March 8, 2010 10:10 pm

The lessons from Australia’s house fires

Britain and America need to avoid repeating obvious mistakes

One of the curiosities of travelling from the UK to Australia is that you spend more than 24 hours flying over evermore remote and exotic locations only to emerge, exhausted and aching, in a place so immediately familiar. The similarities are everywhere: the cricket grounds, the striped school blazers, the newspaper worries about knife crime.

As the jet lag fades and the sun warms the bones, the differences emerge. Australian rules football, for example, is energetic, thrilling and utterly baffling. (My favourite bit is when the match official stands with his back to the players and throws the ball high over his head.)

Then there is the language. It is not true that Britain and America are two countries divided by a common tongue. So pervasive are US films and television programmes that Americanisms cross the Atlantic within days. It is Australian English that truly puzzles. For example, do you blame the shonky operators for the bodgie installations or is the whole thing a furphy?

“Shonky” means unreliable or dishonest, “bodgie” is worthless and a “furphy” is a false story, as I discovered while reading the Australian press, parliamentary debates and the record of a Senate inquiry into the home insulation scandal that is rocking Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Labor administration.

The insulation programme was part of the Australian government’s stimulus package. It offered households up to A$1,600 ($1,460, €1,070, £970) to insulate their homes, thereby achieving the triple win of stabilising the economy, reducing emissions from heating and air conditioning, and providing jobs for unemployed construction workers.

On one level, the programme has been a huge success, insulating more than 1m homes in a year, compared with the usual figure of 70,000. The problem is that much of the work has been substandard. Some installers laid insulation over the tops of ceiling lights and some drove metal staples into electric cables. As a result, critics say, there have been 93 house fires and four installation workers have been killed. Tony Abbott, the opposition leader, alleges that 48,000 homes could now have “live” roofs, waiting to electrocute anyone who climbs into them.

One insulation industry official told the Australian Senate inquiry that the scheme had been “a train wreck”. The government has now suspended the programme and Mr Rudd has stripped the environment minister, former rock star Peter Garrett, of his energy efficiency responsibilities.

The affair has attracted little attention outside Australia, which is odd because the US and UK are embarking on home insulation schemes of their own and you would think people would want assurance that their governments will avoid the pitfalls. There are also wider lessons.

As so often, some of the mistakes are so obvious that you wonder how anyone could have made them. The principal problem was that the Australian insulation business was largely unregulated. As the programme took off, inexperienced installers started offering insulation by knocking on people’s doors. The government was forced to introduce safety and training rules as it went along. Critics say the government was advised by the industry to postpone the start of the programme until proper procedures were in place but ignored the warnings.

There is a second lesson, for both government and business. Accidents happen every day. But when news organisations and politicians can group them together, ascribe a cause and blame them on someone, public tolerance for risk disappears.

Mr Rudd made an attempt to point out that the fires and deaths were nothing out of the ordinary – indeed, the government’s insulation programme had actually improved safety standards. He said that in 2008, before the scheme had been introduced, there were 83 insulation-related house fires. In other words, the 14-fold increase in home insulation had produced just 10 more fires.

As for the four installers who had died, he said that while any industrial death was one too many, there were 138,000 serious workplace accidents each year. Others pointed out that one of the workers died using metal staples after the government had banned them and another died of heat exhaustion.

Mr Rudd was wasting his breath. When the public can put names and faces to the dead, the only response is remorse. Any attempt to discuss how rare these incidents are looks callous. It may be unfair, but that is modern life.

There is a final lesson. The subsidy meant that Australians could get their insulation free. Regulation is all very well, but it cannot cover every eventuality. The more people pay for their goods and services the more likely they are to inquire into the competence of the providers.
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