A Royal Commission without a mission?

Should the Royal Commission into home insulation be all about Tony Abbott's 'industrial manslaughter' charge, it could spend a lot of time covering old ground.

Royal Commissions don’t come cheap. Lawyers and, particularly, Queen's Counsels each individually chew up hundreds of dollars per hour. We can expect the government’s Royal Commission into the home insulation rebate scheme will easily consume several million dollars in taxpayers' money.

One hopes that this is a genuine effort by the government to learn and improve government processes and regulation, rather than a very expensive attempt by the Coalition to gain political advantage from personal tragedy.

The thing is that there have already been numerous investigations into problems associated with the Rudd Labor Government’s home insulation rebate program. These include the following:

  1. A Senate Inquiry which reported in July 2010;
  2. Allan Hawke’s  Review of the Administration of the Home Insulation Program, which reported in April 2010;
  3. The Australian National Audit Office’s performance audit of the insulation program, which reported in October 2010;
  4. The NSW State Coroner’s inquest into the death of Marcus Wilson, which reported in October 2012;
  5. The Queensland State Coroner’s Inquest into the deaths of Matthew Fuller, Rueben Barnes and Mitchell Sweeney, which reported in July 2013;
  6. The CSIRO’s safety risk evaluation of the program, which reported in April 2011;
  7. The Insulation Advisory Panel report by Tony Arnel, Ron Silverberg and Peter Tighe.

From a layman’s reading of the terms of reference it appears pretty clear the government wants the Royal Commission to be very focused on the prior Labor Government’s responsibility for the deaths of the four men who died while installing insulation: Wilson, Fuller, Barnes and Sweeney. 

Yet based on the wealth of information contained within the prior investigations you don’t need a Royal Commission to find this out.

The answer is that the government was warned of risks associated with insulation installation which, with the benefit of hindsight, they should have responded to sooner. The government is not blameless. 

But when you look at the entire circumstances surrounding the program you come to appreciate the issues are complex with many shades of grey. Abbott’s accusation that former Environment Minister Peter Garrett “would be charged with industrial manslaughter” tends to grate against this messy reality.

In particular, the cases of the deaths of Wilson and Sweeney serve to illuminate some of the complexities of this issue. In these two cases, the government had actually clearly responded to warnings and sought to mitigate them. 

I wrote a few months ago about the circumstances of Mitchell Sweeney who died from electrocution. Sweeney accidently put a metal staple through an electric wire sitting underneath the foil insulation, electrifying it and killing him. After the earlier death of Matthew Fuller in exactly the same circumstances, the government had banned the use of metal staples. Sweeney had not only been warned of the risk of electrocution, he had been told to not use metal staples by his employer and had also been provided with a plastic fixings stapler, which he was instructed to use. He was also instructed about switching off power to the house.

In spite of this, Mitchell chose to use metal staples and did not attempt to switch off the power supply.

Marcus Wilson died from heatstroke after being involved in installing insulation in a western Sydney home on a 42 degree day on November 21, 2009. He was filling in for a friend on that day and was not acclimatised to working in very hot conditions. Tragically the coroner noted:

Marcus Wilson’s habit of drinking Coca-Cola … made him vulnerable to dehydration and hyperthermia in the very high temperatures he experienced … Attempting to rehydrate by drinking Coca-Cola would have had a counterproductive effect [because of its caffeine and high sugar content] but he was clearly unaware of this.”

At the same time his co-worker, Collin Cini, had only been given cursory training in workplace safety and did not recognise that Wilson was suffering from severe heat stress even when he noticed Wilson was extremely flushed, had started talking to himself and seemed agitated.

The thing is that a few weeks earlier, the federal government department running the insulation program sent a specific warning about the dangers of heat stress to the firm (Pride Building NSW) that had employed Wilson and Cini – a warning that was ignored.

In surveying the evidence surrounding the death of Wilson, the coroner noted:

"It is against that background that compelling evidence given by Mr Cini that Pride, through its managing director Mr Ryan Glover, was a very demanding employer must be considered. Mr Cini gave evidence that on a number of occasions he was told by Mr Glover 'If you don’t do the job, you don’t have a job'. Long hours or other arduous conditions appeared to make little difference to Mr Glover’s attitude in this respect.

"This claim was corroborated by the evidence of Mr Alan Lawson ... He said that he had passed on his experience from working in the roofing trade to others at Pride, including a rule of thumb that they should not work in temperatures higher than 32 degrees. He conceded, however, that the company had no such rule or practice and that Mr Glover expected jobs to be completed even in hot weather."

The coroner concluded:

"The lack of any standard procedures for ensuring mindfulness of safety on very hot days (an obvious issue for insulators working in Australia) exemplified Pride’s casual approach to serious health and safety issues...

And:

"Given that Pride’s management placed so little practical emphasis on safety, anyone working for it (directly or indirectly) was potentially placed at risk … employers who emphasise profit and 'getting the job done' to the detriment of the safety of its workforce will only avoid serious accidents and incidents by good luck. They are accidents waiting to happen."

Tomorrow I’d like to explore some of the mistakes the government made in implementing the insulation rebate program.  For example, allowing the use of foil insulation had a part to play in Sweeney’s death. Also, the speed and generosity of the rebate program encouraged participation by inexperienced and often irresponsible employers similar to Pride Building NSW. 

But the stories above illustrate that if this is a Royal Commission solely focused on pinning Rudd and Garrett with “industrial manslaughter”, we aren’t likely to get much benefit from our taxpayers dollars.

*EDIS: No silver bullet in an insulation maze, December 17

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