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Interview with Kerry O'Brien, 7.30 Report
11 February 2010
O'Brien: And Environment Minister Peter Garrett joins me now from Canberra. Peter Garrett, Tony Abbott says if you were a company director you'd be charged with manslaughter. How do you reflect now on those four deaths?
Garrett : Look, Mr Abbott will make his comments, Kerry, in the heat of the political debate that we've seen in the last two days. And if he wants to make the tragic event of a fatality in an installation situation into a political football, that's his business. What I can be very clear to you about, as I was in the Parliament both yesterday, when I made my statement today before Question Time, and in all the questions that were asked of me by the Opposition, is that this has been a program, a large program which has taken both training and safety issues seriously. And many of the instances, including in the intro piece that we've just seen now, were initiated by me to ensure that I had in place an appropriate level of training and safety regulations around the program. So from my point of view, whilst we have continually improved this program over time, whilst we've responded to the fact that it was a strong demand driven program, from day one the standards required under the program have always been the Australian Standards. We've now improved that to this point in time, and I've responded to issues on the basis of advice that I've received and in a timely fashion.
O'Brien : Okay. Well, talking of the - we'll get to the advice shortly. But on 1 June you issued a very upbeat press release headed, quote, 'easier access to ceiling insulation program', unquote. It was all about your new streamlined process to, quote, 'make it even easier', unquote, for 2.9 million Australians to install ceiling insulation in their homes. We now know your department had been warned just one month before that statement by state fair trading agencies that your whole process would be essentially unregulated, that homes could burn down, and people could die. Not only was there no hint of hazard warning in your press release, the word safety didn't appear once. Why?
Garrett : Well Kerry, on the question of the consultations, including with the safety authorities, it's important to know that in fact the department actually undertook a risk assessment on the basis of the consultations - wide consultations that it had; not only with state safety authorities but with the industry as well, and also with training bodies. And, as a consequence of that process, identified what potential risks there were in the program, and the program structure is designed to meet those risks. And that's why we have, for the first time, a nationally accredited training program. That's.
O'Brien: Okay, okay. But in fact there were three sets of warnings, weren't there, around that time. One by letter on March 9 from the National Electrical Communications Association; one on April 3 from a technical workshop within your own department involving various experts from various agencies; and the April 29 phone hook-up around the country with various state and territory agencies charged with fair trading and safety regulation. All of those dates involved warnings of the most serious risks. Were you informed of those warnings in each case at the time?
Garrett: Well, the advice from the department to me in terms of assessing all the risks that had been identified or raised in all of their consultations - and there were many - were that if we introduced a program which had an appropriate level of training and where the guidelines reflected the necessary level of safety for installers to put insulation in people's roofs, then we were acquitting our responsibilities under the program, given that we had been through a consultation process not only with trading authorities including the Skills Council and others, but also with state bodies as well. And I think this is the point. Well, I just think this is the point that's been missed in the debate, is that the Opposition tries to portray these particular communications as warnings to me. I asked for these consultations to take place.
O'Brien: Okay, well it's one thing to ask.
Garrett: I wanted a risk.
O'Brien: Yeah. It's one thing to ask for consultation.
Garrett: Yeah, I wanted a risk assessment and we wanted to put a good program in place.
O'Brien: Okay, it seems to me that the most important of these warnings and these processes was that April 29 phone hook-up where the clear message, we are told now, from around the states and territories was it doesn't matter how fantastic your regulations read on paper, it does not matter because there are simply not the people available who will be able to police them. This roll-out is going to happen so fast, covering so much territory, there are simply not the feet on the ground to regulate it. Now, were you told that at the time?
Garrett: And Kerry, the advice to me at the time was that the risk assessment that was undertaken by Minter Ellison for the department, on the basis of all of the consultations and issues identified, brought forward the design of the program which we put in place. And memorandums of understanding engaged with those state safety authorities were undertaken as well. I just need to continue.
O'Brien: Well, sorry, what.
O'Brien: No, what - before you do continue, what I need - what I think everybody needs, has right to know is, was it really spelt out to you in those terms at that time, after that April 29 hook-up, that there are simply not enough people to do this, either at the Commonwealth or at the state level. And when the risk assessment was done by Minter - and are you prepared to make that public, have you made that assessment public?
Garrett: That particular assessment isn't public at this point in time.
O'Brien: Are you prepared to make it public?
Garrett: Yeah look, it will be made available.
O'Brien: Okay. So did that assessment give a concrete answer to those warnings, that there weren't enough people to oversee the regulations?
Garrett: It provided the necessary guidance for the department to construct and deliver a program, including having the guidelines in place that are necessary, the safety training that's in place necessary, to manage the risks that had been identified. And this is the.
O'Brien: [Interrupts] And what about the people? What about the people who were going to keep the regulations and the guidelines honest?
Garrett: On the question of the people, including a commitment to have monitoring and compliance, including the commitment to have training as mandatory for installers - so, if you were an installer who was going to conduct an installation under this program, you were required to meet certain training requirements. Anyone involved in the program, including someone who was an employee of the installer, needed to have occupational health and safety requirements. And.
O'Brien: And who was policing those requirements?
Garrett: Well, there's a significant monitoring and compliance program that the department has implemented underway, and it's been going for the life of the program since then, Kerry. And there have been significant numbers of roof inspections, significant numbers of compliance actions, significant number of follow-ups when.
O'Brien: You're trying to get those up to 600 a week.
Garrett: .matters have been drawn to our attention.
