12 Feb 2010

And That's Strike Three For Garrett

By Ben Eltham
With scandals mounting and the ability of his department to manage policy roll-outs in doubt, Ben Eltham assesses Peter Garrett's prospects for political survival
The Rudd Government's high-profile Environment Minister is struggling to keep his head above water right now, buffeted by scandals within several programs in his department.

Ordinarily, any minister can survive a botched scheme or two. Whatever the history books say, the Westminster convention that ministers take ultimate responsibility for their departments is just that: history. But Peter Garrett has now presided over at least three debacles: the solar hot water rebate, the Green Loans program — which Fairfax reporter Tom Arup has called an "unmitigated disaster" — and, of course, the insulation debacle which has cost the lives of at least four young Australians.

All three programs point to serious shortcomings in the ability of the federal Environment Department to manage large-scale public policy roll-outs for which it historically has had little responsibility.

Another issue seems to have been a catastrophic failure on behalf of the department to forecast demand. All three schemes in question have been wildly popular: so popular in fact that they quickly soaked up all the available contractors in their industries. Financed by government incentives, this massive new demand then began to suck in fly-by-night contractors and opportunists keen for a piece of the action. Unskilled, untrained workers were employed in their thousands, many of them students and young people looking for holiday work or some extra cash. The results have been tragic.

Why the Environment Department got its forecasts so wrong is somewhat of a mystery. An elementary grasp of economics and public administration should have been all that was required to realise that consumers respond to incentives. Just look at the Australian housing market which has proved itself highly sensitive to government incentives like the First Home Owner Grant. It should have been obvious that injecting hundreds of millions into previously small industries would cause major structural dislocations.

This was exactly what happened with Garrett's $8,000 solar rebate last year, which proved so popular with householders that it eventually ran $850 million over budget. Garrett had to pull the plug three weeks early with only 24 hours notice. In this week's Senate Estimates testimony, it emerged that some solar contractors have still not been paid by the Environment Department.

The multi-billion dollar insulation roll-out proved equally popular. Created as part of the Government's economic stimulus package, the program was specifically designed to quickly shovel billions of dollars out of Treasury coffers in order to combat the global financial crisis. Speed was of the essence: an Environment Department media release from early 2009 proudly announces that Garrett was "fast-tracking" the insulation scheme. Little thought appears to have been given to whether the Australian home insulation industry had the capacity or the workforce to deliver such a massive program.

This is where Garrett's protestations that the blame must rest with shoddy contractors runs aground. Almost as soon as the stimulus measure was announced, a sudden boom began to sweep the industry and soon after that, accidents started to happen. Houses burnt down. Contractors died.

For instance, in November alone two young Queensland installers died as a result of shoddy work practices. One particularly distressing death occurred outside Rockhampton, where 16-year-old Rueben Barnes died after being electrocuted while installing foil insulation.

But electrocution is just one of the risks faced by untrained subcontractors looking for extra cash. Reports have reached newmatilda.com of endemic unreported workplace accidents, like contractors falling through ceilings because they weren't standing on roof beams. On 24 November, a man died of heatstroke while installing insulation in Western Sydney. As the Sydney Morning Herald reported at the time, "the man had been employed by a subcontractor as a casual worker and ... he was not adequately qualified to install insulation".

It has since emerged that Master Electricians had warned the Environment Department of these risks well before November. In October, the CEO of the Master Electricians, Malcolm Richards, called for an end to the insulation rebate because of the electrocution and fire risk. It now seems as though hundreds and perhaps even thousands of homes may be "live" — in other words: potential death-traps. The Federal Government will now pay to inspect more than 48,000 homes to check for problems, potentially costing as much as $50 million.

And yet despite the warnings, Garrett acted cautiously and incrementally. Last year, he worked to introduce mandatory training requirements for insulation installers. After the electrocution deaths last November, he banned the use of metal staples (which you would have thought posed an obvious risk) but it has taken until now for the Environment Minister to decisively end the program.

Despite a terrible week, the Government is so far standing by its troubled Environment Minister. Senior front-benchers, including Chris Bowen and Julia Gillard, have been given the task of publicly defending Garrett. Labor's strategists have clearly decided that Garrett remains an asset rather than a liability, but his accident-prone performance in the job must also have disappointed those who touted the former rock star as a future leader.

