The politically motivated Hanger 'pink batts' royal commission, in its eagerness to condemn the previous Government, ignored seven vital issues in its "glaringly unfair" report, writes Alan Austin.
But, disturbingly, the report has not addressed at least seven critical issues — all with political impact.
One. To what extent did the scheme achieve its objectives? Was the HIP the reason – or part of the reason – Australia averted the recession which loomed in every developed country in 2008 and which eventuated everywhere except Australia and Poland?
Those who say it was include Australia’s Treasury, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University, UNICEF consultant Bruno Martorano, Sydney University’s Professor Rodney Rodney Tiffen, Australian Trade Commission’s Tim Harcourt and Lowy Institute for International Policy director Mark Thirlwell.
None of these was called to testify, nor was any other authority on fiscal stimulus. This vital question remains unanswered.
Two. The need for speed. The Commissioner was highly critical of the rapidity of the implementation:
‘An important theme of this Report is that the HIP’s formulation and implementation was unduly rushed.’ [para 2.3.1]
But what would have been the quantum of deaths had Australia’s negative 2008 fourth quarter of GDP growth become two negative quarters, or three, or four?
The Commissioner was aware of the impact of financial stress on individuals, as shown in his section on the program’s sudden termination:
‘Another pre-existing business owner has had a heart attack and other health issues which he attributes to the “worry”.’ [para 188.8.131.52]
‘We found a clear rise in suicide after the 2008 global economic crisis; there were about 4,900 excess suicides in the year 2009 alone compared with those expected based on previous trends (2000-07).’
So, if one person suffering a major health crisis is worth considering — what about an entire nation impacted by recession, with recorded deaths abroad in the thousands?
‘It is no function of mine to question whether, in a general sense, such urgency for economic stimulus was justified.’ [para 1.1.15]
Why not? Whose function might it be, then?
Three. What was the rate of house fires caused by retrofitted insulation before the HIP started? What was the rate during?
This is the point at which the report seems most glaringly unfair.
Hanger refers in the fires section to detailed research by the CSIRO. So he is aware of the findings. These, as shown transparently by Scott Steel at Crikey, reveal the rate of fires in homes insulated for less than 12 months before the HIP was 47.3 fires per 100,000 homes per year. This fell during the HIP to just 13.9 per 100,000 homes per year — a decline of more than 70%.
Hanger pointedly refused to acknowledge this strong evidence of the efficacy of the HIP.
He does, however, admit:
‘The CSIRO’s analysis of the fire data indicates that the fire incident rate ... is below that which applied before the HIP started.’ [para 12.9.26]
No, it is not just ‘below’ — it dropped by a staggering 70 per cent.
Four. What was the rate of serious injury and death before the HIP started? What was the rate during? Did the rate, as anecdotal evidence suggests, drop to one third of the rate which had prevailed before the HIP?
This is a critical failing. If the rate of injury and deaths in the industry dropped as dramatically during the HIP as did the fire rate, then tragic though the four casualties are, the scheme cannot be depicted as the theatre of industrial manslaughter Tony Abbott has claimed.
We know at least five workers died in New Zealand between 2003 and 2007, where records are kept. But what was the fatality rate in Australia prior to the HIP?
This was a critical question the Commission was empowered in its terms of reference to answer. But the question was not even asked.
Five. Why did electrocutions fall so dramatically in 2009, despite workers entering more than a million roof cavities, where the risk of electrocution is so high?
According to the National Coronial Information Service electrocutions averaged 22.5 per year from 2001 to 2006. This fell to just 12 per year through the Rudd period. That is a 46.7% drop overall.
The Commission failed to address that question.
Six. How is it that construction deaths overall fell from an average of 104.25 between 2005 and 2009 down to just 69 in 2009-10? According to those Safe Work Australia figures, that is a 33.8% decline.
Again, no attempt at analysis and no answer.
Seven. Why was the concerted effort directed towards training, procedure and regulation necessary at all as late as 2009? Why had previous governments not ensured an adequate safety regime well before then?
The industry was already well-established, as the Commissioner acknowledges:
‘... prior to the announcement on 3 February 2009, there were in the order of 200 businesses retro-fitting insulation into a total of up to approximately 70,000 houses per annum.’ [para 1.1.7]
Hanger lists in his appendix nine a chronology of key events. They include more than 40 actions directed towards safety, all of them completed before the first fatality in October 2009.
And yet culpability is sheeted home to the Rudd Government, which acted proactively, rather than its predecessors, who had apparently done relatively little.
Not only did the Commissioner fail to address those critical questions, he appears not to have heard those questions asked.
This was revealed in his opening statement:
‘Put simply, what really went wrong, what made it go wrong, and how can this commission assist government and industry to ensure circumstances like the ones we face here don't happen again?’ [Appendix 3, page 329]
The inquiry assumed at the outset that the Coalition’s narrative was correct — everything about the scheme was ‘wrong’. And hence no need to call witnesses who might have evidence to the contrary.
Malcolm Fraser was right. This was political payback.
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