Friday, May 16, 2014

Home insulation royal commission: Kevin Rudd accepts 'ultimate responsibility' for scheme

But blames the public service

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd says he takes responsibility for the "deep tragedy" of his government's home insulation program, in which four workers died.

A royal commission sitting in Brisbane is examining how decisions were made and how warnings were handled before the worksite deaths of four installers in 2009 and 2010.

Appearing at the commission today, Mr Rudd pointed out the failures of the public service, which he said did not raise any safety issues.

Mr Rudd said former junior minister Mark Arbib had been asked to stay "abreast of the detail where things could go wrong" with the scheme in 2009.

He said he told Mr Arbib that he needed "to watch this very carefully so that things can be nipped in the bud if there's a problem".

However, Mr Rudd said he bore "ultimate responsibility" for the failures.

"As prime minister you accept responsibility for the good and for the bad, for anything that the government does during the period, of which I am its prime minister," he said.

"And for those reasons, as I've said repeatedly before, I have accepted ultimate responsibility for what was not just bad, but in this case a deep tragedy."

Mr Arbib, who was parliamentary secretary for government service delivery during the scheme's delivery, previously told the hearing that his role was largely to communicate with the public, but that he would have "raised the alarm" with the prime minister if he was aware of warnings public servants failed to pass on.

Under questioning by Tom Howe QC, representing the Commonwealth Government, Mr Rudd said Mr Arbib "absolutely" had more than an oversight role and he had been specifically charged with evaluating the risks presented by the scheme.

"I wanted a set of eyes focused on implementation difficulties," Mr Rudd said.

In his statement to the inquiry, Mr Rudd said his relationship with Mr Arbib began to deteriorate towards the end of 2009.

"We had our disagreements about some other political and policy matters, and it is fair to observe that our personal relationship unfortunately deteriorated, although our professional relationship remained functional throughout."

Mr Rudd said he knew little about insulation, and relied on the advice of others when setting up the scheme, which was designed to stimulate the economy during the global financial crisis.

"If you're looking for me as the home handyman - if my wife was giving testimony, she would be quick to give a response - I am not," he said.

Mr Rudd noted in his statement that the home insulation scheme was first recommended not by ministers, but by the public service as part of a series of recommendations on energy efficiency.

"The public service had also asked a professional firm to do a risk assessment of the whole Home Insulation Program before proceeding," he said.

Mr Rudd's previously censored statement to the commission was released today, after the Commonwealth agreed to allow the airing of Cabinet discussions.

The decision is legally historic, breaking the 113-year-old Cabinet-in-confidence convention and allowing the former prime minister to give uncensored evidence at the inquiry in Brisbane.

In his written statement, Mr Rudd said he was repeatedly told the national insulation roll-out was "on track", even after several workplace deaths.

He said Cabinet considered analysis of the scheme in October 2009, and no major risks were raised.

The next day, the first of four installers, Matthew Fuller, was killed on the job.

During questioning by lawyers representing families of the men killed, Mr Rudd addressed their desire for answers.

"I think your clients have a right to feel confused, angry, let down, by a system which ultimately did not perform," he said.

The former prime minister said Cabinet received regular reports from the bureaucracy that were "specifically designed to alert ministers to any programs going off the rails".

Mr Rudd said eight of these reports found no problems with the energy efficiency program, including the insulation scheme, saying it was "on track".

He said problems were not identified until around the time of the fourth worksite death.  He said the program could have been delayed if public servants had raised safety issues.

"Had a delay been requested of Cabinet on safety grounds, I have no doubt ministers would have granted it immediately," he said in his statement.

"The reaction would have been: 'Hang on here, if there is a problem we need to really look at this'," he told the inquiry.

Mr Rudd has been "stood aside" as a witness, leaving open the possibility for lawyers to pose further questions. He will be able to reply in writing or via videolink.


Budget 2014: First home buyers savings scheme axed, funds released to account holders

The Federal Government has taken the axe to a generous Rudd-era savings scheme for first home buyers, but will lift restrictions on the ability for account holders to access their money.

The Government says it will save $134.3 million over five years by abolishing First Home Savers Accounts, which were introduced in 2008 to help first home buyers save.

They offered tax concessions, high interest rates and government contributions.

Before the accounts are abolished, at the start of July next year, the scheme will be wound down.

Eligibility for the 17 per cent government contribution will stop from the start of July this year.

First Home Savers Account holders were only able to access their funds after four years, and only for the purchase of a first home, to put towards an approved mortgage or to contribute to their superannuation.

But as of July 2015, they will be able to withdraw their funds without such restrictions.

The accounts were initially offered by two of the big four banks, ANZ and the Commonwealth Bank, as well as a number of credit unions.  But the Commonwealth Bank eventually ditched them.

It is understood there was a lack of take-up from customers, with savers put off by being unable to access their funds for four years.

Unveiling the scheme in 2008, then-treasurer Wayne Swan predicted the accounts would hold $4 billion after four years.  But statistics from the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority show in the December quarter, just $521.5 million was held in 46,000 accounts.


Irukandji 'forecast' may soon warn Australian swimmers about presence of deadly stingers

Swimmers afraid of the potentially fatal sting of the irukandji jellyfish may soon be able to dive into the ocean with confidence thanks to a study from CSIRO and University of Queensland researchers.

The scientists have studied historical accounts of weather conditions at the time of stings and believe they have determined which conditions drive outbreaks of the tiny, transparent marine stinger.

The knowledge could lead to an irukandji forecast for swimmers, available days in advance.