In some respects, of course, Garrett is not to blame. Clearly, his department has shown itself woefully incapable of carrying out the ambitious new responsibilities given to it under Rudd, but in politics, what matters is what happens on your watch, no matter whether you personally knew about it. Garrett has taken a significant hit in this scandal. Another scandal before the election could finish his ministerial career.

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Posted Friday, February 12, 2010 - 14:58

In your second paragraph you should have put solar panel rebate not solar hot water rebate.
The solar hot water rebate for replacing an electric hotwater system is $1600 for roof top and $1000 for heat pumps. The heat pump rebate was dropped from the $1600 in September with less than 24 hours notice and on the very spurios grounds that they were cheaper to install despite being as energy efficient as roof top with an electric back up element.
You can't get the hot water rebate if you have already claimed the insulation rebate.

Posted Friday, February 12, 2010 - 15:59

It seems to me a significantly long bow is being drawn to hold Garret responsible for the deaths of the workers installing or working around the foil insulation. Garret is certainly answerable to the poor design of these schemes but to the calibre and quality of the people employed by private contractors to actually install the stuff, certainly not. While we are at it let's hold the defense ministers accountable for deaths in afghanistan or even the entire premise of the invasion of Iraq... where are those WMDs again?

Certainly to suggest Garret and his department dropped the ball on estimating the popularity of their schemes and they should be held to account. Why is no one claiming garret is responsible for deaths installing the insulation also pointing their fingers at State ministers who hold Workplace and Safety portfolios? Surely if Garret holds some blame then so too do these ministers who "on their watch" have not prevented opportunistic contractors from placing the lives of undertrained, underqualified and vulnerable people at serious risk just for a buck.

All this really does is distract from the real area worth investigating and highlighting which is the Green Loans Program. Stop swallowing the Opposition's double standards of Ministerial accountability (who lost their portfolio over the AWB scandal? Children overboard? Campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq? etc) and actually apply some consistent and intellectually honest standards.

Dr David Horton
Posted Friday, February 12, 2010 - 16:13

Ben I don't often disagree with you but I reluctantly do here. I agree that Garrett has been a disaster in many ways, but Insulgate is not really his Waterloo. Imagine if Garrett had announced back at the start that houses were going to be insulated, but that before it happened there was going to be a long period on which both installers and inspectors were trained, and before that the trainers needed to be brought in to the TAFE system and TAFE funded to carry out the training program. In addition, there was going to be an extensive registration and regulatory program put into place. And a Commonwealth Department established, staffed by experts in the field, when they could be found, to oversee the work of the states.

There would have been screams of outrage from the LIberals, from the industry, and from the shock jocks - typical Labor, procrastination, bureaucracy, states rights, big government, let private industry get on with this without being shackled by regulation, only private enterprise can do this work, and only if government gets out of their way, these contractors are giving kids jobs who would otherwise be out of work. And so on, the whole neoconservative "drown government in a bathtub and remove all regulations" shouting match.

Garrett seems to me, with this one at least, in a heads you lose, tails you lose more, situation.

Posted Friday, February 12, 2010 - 21:27

I am all for ministerial accountability, but in this case the calls for Garrett to resign are over the top. This is another example of Australia's political media class working itself into a frenzy for the sake of sustaining a story about a minister under pressure. Garrett got this scheme up quickly - as the PM and the rest of Cabinet presumably told him to do - and when the risks became apparent he took action. If he goes over this - which he won't because no Minister will ever be sacked again after the bar was lowered so far by Howard - then no government will ever again attempt to expedite a major program. If anything, Garrett has been let down by a dud department. Unfortunately, the public discourse about these sorts of issues has become as routinely toxic as it is visceral, and the restoration of some balance, decency and common sense to these debates is long overdue.

Posted Friday, February 12, 2010 - 22:17

This is all so bullshit. Scapegoating some bald old rocker. Tall poppy syndrome? Or just another demonstratation of the deeply flawed state of Australian society.

What ever happened to logic??

