The Royal Commission report into the so-called insulation program ‘disaster’ is expected today. Yet already it has generated headlines damaging for the Labor Party. According to Alan Austin, who presented a sworn statement of evidence to the Commission, media coverage of the Home Insulation Program (HIP) was characterised by distortion, omission and outright lies right from the outset.
This is the seventh and final part of Alan's submission (edited only slightly for format).
Naming the HIP ‘bungle’, ‘debacle’ and ‘disaster’
The Rudd Government was warned by (risk assessment consultants) Minter Ellison at the outset about possible political attacks. It was advised that ‘a variety of failures in the process, system, project deliverables etc may have significant indirect political/public confidence impact’.
It was told to expect:
‘... excessive media attention on non-compliance.'
The Government could hardly have anticipated the ferocity and the mendacity of the media campaign unleashed by its opponents from the outset.
Campaigns in Australia to denigrate, misreport and misrepresent initiatives of the Rudd/Gillard governments have all been highly successful — but none more so than the campaign against the HIP.
The campaign led by the Murdoch media appears to have had five main lines of attack.
First, to depict the scheme as an investment enterprise requiring cost savings rather than a rapid expenditure exercise, then to attack the government for high outlays.
‘Insulation budget facing big blowout’ ~ The Australian, 22 August 2009
‘Education funds found from savings in insulation, housing schemes’ ~ news.com.au, 28 August 2009
Second, to depict the inevitable negative events which the scheme had anticipated as abnormal, unexpected, unforeseen and the fault of the incompetent federal government.
‘Warning on rip-offs by dodgy pink batt installers’ ~ The Australian, 16 March 2009
‘Insulation subsidy scheme rorted’ ~ The Australian, 20 June 2009
‘Insulation batts blamed for several fires across NSW’ ~ The Daily Telegraph, 21 September 2009
‘Homeowners warned to check for shonky ceiling insulation’ ~ The Courier-Mail, 09 October 2009
None of this hostile anti-Government rhetoric was inspired by grief at any fatality. These were all published before the first death in October 2009.
The third line of attack was to highlight all the warnings of safety risks the government received but ignore the responses to those warnings. This strategy has been highly effective.
Official correspondence between government ministers shows many letters were exchanged in order to resolve safety issues.
That process usually had five stages:
- Safety risk advice was transmitted by letter to a public servant or a minister or the PM.
- A letter was sent in reply with responses to the advice, authorising action as required.
- Remedial action was assigned to those responsible.
- Remedial action was taken, and
- Safety outcomes were then delivered — with an overall dramatic decline in adverse incidents from levels recorded prior to the HIP.
What the media and Opposition politicians have done repeatedly, however, is report the first of these five stages, ignoring the following four.
A particularly destructive campaign was conducted by [then] opposition shadow minister for the environment Greg Hunt who accessed the declassified correspondence between minister Peter Garrett and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
On Mr Hunt’s website in 2013 were placed four letters from Mr Garrett advising the PM of serious risks and urging immediate action. Omitted from the website, however, were the prompt replies from the PM which revealed his awareness of minister Garrett’s concerns and which authorised appropriate responses.
The correspondence between the ministers was professional, timely and appropriate. But by revealing one side only and suppressing the other, the impression was conveyed to great effect that the hapless, impotent minister was being completely ignored by an arrogant, disengaged PM.
The letters are no longer on Mr Hunt’s website, but a trace remains in a media release on the Pandora archive website, dated Saturday 6 July 2013, headed:
‘MR RUDD MUST EXPLAIN WHY HE WON’T RELEASE HOME INSULATION WARNINGS’. 
In that media release, Mr Hunt asserts:
If Mr Rudd’s belated apology is to have real meaning, he must now release all 10 warnings that he personally received – and any others which may exist but to date we are not aware of, and most importantly the four letters directly from minister Garrett:
- 14 August 2009, letter from Mr Garrett
- 27 August 2009, letter from Mr Garrett …
- 28 October 2009, letter from Mr Garrett
- 30 October 2009, letter from Mr Garrett …
Mr Garrett’s letters on 20 and 28 August 2009 were replied to on 4 September 2009.
The letter from Mr Garrett on 28 October 2009 was replied to on 29 October 2009.
