Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Batty Country: We’re all looking for an easy way*

Environment Minister Peter Garrett doesn’t wanna be the one. His present Insulation-gate predicament is a nasty media beat-up, in my opinion (below), but then again, it is plain that Garrett’s best work, and federal Labor governments, do not mix. Midnight Oil’s discography goes into qualitative inexorable decline with the election of the Hawke Labor government in 1983, barring 1987’s exceptional Diesel and Dust, clearly inspired by a tour the band made of the Western Desert in 1986 (the Oils also toured Arnhem Land at this time, (Andrew McMillan, Strict Rules (1988)), but any resultant inspiration is opaque).

So who should be blamed for the electrocution deaths of three young men (one actually a 16 y.o. boy), and the heat-stress death of a fourth? Well, given all four deaths happened in a Queensland (correction 23/02/10: the employee who died of heat-stress was working in Sydney, NSW) workplace, and that all four men were employees (AFAICT), how about laying primary blame on their employers, and secondary blame on the Queensland workplace-safety system?

The media have been remiss in ignoring the latter, especially given that Blind Freddy would know that retro-fitting ceiling insulation – think confined, unventilated spaces and bulky, toxic (fibreglass) and/or electricity-conducting (foil) work products – is that rare thing in the modern age, a classic Dickensian job for this generation’s young neo-chimney sweeps. Plainly, far too colourful an image to even be entertained. At the other end of this story is the hard-science (and –economics, and –OH&S), what-if angle: If instead the subsidy had gone to beefing up the energy-efficiency of new homes (only), such as by encouraging optimal orientation and eaves, such a scheme would have been inherently much safer and harder to rort. But it’s probably un-Australian to even think about such an alternative.

The media, and Workplace Health and Safety Queensland, have also been strangely reticent in naming the companies that employed the dead men, never mind the individuals behind these companies. Last Saturday’s Oz is typical:

“[Mitchell Sweeney’s] employer, a company set up by two 20-something men in September, who have refused to comment on the matter, has been kicked out of the government's rebate scheme.”

Evidently, Mitchell Sweeney’s employer was one of the 7,000 odd (from a pre-scheme 250 (ABC TV 7pm news, 15 February 2010, video excerpt) to 7,300, which is almost a 2,000% increase) companies hastily set up to profit from the generous federal government subsidy scheme that Garrett has supervised since its inception. Again, Blind Freddy could tell much just from these plague-proportion and contagion-speed numbers – but if you’re still not convinced, then I suggest that the thousands of two-bit, overseas-student visa-shops (sorry, private colleges) in Australia provides a concrete business model, if not an actual blueprint for the insulation shonks.

In both cases, there is a messy state-federal regulatory overlap, and customers inherently unlikely to complain about the usually sub-standard quality of their (nominal, in the case of overseas students) product/service. The reasons why overseas students usually won’t complain about their classroom content are obvious, but as to why, with apparently 1,000 house fires (same URL) likely to be forthcoming, Australian consumers aren’t (also) screaming blue murder, puzzles me. I suspect that there is something in the Australian character which, when a product/service is “free” (as insulation under the Garrett scheme is, although obviously it is ultimately paid for by taxpayers), simply shrugs at a slapdash result.

Not one of the 7,000 odd brand-new insulation companies is the 30-years-in-business Arrow Property Maintenance, the employer of 16 y.o. Rueben Barnes when he was killed on the job. Nonetheless, this death was all Peter Garrett’s fault, according to Arrow Property Maintenance director, Chris Jackson.

Named, but not quoted on Peter Garrett’s culpability was licensed electrician Ben McKay, of Big C Electrical (now called QHI Installations Pty Ltd), as sub-contractor to Countrywide Insulation, the employer of Matthew Fuller when he was killed on the job.

Garrett’s biggest omissions, in hindsight, are not to: (i) have banned foil insulation products from the scheme, and (ii) have made training for all insulation installers (not just supervisors) compulsory, until last week (Feb 9 and 12, respectively). These omissions hardly amount to industrial manslaughter, though. This story does have a pointy end, and it is about time that the media sharpened their weapons and focused their targets.

* Lyric from Midnight Oil, “Lucky Country”, Place Without a Postcard (1981)

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