Stupidity got us into this mess ... why can't it get us out?

Bob Karmin
Posted Saturday, February 13, 2010 - 10:34

Poor Garrett. The world won't stand still...

It seems that ministerial work don't get you nowhere.
You just go round and round in spin.
Media's got him on that treadmill, mate.
I hope his not beaten yet, ...not yet.

I hear much support for him stepping down.
I hear the that his policies won't remain.
I see the environment, and its a tragedy,
I see the Rudd government in pain, ...yeah.

Too soon?

Posted Saturday, February 13, 2010 - 12:31

Democracy in Australia is limited to voting every four years on the trust that promises made by political candidates will be delivered.

Demoracy's promises are not delivering very well. Political delivery performance is poor. Electoral trust is repeatedly abused and so culturally many are disenfranchised by the whole process.

Peter Garrett's performance should be assessed on his electoral promises, which should be summarised on the home page of his website, but they are not.

In his maiden speech, garrett spoke about addressing the following issues:

1. Aboriginal health

2. Industrial development toxic chemical pollution

3. Malabar Headland to be made a National Park

4. Championing civic engagement to contest ideas in parliaments as absolutely central to the health of our democracy.

5. To strive for equality of treatment and opportunity, to ensure all people have the means to a decent livelihood

6. To preserve the living fabric of nature and the loss of living things that make up our biodiversity

7. To plight of the "majestic river redgums on the Murray River"

8. The scourge of salinity is spreading across the land, eating away at rural communities.

9. Address global warming by urgently moving Australia to a mixed-energy economy with a much greater emphasis on demand management, use of renewable energy and increased energy efficiency, especially in the transport, building and agriculture sectors.

10. Sustainability reform.

11. Sincere acts of real reconciliation with indigenous Australians by providing immediate support, opportunity and structures for Indigenous communities to build healthy and engaged lives.

SOURCE: http://www.midnight-oil.info/news/peter-garrett-maiden-speech.html

Irrespective of scandals, problems with insulation, has Garrett delivered on any one of these eleven personal undertakings?

If not, he should review his options and his purpose for joining Labor.

Posted Saturday, February 13, 2010 - 12:38

I'm with LukeC. and Anwyll.
However, I still say that Garrett as a Minister is a wasted space, and he should have stayed in his 'day' job.
Whatever happens here, he is badly mauled and is probably ruined for a future in a Krudd Government, even as it is known that Krudd would have been forcing his hand, and should take a LOT of the blame. He has been remarkably silent to date.
Krudd really HAS to get rid of Wrong Wong. She is an unmitigated disaster as a Minister for Water and for Global Warming. But the Screaming Murdoch and Fairfax Media (plus the Howard ABC) seems to like her, maybe because she is 'one of them', a far Right Wing (NSW Labor) operator. A real friend of Business!
Garrett incurred Krudd's wrath during the election, and I do think he has hung him out to dry on the rack.
Whereas, Krudd and Wong seem to speak the same lingo. Gallons of total crap, with no content whatsoever.

Posted Saturday, February 13, 2010 - 13:33

So why do these houses that have become "live" have exposed and shoddy wiring in their roofs anyway? Should we not be looking deeper into previous Gov's lax approach to building standards? This is like blaming Toyota for a Prius that drives into a fallen "live" power line electrocuting the driver.

I had 4 separate insulation "contractors" come to my house in west Brunswick telling me they are going to come into my house, climb through the man hole and check to see if our roof has insulation. They were all young English or Irish tourists (maybe on work visas). I had no prior warning of this (i don't watch television, so i guess that's where i missed it). I actually thought they might be criminals scoping out my house!
After the job was done (in about 20 mins) different contractors continued to knock on doors up and down our street wanting to get into our roofs and see if there was insulation in there.
Obviously there was no central data base created by the Gov to know which houses had received the free insulation . So how are they going to know who they need to check for possible fatal wiring/insulation possibilities?

Overuse of air conditioning and heating is a massive contribution to our carbon wastage and i think the idea of insulation all homes should be applauded. Why are we calling for the lynching of our Environment minister? Sure the media and Gov/ Lobbyist spin doctors make him look bad but who else in Aus Government has a better track record for honestly wanting to save the world?

