC meeting in Madeira last year, I brought forward a strong conservation agenda for Australia, including the reform matters that are in front of us now, particularly not to have whaling, so-called scientific whaling, continue. And a special process through the IWC was undertaken, with a small support group to the working group, to wrestle those issues through. We've reached a point, in terms of that diplomacy, where what has been offered up to us is a matter of some concern, that we want to consistently address through the process, we've laid out what we think the bottom line for Australia is, in relation to this, the Prime Minister's been very clear that we will take an alternative proposal forward for consideration in this process, it will go through to the IWC support group, that's appropriate, given the intensive negotiation and diplomatic discussions that have been underway. But if we don't see the appropriate resolution of those issues, then we will move to legal action. So it's been an orderly process, it's been a process which is consistent with our responsibilities as an IWC member, but it's been a process which has always been underpinned by our strong opposition to so-called scientific whaling, and commercial whaling...
Garrett: ...and our commitment that if we weren't able to resolve it through these measures, then court action would ensue.
Kelly: Peter Garrett, thank you very much for your time.
Garrett: Thanks, Fran.
Kelly: Environment Minister, Peter Garrett.