Judicial inquiry into insulation dominated by election campaign politics

Australia’s conservative opposition leader, Tony Abbott, has announced that he intends to conduct a judicial inquiry into the government’s handling of the home insulation program (HIP) that resulted in the deaths of four workers in Queensland and New South Wales in 2009 and 2010.

Such a call would, normally, be very welcome but the timing of Abbott’s announcement brings a level of political baggage that weakens his commitment.

Newspapers report that the parents of Matthew Fuller have written a letter to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd expressing their dissatisfaction with his response to the Coronial findings into their son’s death and the need for a judicial inquiry.  The letter was dated 20 July 2013 but has only received media attention since Rudd announced the Federal election for September 2013.  There is little doubt that the concerns of Kevin and Christine Fuller are genuine and that they want more details from the Government about what they believe contributed to their son’s death.  Most parents would want the same and this letter provides Abbott with an opportunity of being seen to respond to public demands

Where is the criticism of the employers?

A major omission in Abbott’s media announcement and the coverage of the issue in The Australian newspaper, in particularly, is the failure to mention any involvement in the HIP by the employers of the deceased workers.  The argument jumps from deceased workers to Kevin Rudd and the Rudd Government.  In terms of workplace safety, the employers had very clear obligations that were not met in many cases.  Where is the mention of QHI Installations Pty Ltd or Arrow Property Maintenance Pty Ltd?

This video report by The Telegraph mirrors inaccurate statements that have become common.  Steve Lewis says that Matthew Fuller’s death was

“…a tragic accident as a result of the home insulation program that went wrong…”

The deaths occurred due to poor or non-existent safety management practices of the workers’ employers who were taking advantage of an admittedly flawed economic stimulus and job creation program.  Lewis repeats the omission of the employers’ role in their employees’ deaths.

In the days leading to Abbott’s announcement The Australian ran several articles on legal action proposed by home insulation companies that are allegedly out-of-pocket by millions of dollars due to the cancellation of the insulation scheme. According to The Australian on August 8 2013:

“The legal documents quote named public servants, including a senior figure in Mr Garrett’s department who allegedly asked one of Mr Rudd’s top aides: “Is there any way of delaying this scheme while we sort installer training, safety standards – that sort of thing?”

The Rudd aide’s reply is quoted as: “The Prime Minister wants it started now and it’s very difficult to argue with a Prime Minister with a 76 per cent approval rating.”

In another alleged conversation, a department project officer discloses to a company representative: “We expect houses will burn down.”

A company operator, Matthew Hannam, states that he told one of the key public servants: “You’re going to kill people if you let (untrained) installers in from outside the industry.”

The public servant allegedly replied: “It’s all about jobs. We understand there may be injuries.” (link added)

These comments deserve investigation but the fact that these are allegations in the context of civil action seeking compensation should be acknowledged and remembered.

By calling for a judicial inquiry into HIP during this election campaign the Liberal Party can be seen as supporting struggling small businesses, its usual constituency.  But this time the Liberals can support struggling small businesses who feel they have been screwed over by the government – an even better constituency during an election campaign.

The sad part of this announcement is that the workplace safety elements are unlikely to feature in a judicial inquiry due to a similar type of judicial inquiry, the coronial inquests, having already identified as much as they can about worker deaths and the direct accountability for them.  Employers have been prosecuted and penalised for OHS breaches but this fact is rarely acknowledged in the current political discussion.

Exploiting OHS for political purposes

Tony Abbott’s main aim of any judicial inquiry into HIP is political with worker safety being a secondary concern.  [Rudd said that “For the government, safety has always been the number one priority”  and this was clearly not the case] Abbott and the Liberal Party are at risk of doing what they regularly accuse the trade union movement of doing – using occupational health and safety as a cover for another agenda.  In the case of trade unions, the agenda is allegedly industrial relations,  The Liberal Party agenda is political gain and continuing criticism of the Australian Labor Party as poor project managers.  HIP is seen as a political weakness of Kevin Rudd and will continue to be exploited regardless of the election result on 7 September 2013.

For a moment assume that the sympathy that Greg Hunt, Shadow Minister for the Environment, and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott have expressed about the deaths of workers install home insulation is genuine.  Does this indicate a new perspective on worker safety?

If the Liberal Party wins the next election will it push for its State counterparts in Victoria and Western Australia to complete the work started by former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard and have a nationally harmonised work health and safety legislative structure?  These laws would hold employers to be more accountable for their OHS decision making and deterrent penalties have been increased.

Given the criticism directed at former Environment Minister Peter Garrett and the current Prime Minister Kevin Rudd over HIP, would the Liberal Party remove the exemption of the WHS laws that has been applied Ministers so that Ministers would be subject to the same levels of OHS due diligence no applied to most Chief Executive Officers in Australia?