This whole debacle stems from shoddy building regulations, unaccountable building planners, lack of professionalism in general. Every house i have ever lived in (rented) has obviously had every single corner cut in building and maintenance (some were new houses).

It's Howard's fault for letting building practices slide . and the insulation debacle is Rudd's fault. Give Garrett a break

Posted Saturday, February 13, 2010 - 21:57

I'm pretty sure it was Barnaby Joyce's fault.

Posted Monday, February 15, 2010 - 12:00

Like much comment from the news media on Australian politics this article is almost entirely fantasy. There are lots of opinions, insults and claims but none of them stand up to scrutiny. What is happening here is that the news media, for no good or obvious reason, have turned on the Rudd government and they take any opportunity no matter how remote or slight to criticise destructively.

This happens to virtually every government sooner or later and is part of the adage that "oppositions don't win elections, governments lost them". This particular case may be different however because the turning of the press happened with he ascension of Abbott to the leadership of the opporsition. I can only assume therefrom that for some reason the news media in Australia want Australia to have a profoundly unfit person as Australia's Prime Minister.

Posted Monday, February 15, 2010 - 21:41

Australian need to lobby for a new Bill that proclaims electoral promises by political parties electorially contractual on a financial year deadline basis.

Failure to deliver triggers an early election.

One of two things will happen, electoral promises will number reaslistically in single figures, or Australia will go to the polls more often and become a more direct demoncracy.

I can live with that; the Swiss do.

Posted Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - 12:05

Unfortunately, we already have a profoundly unfit person as Australian Prime Minister.
We have a Mechanical Robot instead, sort of programmed to talk some language totally beyond the comprehension of normal Aussies.
I have this theory that the Kruddbot was manufactured in some Global Corporation Laboratory and designed to give them everything they could possibly want from Australian resources and workers.
As such, the KruddBot has been performing admirably and to requirements.
However, just proclaiming sort of imagined needs and actions on them, generally none in any way helpful to ordinary Australians, and then heading off to see his mates in far distant places without any explanations as to the operation or real needs of his proposals, such as the Global Warming inactions, the Education debacle, the Health debacle, the Broadband rollout that will probably never happen, the 'Control' Conroy censorship debacle. Lord it goes on and on, and the Green Loans, the Insulation fitting debacles were put onto Garrett as a punishment for some of his pre-election statements, and now we have no real ideas as to where this is all going. A bloody great mess, anyway.
No wonder Krudd and Co., are slipping in the polls.
In truth, they promised Change, the gave us more of the same (Howard policies and people) and every other large focus seems to have been totally ignored by Krudd and Co. or as soon as it was announced, unless they could see some perceived political advantage in playing silly-buggers and small minded political games, they left the playing field.
We really do need so badly a Statesman, one who will give us Leadership, and assiduously work to clean up our very dirty acts.
I hope that Krudd was listening to QANDA on ABC last night. There was some sharp observations made by a few people that are totally relevant. I am not normally a fan of this show, but last night I stayed to the end. Still wanting more. More questioning of a Government that has gone to sleep at the wheel.
Or concentrating on esoteric economic matters that no-one can understand, let alone want to, to the exclusion of all else, because this is where Krudd and Co. see they may have some advantage over Abbott and Co. Maybe?
What Joyce said last night was rememberable, if silly, but what L.Tanner said was just totally beyond comprehension, except to the insiders. Most people just turned off their brains when Tanner spoke, but listened fascinated to the bellicose disjointed ramble coming from Joyce. That may well have an effect at the ballot box.
Is TA consciously playing this fiddle?

Posted Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - 14:20

I suspect next that Transport Minister Anthony Alabanese will be held responsible for all the deaths on Australia's roads, or that the Minister for Health Nicola Roxon will be held responsible for all the preventable deaths in Australias hospitals.
The reality is that standards and procedures for installing insulation have been in place for years. It is up to employers to ensure that those standards and procedures are enforced and complied with. Garrett cannot be held responsible for the failings of employers that have abused their employees by taking shortcuts within the industry just to make a bit more money and which has resulted in deaths. It is the employers that are responsible for their employess deaths; not Garrett. It's as simple as that.
The fact that the opposition and the right-wing commentariat are making political milage from their deaths is plain inexcusable. The way they are carrying on one would think that roof insulation was a new idea dreamt up by Garrett. Families of those that have died should be looking to sue the employers of those that died for failing in their duty of care to look after their employees when those employers were, or should have been, fully aware of the requirements for doing the job safely.
Don't blame Garrett; blame the greedy bastards prepared to knowingly risk lives to save money.

