Royal Commission says insulation deaths were fault of the government’s program

Deaths could have been preventable if the Rudd government’s home insulation scheme had been properly planned and implemented. AAP/Dan Peled

The deaths of four installers participating in the Rudd government’s home insulation program would not have occurred if the scheme had been properly designed and implemented, a royal commission has found.

Commissioner Ian Hanger has slated the Labor government’s haste, bad design and lack of safety in the A$2.7 billion program, which was a key part of the $42 billion February 2009 stimulus package to protect the economy against the global financial crisis.

The government “conceived of, devised, designed and implemented a program that enabled very large numbers of inexperienced workers – often engaged by unscrupulous and avaricious employers or head contractors, who were themselves inexperienced in insulation installation – to undertake potentially dangerous work.

"It should have done more to protect them,” the report said.

The men who died were Matthew Fuller (October 14, 2009), Rueben Barnes (November 18, 2009), Marcus Wilson (November 21, 2009) and Mitchell Sweeney (February 4, 2010).

“In my view each death would, and should, not have occurred had the HIP been properly designed and implemented,” Hanger said.

“The decision to permit the use of reflective foil sheeting as ceiling insulation was, in my view, fundamentally flawed. It contributed directly to the deaths of Mr Fuller and Mr Sweeney.”

Despite knowing that installers were installing reflective foil sheeting across ceiling joists, and attaching it with metal staples, well before October 14, 2009, nothing was done to stop the practice, the commissioner said.

He particularly referred “to what occurred (and, perhaps more importantly, what did not occur) in the weeks following Mr Fuller’s death”.

“Deficiencies in the supervision of employees, which contributed to the death of Mr Marcus Wilson … were also known to be an issue well prior to 14 October 2009 but, again, nothing meaningful was done.”

“Finally, despite electrical safety issues being raised squarely as an issue after the death of Mr Fuller, insufficient action was taken to prevent further tragedies – had it been, I am satisfied that Reuben Barnes’ death could have been avoided.”

The royal commission – promised by the Coalition in opposition – was the fourth Australian government investigation into the project.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott told parliament the government would provide a preliminary response by the end of the month and a final response by year’s end.

Abbott said the report’s findings were grave and detailed “a litany of failings arising from a dysfunctional culture”.

He said the government’s response “will focus on ensuring that such a catastrophic policy failure never happens again”.

Hanger said there was an inevitable and predictable conflict between the two aims of the program. One was to insulate 2.2 million homes and the other was to stimulate the economy.

“The first required detailed and careful planning over time, and the other required speed … Planning was sacrificed to speed. A practically unachievable commencement date for the program, if it was to be properly and carefully designed, was unrealistically adhered to.”

The Environment Department was ill equipped to administer the program, the commissioner found.

The report said that neither environment minister Peter Garrett nor parliamentary secretary for government service delivery Mark Arbib was specifically advised of the risk of injury to installers before the first death.

“Mr Arbib (while not technically having authority to make decisions) at all times pushed the commencement date of 1 July 2009 despite any concerns expressed by others as to whether it was properly attainable.”

It seemed likely that Garrett did not have (or did not read if he did) an attachment to the briefing seeking his approval of the installer minimum competences, the report said.

“He did not, in any event, know that the effect of it was to remove the training requirement for novices. It is highly unsatisfactory that such an important decision miscarried in this manner.”

The program aimed to achieve an about 15-fold increase in the number of installations a year.

The number of installation businesses increased from about 200 before the program’s announcement to 8359 registered businesses with a workforce of more than 12,000 in October 2009.

The tension between the stimulus and energy-efficiency aspects of the program “caused a number of decisions to be made … which unnecessarily exposed workers, particularly inexperienced ones, to an unacceptably high risk of injury or death”.

“It ought to have been obvious to any competent administration that the injection of a large amount of money into an industry that was largely ‘unregulated’ would carry the risk of rorting and other unscrupulous behaviour.”

Hanger said it was not possible to isolate one error or failure that caused all the program’s problems – there were many. “Overall, it was poorly planned and poorly implemented.”

The decision, in light of the problems, to effectively terminate the program had a profound effect on businesses engaged in manufacturing insulation and installing it.

“The closure of the HIP caused great hardship for businesses that had, before the HIP, carried out the installation of insulation.”

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said the inquiry, which had cost $20 million, did not seem to have added a great deal to the eight previous inquiries into the matter.

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