These questions will never appear in the mainstream press as it has little or no OHS understanding, unless it relates to public servants lodging a workers compensation claim after sex in a hotel room.

The former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard mentioned OHS during an election campaign a few years ago which, in some ways, legitimised the topic as valid for an election campaign, at least for a little while.  Tony Abbott seems to be concerned about OHS in this election campaign but it is a thin veneer over his greater concern for small business and the glee of kicking Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in his uninsulated soft spots.

In all of this discussion about a potential judicial inquiry one should continue to ask what such an inquiry is likely to achieve.  Justice for the families? Compensation for insulation companies who thought their lucrative ship had come in? More reputational damage on an already damaged Labor Government? Improvements in workplace safety? Greater accountability for public servants?  Greater accountability for small business operators? Or simply a short-term political edge for the Liberal Party in a hotly contested election campaign?

Kevin Jones

9 thoughts on “Judicial inquiry into insulation dominated by election campaign politics”

  1. Les,

    The root cause of the tragic failures in the HIP was the way in which the program was established and lack of safety input in its conception.

    The blame for this failure appears to rest with government.

    A coronial enquiry would be unlikely to undertake a root cause analysis.

    A judicial enquiry would ensure for any such future grand schemes -such as the removal of asbestos roofs – that the government agency properly assessed the risks (notably falls from height) and moreover would guarantee that the contractual basis for the work was soundly based.

  2. Well done kevin, I hate the playing of politics by both sides.Having done the cert IV recently I now understand much more. When will the State governments sign up and why have no journos raised the points that you have?
    There have been ninety two workers killed this year and no one cares, it seems. I was working on a friends house last week and the gas fitters were in the roof and did not turn off the power. I asked both the gas fitters and the electricians if their organisations had a health and safety management plan- blank looks resulted. I have asked the same question in my local Coles and Bunnings- more blank looks.
    With all the talk of pink batts and deaths one would think that OHS might play some part in the election campaign.

  3. Hi Fergus,
    If, as Kevin reported, there has been a full coronial inquest and relevant findings were made, resulting in prosecutions and penalties, what would be the purpose of incurring the significant costs of a judicial enquiry?
    In Australia OHS is STILL a state jurisdiction, not a federal one. Believe it or not, even military units are required to comply with the prevailing laws of the state where they are operating. (I\’ve had personal experience related to this in both NSW and Qld).

    No matter what, if any, shortcomings are identified in the establishment and management of the program, the individual employers always had the responsibility to comply with prevailing OHS legislation in the relevant jurisdiction.

    Any further enquiry would not add any additional impetus to changes in OHS performance by employers, it would simply divert attention away from that obligation that those employers failed to fulfill.

    In my opinion all of this political posturing and witch hunting is simply obscuring the real issue – Some employers still do not compy with existing, (and I believe robust) legislation in all jurisdictions. And the Federal Governmant has no powers to affect that. (Consider harmonisation and the failure of the federal government to achieve this in some jurisdictions).

    We need more media to focus on this jurisdictional aspect of OHS not on the failure of a federal Government to dot i\’s and cross t\’s in aspects of a contract they have no control over, and have almost no means to enforce.

  4. Arguably, given the timing of the announcement, Kevin Jones may be correct in identifying political opportunism as the motivation for Tony Abbott committing the Opposition to a judicial enquiry, if the Coalition gains government. However, this speculation should not discount the need for such an enquiry – in the light of the disastrous and tragic outcomes of the Home Insulation Program. Indeed someone had to call for an enquiry.

    Opportunism is a sine qua non of the political behaviour of both political parties. Thus, the question could be equally asked why did not the Labor Government call for a judicial enquiry or a Royal Commission? Of course the answer is obvious.

    A judicial enquiry, properly established with appropriate powers and sufficient scope, would serve the interests of occupational health and safety. It should be supported.

  5. Hi Kevin,
    You\’ve done with this article what I was asking for over the weekend when the \’failed home insulation scheme\’ was used by the opposition in yet another election campaign ad. (I rant at the TV and get into interesting discussions with my wife, but I\’m definitely not as eloquent as you.)
    I\’m only sorry that your article here won\’t get picked up and run in the major news outlets as a challenge to the Opposition\’s integrity in this matter.
    I\’m led to ask further – Why did the program fail?
    Was it down to the \’greedy\’ employers who thought to make a financial killing without taking responsibility for fulfilling their OHS responsibilities, resulting in deaths and house fires that made it politically unsavoury for the then government to continue the program thereby resulting in those same \’greedy\’ employers losing money when the program was canned?
    Or did I miss something entirely other?

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