O'Brien: .I think. You're trying to get those.
Garrett: Well, we've got large numbers of compliance out there in the market right as we speak.
O'Brien: But I'm not hearing specifics on numbers. On 10 June you issued another press release headed, quote, 'insulation installer register now open.' You talked about a streamlined registration process for installers with, quote, 'an easy to use online process'. You were - and the whole sense of these early press releases puts you in the mode of a spruiker. You were spruiking a program. You wanted as many people around the country to realise the virtues of this program and to take it up. You were under pressure, were you not, to get homes insulated as quickly as possible? You were under pressure to get this money spent. You were under pressure politically to demonstrate the worth of Kevin Rudd's stimulus program. You were under pressure to prove yourself as a minister. The question is did you take unacceptable shortcuts in the process?
Garrett: Absolutely not Kerry, and I think that's been proven by the statement that I made in the House, and also by the fact that before the Commonwealth brought this home insulation program into play there was no regulation of this market at all nationally. Since we have we rolled out this program, we have developed a nationally accredited training module. We have developed a register for installers. We've provided guidelines which are very rigorous, which require complete compliance with the safety standards that are required, which exceed the safety standards and the building codes. We've actually produced, other than the existing state safety regulation, an additional foundation of both regulation, monitoring and training in order to roll this program out safely. Now, I know.
O'Brien: But isn't true that you've been playing catch-up all the way because the real heat was on, the real driving impetus of this was to get this program going quickly because it was part of the stimulus package to get money out into the economy and prop up jobs?
Garrett: Well, Kerry, this is a strong demand-driven program, and it has delivered insulation into over a million homes. But the design of the program...
O'Brien: And now you're having to do an urgent audit of 37,000 of them to make sure that they're safe.
Garrett: Well, I've always said throughout the course of the program that if any additional measures were necessary for me to take as the minister, I would take them. And in relation to that matter you've just put to me, I think I need to speak to that quite clearly because the identification of risk in relation to ceiling insulation that came about as a consequence of that terrible fatality in October of last year was something which I sought advice on. And I spoke to the House on this, and the advice to me was clear, and I'm going to read it to you: Foil products meet Australian standards, are a valid alternative for installing ceiling insulation in existing homes. And the advice continued to detail the electrical safety components in training units and material...
Garrett: ...and saying that the pocketbook that was required for installers provided the relevant information relating to electrical safety. Just let me go on for one tick to explain.
O'Brien: Well, you - very quickly, please. Very quickly.
Garrett: Alright, I'll be quick with this.
O'Brien: You could use up the whole time with this.
Garrett: No, I know that. But the advice also said that the Queensland Electrical Safety Office had no recommendation that foil products should be banned. I then...
O'Brien: Okay, that's - I'm not even at the foil products yet, because what I'm talking about, which is to me the fundamental - and it goes back to that warning on 29 April. And at the heart of that warning was there are nowhere near enough people at the state or the Commonwealth level to police this. Now, where is the evidence that you have then made available trained and qualified inspectors in sufficient numbers to properly police this program given the seriousness of the warnings, houses could burn down, people could die?
Garrett: Kerry, 14,000 physical roof inspections, over a thousand desktop audits, trained people examining the actual conditions of the installations in people's ceilings, the whole business of a name and shame register which we've established, a particular register of qualified and appropriate installers to be used in this program. All of these things...
O'Brien: But how many of them were available on July 1? That was when this...
Garrett: Well, this program.
O'Brien: That was when this program began in earnest. You had the warning on April 29 that there were no people sufficient - there was no army of regulators ready to go on April 29. Did you find them between April 20 and July 1? Was this army of policemen ready to go?
Garrett: Well, look, the answer to that, Kerry, is that once the guidelines were in place under the program, once the training standards were established in consultation with other government agencies and training bodies, and once that program rolled itself out on July 1, so too did the monitoring and compliance program. And as a consequence of that, people have been knocked off the register, they are no longer entitled to install insulation because they breached the guidelines. There are a number of cases under examination as a consequence of potential breaches, and we've also, subsequent to that, continued the consultation with industry, continued to get the views from industry to make sure that we got the program sitting where it ought to be in terms of training and safety. And if additional issues have come forward, I've met them and I've dealt with them.
O'Brien: On November 1, finally - this was the fourth press release from June to now - on 1 November, a press release headed, quote, 'insulation changes, safety consumer protections and value for money'. Finally, the word safety gets a mention on November 1, and we now know the rest: four deaths, many house fires, a ban on metal fasteners, suspension of the use of foil insulation, and finally, a massive audit on 37,000 homes already insulated. What does all of that say about your competence and about the competence of your department under your authority as minister?
Garrett: Well, Kerry, safety is absolutely focused and emphasised in the guidelines, and I have been consistent in my public utterances about safety from day one. Additionally, I sought the advice which I've just read to you, which I tabled, which I said to the House today, which said very clearly what the advice to me from my department was about metal fasteners. I also then took the step of banning those metal fasteners on the basis that I wanted to make sure the safety standards were as high as they could be. And I additionally sought the information I needed as minister to see whether there was any other potential risk. I found, in the assessment we did of those Queensland ceilings, that initially there were some five potential live ceilings. The number is now greater than that. That was the assessment which I sought on that basis.
Garrett: I then suspended the program. They were the decisions I took as minister because I took safety seriously.
O'Brien: Peter Garrett, we're out of time. Thanks very much for talking with us.
Garrett: Thanks, Kerry.