Sunday, February 14, 2010

Greenie policy burns houses down and kills workers

Misconceived and ill-thought out like most such schemes

PETER Garrett has admitted his troubled $2.5 billion insulation program has been linked to 86 house fires around the nation as the opposition stepped up calls for him to resign over his handling of the scheme. As opposition environment spokesman Greg Hunt called for an investigation into the rise in house ceiling fires, it emerged that the government's program to give homes with foil insulation safety checks has stalled, despite fears 1000 roofs have been electrified by inept installers.

Standards Australia said it would review thermal insulation procedures, adding that the standard for installing insulation was not mandatory, and did not cover foil products.

The government undertook last February to insulate 2.7 million homes as part of its $42bn stimulus package, but the program has been dogged by claims of rorting and safety problems. The Environment Minister has been savaged for his handling of the $2.5bn program. Tony Abbott said Mr Garrett must pay with his job for the lives of four insulation installers lost in the program and resign, otherwise "the Prime Minister has to sack him".

But Kevin Rudd expressed confidence in Mr Garrett, saying safety had been his "No 1 priority". "I have absolute confidence in the minister," the Prime Minister said. "There have been tragedies for people's families. I understand that. But there are also tragedies with industrial accidents across the country in other areas."

A defiant Mr Garrett said: "I am here to do the job. "Let's be clear about the scale of the program. Over a million homes insulated, less than 1 per cent of complaints." The total number of approved suppliers is now 7300. Twenty have been removed for failure to comply with its terms.

Figures obtained by The Weekend Australian show 172 fires have been linked to insulation or reported in ceiling cavities since the start of last year, but Mr Garrett's spokesman said 86 fires had been linked to insulation installed under the program.

NSW Emergency Services Minister Steve Whan said the 67 insulation fires in the state last year and one this year were "concerning enough that an urgent public warning was immediately issued in November following advice from fire brigade statisticians". This compared with 16 insulation fires in 2008.

In Victoria, the number of fires involving insulation in a ceiling space doubled from 19 in 2008 to 38. Queensland reported 43 fires originating in the ceiling or roof space in the last six months of last year, compared with 35 for the 12 months to June 30 last year.

South Australia reported one such fire, down from two the year before, and in Canberra the ACT Coroner will investigate three house fires. Western Australia has reported 20 insulation fires since July.


Green policy bites the Labor party

THE greening of the Rudd government has entered a new phase, when "feel good" virtue turns into defective policy, shifty politics, chronic administrative failures and marketing overkill that now sees Environment Minister, Peter Garrett fighting for his political life. Garrett is an amateur in trouble. His elevation to the Rudd cabinet because of green celebrity status typifies the multiple stunts that cripple sound policy.

Garrett, with Rudd's support, is likely to survive, but he is not the real issue. Indeed, he is a Labor conscript from the domain of gesture politics, the symptom of a far deeper problem that plagues environmental policy across many Western nations.

Green political causes, deceptively seductive, offer so much. They were mobilised by Kevin Rudd in 2007 to seize the mantle of the future against John Howard. The record, so far, is that results cannot match the promise. On every environmental policy front the Rudd government is in trouble, from the global contest of fighting climate change to locally subsidised home insulation.

There is one certainly about green politics: epic declarations about the "moral challenge" of the age and saving the planet guarantee that governments will fail to deliver and invite cynical retribution upon their own heads. Green parties can thrive off this tactic but governments will be held to account; this is Rudd's most obvious environmental problem.

Because the environment is now being enshrined at the centre of government decision-making, it remains mired in multiple traps. Consider the Rudd record.

The emissions trading scheme, Labor's main response to climate change, cannot pass the parliament. Climate Change Minister Penny Wong, needs to implement this policy, yet public trust in the ETS is declining and, significantly, Labor sentiment for a double dissolution on the ETS is fading, betraying a dangerous lack of conviction by Labor in its own policy. The gulf between ETS promise and delivery is growing and threatens to be vast.

This leaves Labor's renewable energy target as its main legislated response so far to climate change. Designed to achieve 20 per cent of Australia's electricity output by 2020 from renewable energy, the scheme is utterly dysfunctional.