The letter from Mr Garrett on 30 October 2009 was replied to on 2 November 2009.
The full correspondence is available here.
Media examples of that strategy of suppressing one side of readily available two-way correspondence include:
‘Garrett Got Insulation Warning’ ~ The West Australian, 11 February 2010
‘Deadly Alarm Raised Often’ ~ Herald-Sun, 12 February 2010
‘New Garrett Shame: Insulation Boss Reveals: I Told minister of Poison Batts Threat’ ~ Herald Sun, 13 February 2010
‘Rudd Insulated from Warnings’ ~ The Australian, 19 February 2101
‘Letters reveal risk known’ ~ The Sydney Morning Herald, 28 May 2010
Both the Fairfax media group and ABC News appear to have joined the Murdoch campaign of deceptive reporting in about March 2010.
The fourth line of attack was simply to suppress references to context, history and success.
There was seldom mention of the reality that accidents and fatalities are entrenched features of building activity throughout the world. There was no reference to the dramatic decline in industrial accidents generally and electrocutions particularly through 2009. There were few, if any, references to the other 212 industrial fatalities in 2009-10. Nor reference to the fact that this was a 28% decline from the 300 workers killed in 2006–07.
The effectiveness of this anti-government campaign is seen in continuing references to the HIP across virtually all mainstream media with pejorative terminology.
‘Home insulation bungle to hit budget bottom line’ ~ ABC PM, 11 March 2010
‘Govt requests probe of failed home insulation scheme’ ~ ABC PM, 4 March 2010
‘Insulation debacle shows a party unfit for government’ ~ ABC News, 11 August 2010
‘Tony Abbott promises judicial inquiry into botched home insulation scheme’ ~ ABC News, 9 Aug 2013
After the first fatality in October 2009, this campaign of misrepresentation escalated to a frenzy in which the four deceased were exploited shamelessly.
According to the University of Sydney’s Professor Rodney Tiffen:
The Coalition’s rhetoric was extreme and unqualified. It climaxed with Tony Abbott’s claim that if Mr Garrett were a company director in New South Wales ‘he would be charged with industrial manslaughter.’ Abbott called the scheme ‘the most monumentally bungled government program in Australia’s history’ and claimed that the government was in ‘electrocution denial.’ His Coalition colleagues joined the attack, with South Australian senator Simon Birmingham claiming that the ‘greatest threat to the safety of many Australian families over the last twelve months has been the home insulation program’. 
The final strategy was to blame the Government for the scheme’s premature truncation – which clearly cost many businesses dearly and curtailed the potential environmental benefits – rather than the hysterical anti-HIP campaign by the government’s opponents.
‘Garrett denies scrapping of insulation program a disaster’ ~ ABC PM, 19 February 2010
‘Disaster leaves Garrett hanging’ ~ Herald Sun, 20 February 2010
As an additional insult, some formal inquiries claimed that the government had caused ‘reputational damage’ to the insulation industry — but without noting the campaigns of misrepresentation and distortion by opponents of the program. 
In contrast, much sound reporting was provided by the alternative online media.
Excellent reports include the analysis by Scott Steel in Crikey referred to earlier [in Part Five], Professor Tiffen’s analysis, referred to above, and these:
‘What the Auditor couldn't see’ ~ New Matilda, 25 Oct 2010, and
‘Pink batts: not a scandal, but not as good as claimed’ ~ The Conversation, 30 October 2012
These, however, were overwhelmed by the mendacious and politically-motivated attacks on the HIP in mainstream daily newspapers, radio and television.
Families and friends of the deceased – and the wider community – have been told repeatedly to believe that the national enterprise to which the young men were contributing was a ‘scandal’, a ‘disaster’ and a ‘debacle’.
According to objective analysis, however, the HIP was a remarkable success.
It should have been the occasion of national pride and celebration – along with construction of the magnificent Sydney Harbour Bridge in the 1920s (which cost 16 lives) and the Snowy River hydro-electric facility in the 1950s and 60s (which cost 121 lives).
Australia’s great mining enterprises take between five and 15 lives each year. Manufacturing in Australia costs more than 17 lives each year. General aviation takes more than 25 lives a year. Australia’s farms and forests claim more than 50 lives a year. 
Despite the seemingly unavoidable tragedies — all of these important initiatives are making Australia a better place.
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