Posted Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - 17:09

I wish to emphasise another problem and that is the ignorance of the majority of people calling for blood about the fact that metal is conductive! It seems to me that the ignorance of a potential problem starts with ignorance of basic science which should be taught at schools. The fact that a conductive metal could be in touch with a live wire is pretty obvious. When I had my house rewired be a professional electrician, I went under the house to have a look. There was a live wire hanhing from the floorboards. So all the finger pointing be the electrical trade union and others should actiually be an introspection

Posted Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - 18:03

I'd like to point out that I didn't call for Peter Garrett to resign in my article.

I did however argue that he and his department should have been cognizant of the likely dislocations that would result in a relatively small industry by stimulating so much new demand.

David Horton, I think that you're right, in many ways Garrett has been on a hiding to nothing in this controversy. Even so, ther seems to have been significant policy mal-administration under his watch.

GraemeF, thanks for picking up on that point of information.

another sceptic
Posted Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - 18:55

By his own standards! Garrett MUST GO!



Imagine if Howard had tried this during the stolen generation debate: “There are also tragedies with children being taken from their families across the country in other areas.” Garrett might have been unimpressed.

Still, none of the deaths, fires, sub-standard installations and rip-offs are anything to do with him. He is just minister responsible. Julia Gillard said: “Peter Garrett can’t be in every roof in this country as insulation is being installed.”

This is the new level of political accountability. Unless you’re on site, you can’t be blamed. Times have changed. Let’s revisit the words of an MP a few years ago:

“It is fair to say that the public has an expectation that government departments would not only observe all the appropriate bureaucratic policy and legislative and other
protocols that are within their remit but, at the same time, ensure that the duty of care they owe … to the people over whom they ultimately have some responsibility is exercised prudently and compassionately …

“The department’s political masters … have refused in any way whatsoever to take accountability for what has happened.”

That’s Peter Garrett in opposition, calling the government and the Immigration Department to account over treatment of Corneila Rau.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. Jane E
Posted Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - 19:35

Dazza, Penny Wong is a Senator from South Australia.

Josha, I agree with you. Building standards anywhere I have lived in Australia are appallingly lax. It's not as if no one knew how to build for the climate. Look at the homesteads on outback stations: stone walls, deep verandahs, high iron roofs. Look at the elevated, light, airy tropical houses. Now when I drive past new housing estates, I see dark tiled roofs with minimal or non-existent eaves, and single glazed windows with no external shading. And not much evidence of passive solar design.

So retro-fitting roof insulation is a bit cart before horse, but better than nothing. However, it can be done safely. Have a look at http://www.yourhome.gov.au/technical/fs48.html#health
and note the date at the bottom: © Commonwealth of Australia - Copyright and Disclaimers/Privacy Notice - Fourth edition, 2008
It is not spelled out too well, but the dangers of downlights are discussed.

Section 4.7 clearly states that only qualified persons should be installing the insulation: "PLEASE NOTE: To qualify for the assistance, the insulation must be installed by an installer on the Australian Government’s Installer Provider Register." Which brings me to Dr. Horton's comments. I seem to recall just such an outcry being raised when the scheme got into full swing: that there was too much regulation, people were being held up, etc. When we had our roof insulation redone (pre-rebate), we just had polyester batts installed. They helped. So I am still wondering why people were trying to retro-fit foil products. Which seems to be where all the tragedies have occurred.

Jonah Bones
Posted Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - 20:58

Garrett is the polarizing type of personality you want in Parliament, except he wears the Rudd muzzle. People seem to prefer to crucify the person rather than the system . Garrett is the failure of Parliament in Australia personified. If the ruling party cannot use his talents to address the issues of the day then it is politics that has failed not the person.

