Pink Batts and Tony Abbott’s Failure

Pink Batts and Tony Abbott’s Failure

Peter Garrett suffered from two main drawbacks when he gained both a seat in Parliament and a Ministerial post in the Rudd government: he was a prominent achiever as singer for the “Oils”, in an industry which had seldom been involved directly in politics, and he had extensive public commitments to evironmental issues.

In the former case, he was an immediate target for those who see politics as a field in which — despite all the theories of democracy — only certain “types” may play a role (presumably lawyers, small business persons, property holders, union officials, former Ministerial staffers and even the occasional journalist). How dare a “mere” singer aspire to political office ? And what’s a tall poppy like him doing in a place like this?

In the latter case, he was someone who could not be allowed to do what all the others do in politics: compromise with reality and a balance of conflicting interests.

So the stage was set for a crucifixion of some kind, and the housing insulation scheme was to become the cue for it.

Eventually, even his leaders were to deny him and abandon him.

When the Opposition hysteria began, Kevin Rudd seemed to stay locked in his Prime Ministerial citadel until forced belatedly to offer a pitiful defence when in fact a strong case could have been made in his Minister’s defence. Rudd then gave up the ghost on Garrett’s behalf, sacked him from that portfolio, and abandoned the cause by having the scheme shut down. The words “mea culpa” may have been heard ringing down the Parliamentary corridors, but to no avail and little benefit.

Julia Gillard, in turn, having inherited the retreat position, stayed with the “safe” course during an election campaign with a series of admissions that the scheme had been a failure.
This was the “easy” strategic position, presumably, when her predecessor had shown no gumption for the battle. And by then, presumably, that was what the focus groups were saying.

And the focus groups, the advisors and all but some of the more percipient and cool-headed of the press were all wrong.

The insulation scheme was in fact a moderate success in several ways, and the main problem relevant to Peter Garrett was that the key government leaders and their advisers couldn’t get around to mounting an effective support and defence, and possibly even turning it into an attack, if they bothered to stop and think about their position.

Guilt by Association?

We have now seen what seems to have been the first of the prosecutions arising from the insulation scheme.

Peter Garrett was not one of those charged. No government official was charged. And nor is there any suggestion that they should or could they be charged.

Why not? For basic and simple reasons:

1. The Government did not install one single pink batt.

2. There was not even some large government contract handed out to a specified private contractor. The choice of installer was not one made by Peter Garrett or his department, but by each of the private householders who sought to take advantage of the scheme — a point some aggrieved householders in distress have tended to ignore.

3. The government provided funds to benefit householders — initially by providing rebates — and then by paying small business operators a contribution to insulation installation costs. The insulation, including all the faulty stuff, was provided by small business operators. Amongst these operators were those who sent untrained people into dangerous areas, and who accepted government money for shoddy and dangerous work. Normally, these would be the very same people who the Coalition parties claim should be freed from the “shackles” of government regulation….

But suddenly it’s the Minister’s fault for trusting these people to comply with the law and avoid incompetent work and threats to lives of their customers. So why didn’t that apply to some of his predecessors in Ministerial office?

Funding assistance of this kind has been common in a number of areas in the past. Both sides of the Parliament for example, have had responsibility for housing schemes which provide first home buyer assistance. There, the government puts up the funds, the home buyer chooses the property to buy from a range of private suppliers of homes. And if the buyer chooses a property badly, well, “tough titties” as the saying goes (aka caveat emptor).

Much the same thing can be said about the insulation scheme. This was no “nanny state” scheme: it really was up to the householder to choose an installer, and to the installer to do the job properly and safely.

If there was one basic mistake Peter Garrett and his department made, it was one which many have been guilty of: he ran a scheme in an area of relatively high risk, where no-one had previously been able to do much about the risk level involved, and he trusted good old Aussie businessmen to do the right thing.

It turned out, according to the Hawke report on the scheme, that the risk areas were reduced, and that the biggest problem with the scheme was that it was open to too many small business crooks to exploit it.

