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?