It is beset by a familiar conflict: whether the guiding star for policy is a market response or government intervention. The price of its renewable energy certificates is far too low to drive substantial investments in wind and other renewable energy projects. Wind power companies are going nowhere fast.

Among the problems is Labor's populist decision to use the RET to build in another scheme to promote solar energy, the consequence being to bias the RET to household solar technology instead of large-scale clean energy generation into the grid. Governments, state and federal, hooked on solar subsidies, undermine the RET's purpose. The government is urgently trying to sort out this mess.

Understand what is happening: the Rudd government cannot legislate an ETS that prices carbon and seems clueless on how to do so while its legislated scheme to drive investment into large-scale clean energy technology ahead of a carbon price is not functioning and needs revision.

The Rudd government has made a huge investment in green policy in terms of finance, time, energy, reports and political capital. Yet the results vary between modest and meagre. Policy and administrative problems continue to multiply. The announcement effect to win votes is repeatedly undone by mishaps down the line.

Garrett was floundering this week over two different programs conspicuous for their common problems: he was forced to order an electrical safety inspection for nearly 49,000 homes that have had foil installed as part of the Government's ambitious home insulation program with four deaths having occurred during the implementation phase; and he separately felt compelled to order an independent inquiry from PricewaterhouseCoopers into "all contractual agreements and procurement processes" concerning the $175 million Greens Loans program, a scheme that seems almost designed to create accountability disasters.

In 2009 green politics and energy efficiency dictated that Labor include home insulation as part of its $42 billion economic stimulus package. The ambitious plan was to insulate 2.7 million homes. Garrett had to make it work, but Labor's subsidy unleashed massive demand, quotes pitched to the $1600 rebate regardless of the size of the job, untrained installers, shoddy operators and a massive administrative task for his department to set quality standards and training for all installers.

Garrett told parliament this week that he was given a series of warnings by his department in early 2009 about the risks. He was warned by the trade unions. He was warned by the National Electrical and Communications Association about firetraps and dangers from unqualified installers. The opposition issued repeated warnings and formally asked the Auditor-General to conduct an inquiry into rorting of the scheme. Garrett's claim that he "had in place an appropriate level of training and safety regulations" does not stand up from the scheme's inception. The evidence points not just to administrative incompetence in pursuit of the goal but a government lacking the experience and know-how to give effect to such a scheme so quickly.

Meanwhile under the Green Loans, assessors had to be trained and certified to make energy assessments on up to 360,000 homes for an eligible interest-free loan up to $10,000 to boost energy efficiency. As usual, public subsidies created huge demands, a flood of assessors, doubts about their credentials, chaos with assessors trying to book assessments and very few easy "green loans" actually taken out in the cause of energy efficiency.

From top to bottom, it has been an administrative shambles. Garrett's claim that "some elements of the program are not working as effectively as they should" is a joke.

This followed the earlier $850m blowout in the solar rebate scheme when the generous $8000 tax break offered to householders produced a huge oversubscription. The solution was to scrap the rebate scheme in favour of solar credits within the RET, one source of problems with that scheme.

The Rudd government has been lucky that the political story of the past 12 months has been Coalition divisions. But the "free ride" it has enjoyed with little scrutiny of administrative and policy disasters is ending.

At the heart of its environmental problems and Garrett's failures are unresolved political, policy and administrative issues. Politicians have encouraged a culture of fiscal bribery in the cause of a better environment. That leads to bad policy and exaggerated public expectations. When the public realises (in the case of climate change) that it must pay more for energy then resistance ferments.

Meanwhile decision-makers are locked into re-occurring conflicts over market-based or old-fashioned winner picking solutions. Once policy is set, government departments too often lack the skills and precedents to manage programs effectively and this leads the way to rorts.

The truth is that environmental policy is double-edged. It needs to be better integrated into whole-of-government approaches. It has the potential to undermine governments that promise too much and are exposed as incompetent.


Conservative leader launches immigration committee

The opposition has formed a border protection committee to develop a strategy to respond to the surge in asylum seeker arrivals, which could involve turning some vessels around. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said Labor inherited a robust and effective border protection system that had now been progressively unwound, paving the way for what he said was a crisis on our borders.