The claims about the scheme are that 4 people died and there were 100 or more household fires caused by installations it funded.

It’s actually to Garrett’s credit that the level of risk per installed household has been calculated to be about one tenth of what it had been with installations before the scheme began.

Leaving aside the household fire rate, and how you distinguish fires started by insulation installed poorly before the scheme and those installed under it, let’s look at an area of fatalities and human injury — an area that Tony Abbott knows about, and has had responsibility for.

Sauce for the Garrett is Sauce for the Abbott

To draw a simple comparison relevant to Tony Abbott, the Garrett scheme was a kind of Insulation Medicare: private citizens chose their installer of choice, just as patients choose their doctor of choice under our Health Scheme. Funds were available from the government initially by rebates, then directly to the installer to offset the price of installation to the householder, just as bulk billing and other Medicare subsidies were and still are, paid either as rebates or as direct payments to medical practitioners at all levels.

So what are the comparable national figures for problems and disasters ?

In Tony Abbott’s term as Health Minister, (07.10.03 to 3.12.07) approximately 1700 patients sued doctors for medical malpractice of some form or another. And that’s just known and litigated cases. It is not recorded how many of the treatments by the practitioners involved were directly funded by the Health Department, but we can assume all of them benefitted from subsidies of one kind or another. Are there any that don’t?

Around the same time, it is reported that in one year alone, for example, (2004-2005) there were 130 “sentinel events” leading to patients dying or being harmed by treatments administered by doctors funded by the Health Department. In Western Australia alone, there were more than 150 such events during the Opposition leader’s term of office as Health Minister.

Tony Abbott did not resign as Minister because of these deaths and “sentinel events” in hospitals, despite the fact that on several occasions, he and the Federal Government were warned by numerous individuals and bodies that the failure to maintain adequate funding to our hospitals would inevitably give rise to events of this kind.

Is talk of “industrial manslaughter” justified here for the former Health Minister, in the manner in which it was bandied around in the Parliament about Garrett ? Of course not!

What is justified is a charge of gross hypocrisy on the part of the former Health Minister, who is so fond of declaring a need to avoid government “interference” in business practices.

And given that his colleague Joe Hockey as Human Services Minister was able to claim (9 March 2006 and later) that a new ID card was needed to save “hundreds of millions of dollars” in Medicare fraud, there may be justification for extending the hypocrisy tag to cover problems of fraud risk in Mr Abbott’s area of Ministerial responsibility.

Meanwhile, what is also justified is a criticism of the government leadership of both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard that they permitted this gross hypocrisy to be rewarded by lack of robust defence of their colleague… a matter that the government might need to consider as it reviews its recent electoral performance.

The Rudd “mea culpa” was a late and empty gesture which ended up punishing a Minister for not running a nanny state. Rudd didn’t resign after taking “responsibility” for the issue. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that he was later pushed.

As an afterword, it is important to note that of all the unthinking press hysteria that surrounded this area, several journalists provided full details of just how unjustified the hysteria about the scheme was. Geoff Winestock, of the Australian Financial Review, John Watson, of The Age, Ross Gittins of the SMH, and “Possum Comitatus” of Crikey.dot.com all wrote salutory pieces which critically examined some of the sillier arguments that others had promulgated with unquestioning servitude. Two examples are at:

http://blogs.crikey.com.au/pollytics/2010/02/24/did-the-insulation-program-actually-reduce-fire-risk/comment-page-1/

http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/insulation-fire-risk-was-worse-before-rebate-20100303-pivv.html

Footnote: In the year when 1.2 million homes had insulation installed under the scheme, and 4 people died, another 34 or more others died while working on building and construction sites, mostly on 40,000 or so homes.    Where is the grand indignation about that death rate (1 in  about 1200 compared with 1 in 300,000?)

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About petermaus

Former journalist, political and current affairs reporter/producer. Former media adviser to ALP and later Senior Adviser to Federal Minister. More recently, 20 years as technical writer in the computer industry, so entitled to claim to have demonstrated evidence of true penitence.
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