The debacle of the Australian Government’s insulation job creation scheme faded when the scheme was cancelled suddenly by the Government earlier in 2010. Attention was always going to return at various stages as investigations into the deaths of young insulation installers begin but Parliament resumed earlier and the Opposition attacked. The attack has led to the release of correspondence between the Minister responsible for the debacle, Peter Garrett, and the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. (A good example of the role of an effective Opposition in ensuring open government)
The newspapers on 28 May 2010 have focused on the fact that the Prime Minister was aware of the serious occupational health and safety deficiencies of the system months before serious action was taken on the scheme. However, the correspondence also indicates that Garrett was not inactive on the safety risks in 2009 as many critics allege.
The level of outrage one feels in relation to the correspondence relates to one’s political persuasion but also one’s understanding and expectation over the speed of bureaucratic and political procedures. It is clear that the insulation program was unsafe from the start or, rather, that safety was not given the priority it demanded. The deaths of installers should have generated considerably more speed in the Governments’ action but other issues were being considered and job creation in a time of economic uncertainty seems to have been given a high priority.
This morning the Prime Minister admitted that the insulation system was flawed but this admission should not be a dismissal of the significant (and fatal) errors of judgement. One cannot say sorry and wash one’s hands of a terrible mistake. An apology, or an acceptance of failure, is the base from which improvements must be made and Prime Minister Rudd’s admission today is significant. There may be even more significance in a legal sense with the impending prosecution over OHS breaches on installation companies and future coronial inquiries.
Does an admission of failure by a Prime Minister reduce the severity of a prosecution that relates to the operation of that scheme?
As SafetyAtWorkBlog has said previously, the lack of an effective OHS lobby group on a national level is allowing for government to sideline safety in its policy decisions. The enviornmental sector has a strong lobby presence but OHS is only ever pushed as a secondary issue, a nice-to-have, when it cannot be avoided.
In the insulation debacle the insulation groups did their best in encouraging the program and identifying risks, but this is little consolation to the families of four dead installers. Where were the workplace safety advocates?