Mr Abbott said the new strategy would initially aim to prevent the problem in the first place by minimising outflows from countries of origin and secondary outflows from countries of first asylum. It would seek to disrupt people smugglers and intercept boats en route to Australia, while ensuring those in need of refugee protection were identified and assisted as early as possible. Appropriate arrangements for dealing with unauthorised arrivals would be developed, focusing on the early assessment of refugee status and prompt removal of those who were not refugees.

Mr Abbott said an effective border protection policy required four central elements including being prepared, under the right circumstances, to turn around the boats. He said the opposition would retain a rigorous commitment to offshore processing. It would also create a special visa category for unauthorised arrivals to ensure permanent residency was not an automatic right. A coalition government would maintain close co-operation with source and transit countries, he said.

'The coalition is committed to pursuing policies based on these principles to ensure that Australia's borders are safe,' he said in a joint statement with opposition justice and customs spokesman Michael Keenan and immigration spokesman Scott Morrison.

Mr Abbott said the border protection committee would co-ordinate coalition policy across portfolios to develop a single border protection policy for the approval by shadow cabinet. No timetable has been indicated for development of this policy.

The committee would comprise Mr Keenan (convenor), Mr Morrison, opposition deputy leader Julie Bishop, defence spokesman David Johnston, shadow attorney-general George Brandis, opposition parliamentary secretary Jason Wood and former coalition immigration minister Philip Ruddock, now shadow cabinet secretary.

'The committee will also provide a forum for consultation with the community, stakeholders and other groups with an interest in border protection issues and to determine the coalition position in response to border protection matters as they arise,' Mr Abbott said.


Evil government social workers again

"Too old" grandmother not allowed to care for grandkids. If she were black, there would be no problems, of course

A GRANDMOTHER is fighting for the care of her two grandchildren after the Department of Child Safety told her she is too old at 68 to look after them. As the Federal Government pushes the case for older workers to stay in the workforce longer, Marlene Baker, who lives west of Brisbane, is restricted to once-a-month weekend visits with her grandchildren who live 100km away in foster care. The decision comes despite no age limit for carers and the shortfall of foster parents soaring to 500.

Grandparents account for one in five foster parents in Queensland but the department has ruled Mrs Baker and her 80-year-old husband Reginald are unfit to care for the children, aged two and four. The ruling follows Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's plan to lift the retirement age to 67.

Mrs Baker admits she has some health issues but claims she is well enough to care for the children. "I have already proven I can care for them. I do all the cooking, I drive, I clean my house," she said.

The two children have spent most of their lives living with their grandparents and their 35-year-old aunt. But last November the aunt, who was the legal kinship carer, told the department she could no longer cope with the responsibility. The department immediately moved the children into foster care, 100km away, despite Mrs Baker's willingness to continue to care for them.

Mrs Baker described the separation from her grandchildren as "heartbreaking", compounded by the fact she is only allowed one phone call a week at 9am on Saturdays. "This is their home. This is where they want to be," she said. "Every time they come here, they beg me to let them stay. They have big tears running down their cheeks. "How do you tell a four-year-old that it's not you that doesn't want them, it's the department?"

The siblings have never lived with their biological parents, who were considered unfit to care for their children. Mrs Baker first applied to become a kinship carer for her four-year-old grandson, when he was born. "They did a house inspection, I had a medical, I got a blue card and in the end I was told I was too old - I was 64 then," Mrs Baker said. The boy spent a year in foster care, until the aunt became his carer and also assumed care of his sister when she was born. For most of this time, the three lived with the Bakers, and Mrs Baker was their main carer.

The Bakers have nine children, 16 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren. Mrs Baker described the department's actions as "heavy handed". At the very least she would like more access to the children. "If I can't have them, why can't I see them more often, take them on holidays, why can't they be in foster care nearby, so I can drop in and see them often like a normal grandmother?" she asked.

Independent MP Dorothy Pratt said the Bakers were victims of time-poor social workers, and their story was not an isolated case. "If grandparents are capable of caring for a child they should be the first choice," she said. "There is not enough time put in to make appropriate choices and consider what is best for the child and the family."

A spokeswoman for Child Safety Minister Phil Reeves said the priority was to provide children with "a safe and loving home environment". "The department always prefers to place children with family if possible," she said. "But every application must be assessed with absolute rigour to ensure the child's best interests are upheld." [Blah, blah, blah]


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