Kevin Rudd has shifted responsibility for his government’s disastrous batts scheme to the federal public service, revealing bureaucrats devised the flawed program and its rushed deadline.
The former prime minister’s redacted statement to the royal commission investigating his government’s $2.8 billion Home Insulation Program reveals for the first time Mr Rudd’s account of the scheme, which was axed in February 2010 after four deaths and 224 house fires.
While large slabs of his evidence have been censored by commonwealth lawyers to protect cabinet secrecy, the 31-page document is still revealing of his relationships with the public service and his one-time colleagues Mark Arbib and Peter Garrett.
Mr Rudd has launched an extraordinary bid to overthrow the doctrine of cabinet secrecy and reveal every detail of his involvement in the insulation scheme.
In a move unprecedented in Australian legal history, Mr Rudd’s legal team demanded royal commissioner Ian Hanger QC effectively fling open the cabinet room doors and allow the former prime minister to tell the entire truth of the stricken program.
Commonwealth barrister Tom Howe QC urged Mr Hanger to preserve the secrecy of cabinet.
Mr Hanger will make a ruling today on whether to release Mr Rudd’s entire, unredacted, statement.
In it, Mr Rudd reveals the program was not recommended by ministers, but by the public service itself. He hits back at suggestions the scheme was hurriedly drafted by bureaucrats in one January 2009 long weekend at his direction, or the direction of his department.
Mr Rudd also refutes the suggestion he drove an unreasonable and rushed timetable for the scheme, by announcing a July 1, 2009, rollout date when he launched the scheme on February 3 that year.
“The 1 July commencement date for the full program was part of the original recommendation from the public service,” Mr Rudd said.
Acknowledging the deaths of four young, inexperienced installers working under the scheme, Mr Rudd said that any industrial fatality was one too many.
“No one can pretend to know the depths of pain and loss of a deeply loved family member, particularly a young son or daughter, who is killed in a workplace accident,’’ he said. “And that applies to the families of the four young men who died in these workplace accidents as well. If either of my sons were killed in industrial accidents of this nature, my feelings would have been the same as theirs, including wanting to know how these deaths occurred and how they could have been prevented.”
Mr Rudd said while he chaired cabinet, that body “collectively approved” the public service’s program and “at that point assumed collective ministerial responsibility”.
He gives an insight into the intensely busy cabinet process, revealing the body handled more than 1000 cabinet submissions between 2007 and 2010. For much of 2009, he said, his government was dealing with “multiple and major” financial and economic challenges, aiming to “do everything possible to avoid a second depression”.
He described Mr Arbib as a “highly competent, highly effective individual”, and said that was why he appointed him to oversee the implementation of the government’s stimulus program. However, he revealed that at the end of 2009, his relationship with Mr Arbib broke down about other political and policy matters.
Mr Rudd insists that when recommendations to improve safety were made, they were accepted speedily through cabinet or through correspondence with then environment minister Peter Garrett.
“Nonetheless, despite all of the above, four innocent lives were lost in horrendous workplace accidents,” he said.
Mr Rudd said the program was one of hundreds of federal economic stimulus programs rolled out by the federal government in its $42bn economic stimulus plan to combat the global financial crisis, employing tens of thousands of people across Australia.
In each of those programs, the government expected all state and federal laws would be adhered to. “No ministerial decision ever overrides these laws,” he said. “Nonetheless, the lesson from this program is that one or more stages of this multiple level oversight process failed and the costs have been principally borne by four grieving families.”