The investigation into workplace deaths associated with Australia’s Home Insulation Program (HIP) was refreshed yesterday with the publication of some of the terms of reference for a new Government inquiry into the program. The HIP deaths is an enormously politically charged issue in Australia and the politics, and associated media attention, could derail an inquiry that has the potential to provide important occupational health and safety, risk management and governance issues.
Greg Hunt, Environment Minister is quoted as saying that
“The Government is committed to a full inquiry into Kevin Rudd’s home insulation scheme that was linked to the tragic loss of four young lives,….”
According to the Courier-Mail newspaper on 27 October 2013 there will be ten elements in the terms of reference but only four are mentioned:
- The process and basis of government decisions while establishing the program, including risk assessment and risk management;
- Whether the death of the four men could have been avoided;
- What if any advice or undertakings given by the government to the industry were inaccurate or deficient, and;
- What steps the government should have taken to avoid the tragedies.
These four seem reasonable aims but this information has been leaked, the full terms of reference have not been released and a person to head the inquiry is yet to be announced.
Greg Hunt, the current Environment Minister, was a staunch critic of the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s handling of the HIP scheme and its aftermath. In July 5 2013 while still in Opposition, Hunt said:
“….. We did our best to alert the government to have them stop the programme, to have them listen to the warnings. Unions tried to alert the government. We had industry groups alert the government. We had State Governments warn the Federal Government and there were warnings from within the government itself with letters from Peter Garrett to Mr Rudd. Sadly, everyone failed. The programme proceeded and young lives were lost. Yesterday we heard from the Queensland Coroner. And the Coroner could not have been clearer. There was responsibility at the Federal Government level. Warnings were ignored, planning failed, letters remained unresponded to from the Queensland Building Services Authority. The pattern of warnings could not have been clearer and the Queensland Coroner found that these deaths could and should have been avoided. The Queensland Coroner found that these deaths could and should have been avoided and that these four young men should still be with us.
Against that background, Mr Rudd refused to apologise when asked only a week ago in the Parliament. I am glad that he has now finally given those families the due apology. That is the least that could ever have been expected. Now, if Mr Rudd is remotely sincere about his apology, he must release all of the warnings that he received personally. We know that there were at least 10 warnings, including four letters to him from then Minister Garrett – two in August of 2009, two more in October of 2009. This is evidence that should be on the public record. If Mr Rudd has nothing to hide he should release the letters immediately and anything less than that is disrespectful to these four young men.”
This evidence seems to be what Greg Hunt plans to obtain through the proposed inquiry. But it has to be asked, why? There is a great deal of information about the HIP scheme and the workers’ deaths already available. More than enough information to prevent such a mishandled scheme from recurring. More than enough for prosecutions over breaches of occupational health and safety law to have occurred.
The Minister may couch his motives in terms of the seeking closure or justice for the families of the deceased young men but it is hard not to feel that political revenge is being sought on Kevin Rudd, a former Prime Minister who was a constant target of the conservative politicians, conservative media and belatedly, some of his Labor Party colleagues.
Any inquiry into the Home Insulation Program must focus on the actions taken, and the decisions made, in the name of stimulating the economy. On this basis important findings are possible; findings that could define, and refine, occupational health and safety due diligence and executive and Ministerial accountability, the level of OHS expertise or awareness in government policy making, and the need to be cautious in developing economic strategies even when the economic requirements are urgent.
The best that can be hoped for is that facts are revealed under the political revenge and spin and that those facts are duly reported. We will need to rely on the mainstream media and filter the political grandstanding unless the Government provides publicly available and timely transcripts. The latter is a likely side benefit of the desire to see previous political opponents flogged over poor decision making rather than any commitment to OHS and risk management lessons. ( Oh – for an OHS media in Australia!)
But it remains early days in establishing the inquiry and, perhaps, a person of integrity, independence and risk experience is appointed who will steer this inquiry into the constructive and worthy result it deserves. Then again, any inquiry relies on a government implementing the inquiry’s findings and this is never guaranteed. There is indeed a long way to go.