A pity that Ben did not see fit to turn the spotlight on the hundreds of millions Goss convinced his old understudy to give to free to air tv to prop up their failing businesses. A far greater scandal and one worth the fall of a government.

Posted Wednesday, February 17, 2010 - 01:47

I reckon Garrett is being treated far too harshly. Particularly by the Opposition. It is just plain dirty the way Tony Abbott keeps trying to finger Garrett personally for the deaths. This is the nasty opportunistic underbelly of the Liberal Party flaunting itself, with not even an metaphorical fig leaf (nor budgie smugglers!) anywhere to be seen for even a modicum of intellectual caution and modesty.

Industry and the market has got to take its share of the blame here, not merely blame government. In any reality other than this apparently new topsy-turvy one, this would usually be a truth Liberals held to be self-evident. But Abbott is acting like a commie to be a crowd pleaser. This veneer reeks so bad on him, it needs to be buried yesterday.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. GarryB
Posted Wednesday, February 17, 2010 - 11:36

At last some facts are emerging. But of course only after the baying for blood. What has been made to look quite simply like four deaths from foil insulation improperly or carelessly installed, isn't what it seems. One death was from heat exhaustion while installing batts not foil. Another was from a ceiling that is now claimed to have been "live since 1991". A PWC audit has found 21 homes with potentially deadly electrical faults caused by inept installers, but 142 homes were found to have pre-existing electrical problems. As the rush to hysteria and hype shifts to the proper gathering of information, trying to simply pin the blame on Peter Garrett is utterly absurd.
The issues are far more complex. It will take some time to unravel the facts. Meanwhile it is all too easy for former members of a government which did very little about reducing our energy demands and their emissions beyond changing light bulbs (for ones containing mercury with no recycling proposal) to be on the attack. Equally disappointing is the response of the media which on this issue has not been so hysterical and prone to premature judgement and condemnation since the Lindy Chamberlain case.

Posted Wednesday, February 17, 2010 - 16:44

I was very disapointed the TV news shows didn't play "Cold Cold Change" over the article. 8^)

Magnus Muir
Posted Friday, February 19, 2010 - 11:30

Not to mention PG's performance in the Arts portfolio. Maybe not as life-and-death an issue, nevertheless the way he completely mismanaged the attempted closure/take-over of the Australian National Academy of Music in 2008 was an eye-opener for musicians who saw the appointment of one of their own as arts minister as good news:


There was a level of incompetence at ministerial level that simply couldn't be blamed on a slack department, because music was supposedly one of Garrett's special interests and areas of expertise. People were shocked, too, at his lofty dismissiveness, as though it was all a bit beneath him. In the end, the campaign to mobilise support for ANAM exposed how little thought had gone into his plans (for want of a better word) and asked some penetrating questions about his competence.

Signs of things to come, we wondered.

Dr David Horton
Posted Saturday, February 20, 2010 - 11:14

Late to be commenting again Ben, but it seems to me having watched the drama unfold culminating in at least a partial abandoning of the idea of helping people insulate roofs as one small step towards reducing greenhouse gas production in Australia, that this might well have been the point of Abbott's attack. That is, to discredit not just Garrett but the whole idea of responsible environmental action. And note Joyce's sneering at the very idea of insulating houses (http://www.blognow.com.au/mrpickwick/247076/Joyce_for_Canberra.html). I think this whole beat up was intended to run in parallel with the Murdoch Press/shock jock attack on climate science. Destroy the science, destroy the responses.

And if you are still reading you might look at doing a scientific response to the latest Miranda Devine demands for burning the forests. Dr John Benson at the Sydney Botanic Gardens could be approached perhaps.

Posted Tuesday, February 23, 2010 - 01:35

Clearly, his department has shown itself woefully incapable of carrying out the ambitious new responsibilities given to it.

There is your true target. A Head of Department resignation for failing to properly advise the Minister or for incompetance.

Garrett should resign because the deaths were avoidable.

Posted Tuesday, February 23, 2010 - 01:43

This could have all been avoided if we had used sheepskin or fleece insulation which was instaled by licenced tradesmen. i.e you had to have a ticket to get into a roof!