Rudd humbled, but real lessons of insulation scheme go unlearned

Rudd’s legal wrangles: political theatre, but beside the point when it comes to improving public programs. AAP Image/Dan Peled

It’s understandable that coverage of Kevin Rudd’s appearance before the royal commission into the home insulation program should focus on the image of a former Prime Minister humbled over a policy that led to four people’s deaths.

But although some will revel in Rudd’s discomfiture, the commission sits oddly with the current government’s ostensible commitment to reducing waste and duplication. The commission’s terms of reference, which emphasise workplace safety considerations, seem to be about allocating blame for the program’s shortcomings, rather than learning lessons for improving public administration.

After an afternoon of legal wrangles on Wednesday, Rudd finally won permission to give his unredacted evidence on Thursday, in which he claimed that he was not notified of problems with the scheme until after the deaths.

The focus of the hearings so far – featuring former ministers Mark Arbib and Peter Garrett, and culminating in Rudd’s appearance – has been about who knew what, and when. Entertaining political theatre, but not a productive use of public resources.

Deaths already investigated

The Queensland Coroner has already handed down findings into the deaths of three young workers (the fourth, Marcus Wilson, died in New South Wales). The brunt of the coroner’s criticism was aimed at the Commonwealth for having rushed the program, but blame was also directed to the state government, for lax enforcement of its own operations, and to businesses who probably breached the state’s Electrical Safety Act. Why go over old ground?

Rudd’s appearance is fodder for the tabloids, and a welcome distraction for a government trying to sell a tough budget. But in focusing on his personal interactions with Arbib and Garrett, the story seems to do little more than confirm what journalist and academic Philip Chubb has already pointed out in his new book Power Failure – that Rudd was a lousy manager, the kind of boss who wavers between indecisiveness and excessive haste.

It is unlikely that many of Australia’s 28 prime ministers, including Tony Abbott, would score highly in a test of managerial ability. Winning elections isn’t about administrative competence – that is the task of the professional public service. What is emerging from the commission’s hearings confirms the findings of the 2010 Auditor-General’s report into the HIP, which found that many of the problems resulted from systemic failures in public administration.

Jobs, stimulus… and tragedy

Before focusing on those problems, it’s useful to consider that report. It found that 1.1 million roofs were insulated, and 6000 to 10,000 short-term jobs were created, widely dispersed geographically. As a stimulus program it succeeded, and the scheme also helped to boost sustainability. It also resulted in tragedy.

The deaths of Matthew Fuller, Rueben Barnes, Mitchell Sweeney, and Marcus Wilson should not have happened. But it should also be pointed out that the rate of ceiling fires associated with insulation installation was almost certainly lower under the scheme (see also here) than it had been before the program was implemented, and that the program was a catalyst for better regulation of the industry. Yet fire risk is not included in the commission’s terms of reference.

Of course, none of this excuses the Rudd government. Had it applied the same standards as apply to road safety or pharmaceutical regulation, there would undoubtedly have been a much lower risk of fire, heat stroke or electrocution, and the insulation industry would probably not have suffered the reputational damage caused by fly-by-night operators chasing tasty subsidies.

Ultimately, our elected governments have to take responsibility for poor administration, even if those problems are not of their own making, but are the fault of the public servants who put the policies into practice.

Lack of basic knowledge

A problem clearly identified in the Auditor-General’s report, and emerging from the commission’s inquiries, is that the public servants involved simply did not realise that ceilings are risky places to work. Even if they had not heard of the three previous deaths in New Zealand involving foil insulation secured with metal staples, the presence of life-threatening risk should have been common knowledge within the bureaucracy.

One might expect these public servants to understand high school physics such as Ohm’s Law and the basic principles of conductivity and thermodynamics – or at the very least, to know better than to send workers into roof spaces armed with metal staples.

As Tim Roxburgh of the Centre for Policy Development points out, the Commonwealth public service has lost many of the practical skills once found in outfits such as departments of public works. Practical men and women have been replaced in the senior bureaucratic ranks by generic managers, with finely honed political sensitivity, and skill in writing speeches for ministers.

Another problem was that the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts tried to run the program entirely from Canberra. Apart from some people associated with conservation programs, it had no presence elsewhere. There was no one who could get in a car to go and look at some installations, no one living and working in Brisbane with good contacts in the state government and the industry.

As warned by a much earlier royal commission, the 1976 Commission of Australian Government Administration, the Commonwealth bureaucracy was already then becoming too isolated in Canberra.

When something goes wrong, blame the government?

It is unfortunate that a partisan vendetta seems to have overridden the chance for the royal commission to look at systemic problems in public administration. There will be future occasions when governments have to respond to sharp economic downturns or other emergencies, or want to put programs in place quickly, and unless they have a competent public service there will be more tragedies and mishaps.

Politicising the program’s shortcomings also reinforces the message that whenever something goes wrong, it’s the government’s fault. The attempt to sheet all blame on to the government of the day dulls any message about individual responsibility on the part of businesses, households and workers.

Meanwhile, Joe Hockey has just delivered a budget speech telling us all about the importance of taking individual responsibility. That’s much more the type of message that a government of right-of-centre persuasion would want to reinforce.

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