Report co-author Dr Scott Condie said along the Queensland coast, stings were more common when south-easterly trade winds dropped off.

"There's some clear mechanisms by which the jellyfish could be carried onshore under these conditions," he said.

"Most of the time when the trade winds are blowing, it's going to be pretty difficult for them to get onshore, and they probably don't like those conditions anyway.

"As it becomes calm, there's some onshore flow, which might carry [the irukandji] into where swimmers are likely to be."

The researchers were alerted to the possible link between an absence of south-easterlies and the presence of irukandji by local surf lifesavers, who noticed that stings seemed more common on calmer days.

The so-called stinger season runs from November to March, with irukandji found in the tropical waters of Northern Queensland, and all over Northern Territory and Western Australia.

Stings cause pain, headaches, vomiting and sweating. Some patients require life support and a significant number experience recurring symptoms.  As many as 100 people a year are hospitalised with irukandji stings each year.

The scientists note that fear of the jellyfish can cause significant damage to the Australian tourism industry with an estimated US$65 million in lost revenue following two irukandji fatalities on the Great Barrier Reef in 2002.

"We anticipate our findings will lead to the development of technologies for delivery of improved public and occupational safety objectives, e.g. making forecasts publicly available via the web, radio, SMS or smartphone apps," wrote the authors in the paper, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.


Eastman inquiry: evidence finishes with opposing calls for action on murder conviction

Eastman is a bit of an oddball but he was convicted on nothing more than supposition and bad forensic science.  The cop was involved in a deal with the Riverina mafia which fell apart.  So it was probably the mafia that potted him.  The cops didn't want that to become known however so they fitted up poor silly old Eastman for the crime.  There has always been extensive disquiet about his conviction

The Eastman inquiry has ended, amid calls for his murder charge to be quashed and a miscarriage of justice declared.

The inquiry has been considering the conviction of David Harold Eastman for the murder of Australian Federal Police (AFP) Assistant Commissioner Colin Winchester in 1989.

Inquiry head Justice Brian Martin will now prepare a report for the Supreme Court, which will have the final say.

In his final submissions Eastman's lawyer Mark Griffin QC urged Justice Martin to take a strong line in his recommendations.

"The fact is there have been significant failures that cannot be excused," he said.

"To let the (conviction) stand is to countenance a gross miscarriage of justice."

"You can make a report to the full court which corrects the record."

"You can make a conclusive finding that there was a miscarriage so the defects, flaws and failures... can be remedied."

Forensic case against Eastman put in doubt by inquiry

The most important development in the inquiry was the systematic demolition of the forensic case which was key to his conviction.

Forensic scientist Robert Collins Barnes was forced to admit he may have misled earlier hearings about some of the evidence.

His methods and record keeping were also roundly criticised.

In her summing up, counsel assisting the inquiry Liesl Chapman said: "The opinions he expressed at trial were seriously flawed and there is a question about his reliability and veracity."

Mr Griffin urged Justice Martin to deliver an adverse finding about Mr Barnes, as well as police and prosecutors in the case.

He also raised concerns about police tactics, which involved listening devices to record Eastman talking to himself at home.

"You should reflect your disapproval of that conduct ... there needs to be some admonition," Mr Griffin said.

But lawyers for the DPP and police told the inquiry even without the forensic evidence the guilty verdict was supported by an overwhelming circumstantial case.

AFP counsel Lionel Robberds outlined that case.

Eastman had been a suspect because he had made threats against Assistant Commissioner Winchester, after he had failed to secure his help in having an assault charge dropped.

Eastman believed the police should not have charged him, but should have charged the other man involved.

Mr Robberds said Eastman had increasing frustration over his failure to be reinstated in the public service.

David Eastman's legal battle timeline

"He knew the case was going to ruin him for life," he said.  "If it went ahead and he was convicted that would be the end of it all."

He said one witness had suggested he had stalked the premises where the crime took place.

And, Mr Robberds told the hearing, despite being one of the most intelligent people on this earth, "In less than 12 hours, he said he did not remember where he was."

Mr Griffin also raised concerns that police should have considered the alternative theory that mafia figures were involved in the killing.  He told the court today there was a body of evidence suggesting some mafia figures had a strong motive for the murder.

He says that theory is a counterbalance to the prosecutions circumstantial case.

In her summing up, Ms Chapman told the hearing she disagreed with police that they had done a thorough investigation of the alternative hypotheses.  The inquiry has considered some of the mafia evidence in secret.

Among the issues Justice Martin must now consider is whether the collapse of the forensic case justifies a miscarriage of justice finding.

He will also be considering whether there should be a retrial.

Mr Griffin has urged against that idea.  "The prospect of there being a retrial is just so remote as to not be feasible. The prejudice in conducting a retrial would be extreme," he said.

Judge thanks Eastman for his good behaviour during inquiry

Justice Martin wrapped up today's hearing with a personal message to Eastman who has been watching the inquiry from a room at Canberra's jail.  He thanked him for not interrupting.  He also acknowledged Eastman's troubled history with losing confidence in his lawyers and sacking them.

Justice Martin told Eastman he had been very lucky to have Mr Griffin to represent him.

The Supreme Court will decide the final outcome of the inquiry based on recommendations from Justice Martin.

But it may still all be academic.

The court is still considering a challenge to the inquiry's establishment.

Mr Barnes has asked Justice Martin to delay handing his report to the court until that ruling is delivered.  Justice Martin says he is still considering the request.

It is not known when there will be a decision on that or the future of Justice Martin's report.


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