15 March 2010

HSA delay - Volume Four

Wednesday saw Senator Penny Wong, now the Minister in charge of the stagnant Green Loans Program, on her third day on the job. As is par for the course, though, the afternoon was less about what was said that was left unsaid.

Read the relevant pages from Senate Hansard here. More analysis after the jump.

To some degree, I sympathise with Senator Wong: nobody would be envious of taking a job that is proving as troublesome as this one. Her address to the Senate was candid but predictable: she cited a number of exact figures about which most of us had merely speculated, and she lamented the program's dire performance under DEWHA before it was moved to the newly-formed DCCEE (Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency), but much of this we already knew.

However, some of her statements were more courageous and more telling. She revealed that the $50 Green Rewards Card - to be left with the householder in anticipation of the larger Green Loan - never got off the ground. With nearly a year passed and over 200,000 assessments completed, not one of these cards has been issued. With the loans no longer available, this is just one more setback for the clients, and one less reason to have an assessment done. Senator Wong also acknowledged not only the "unacceptable" delays in returning assessment reports to clients, but also the possible link between this tardiness and the perceived lack of popularity of the Green Loans.

What was notable by its absence, though, was a sense of conviction to solving the problem. Senator Wong cited figures of some 9300 trained assessors, 4000 of whom are practising HSAs today, but with no more than 1000 additional contracts still up for grabs. "It is a hard fact," said Senator Wong, "that there are going to be people who are accredited who will not be contracted under the program." There is hardly a sense, though, that anyone knows how the remaining contractors will be selected, or what will become of those who don't make the cut. (This is a question that I intend to raise with ABSA during their on-line seminar on 22 March.)

It's too easy, surely, to be harsh on Senator Wong for stepping into the job on Monday and not having solved a year's worth of problems by Wednesday afternoon. That said, it's been nearly a month since Mr Garrett, formerly in charge of the Green Loans Program, announced sweeping changes to the program, prompting a raft of questions to which we are still waiting for answers. I do not believe for a second that either Mr Garrett or Senator Wong knows any less, or found out any later, than we do among the general public; yet, they can't shake the appearance of being two steps behind. A number of reviews are under way, one of which is in the hands of the Auditor-General; these may tell us more, but perhaps not for months, by which time we may have found out for ourselves exactly how badly this has really gone.

Senator Wong's address garnered two immediate and impassioned responses from the Senate floor. Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham was ruthless in his cynicism, describing Senator Wong's candour as "a full confessional", "like something out of The Hollowmen". He asked pointedly about my aforementioned concern for those involved in the GLP who do not have contracts, and relayed his own experiences seeking a financial institution that still offers a Green Loan. (To those still waiting for approval on such a loan before the deadline on 22 March, I offer my condolences.)

Greens Senator Christine Milne followed suit with questions of her own. She reiterated the regular warnings from ABSA, some from as early as August last year, that there were already plenty of assessors long before the training moratorium was announced in November. She revealed that there were in fact five companies with special arrangements for booking assessments; we are all aware of Fieldforce by now, but I am trying find out about the other four. As she bluntly stated on Wednesday, "the community expects a few answers". Senator Milne offered a separate statement later in the day, writing in a slightly more diplomatic tone but still pressing the same questions from that afternoon.

Later in the day, Senator Wong met with ABSA representatives to discuss the next move. Sadly, they didn't have as much time as they had hoped, though there is another meeting scheduled for next week. ABSA released a statement calling for a "reset" to the GLP, and announced a discussion paper entitled A Future For Greener Homes about keeping the industry viable and supporting members who may be unable to find work. This document is not yet available generally, but with ever louder calls for compensation - and rumours starting to circulate of an imminent announcement on this front - this might happen sooner rather than later.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Meanwhile, we are still counting the great human cost of this story.

On Tuesday, 9 March 2010, ABC's The Drum: Unleashed published a frank and succinct account by self-proclaimed "green non-entity" Gary Lord, who relays his own harrowing experiences in trying to become an assessor. It's a worthwhile and very down-to-earth read, and one that makes me not the least bit bitter that the ABC didn't publish my own article on the topic. The comments are likewise strewn with the remains of decent people preparing for a career that they are now all but thwarted from fulfilling.

Even more recently, on 14 March 2010, Adelaide's Sunday Mail told two stories of HSAs who have fallen by the wayside. One is of an entrepreneur, now up to her eyeballs in debt, and unable to secure the labour to pay it back, because of assumptions that only became false three weeks ago. The other is of a young man expecting a job that will never come, and of his partner expecting a child that will come all too soon. Unlike Gary Lord, who has resorted to living off credit, this young couple is struggling to live off charity. Those of you keeping count of HSAs whose careers lie in ruin through no fault of their own, add three more tally marks to your page. The article closes with independent Senator Nick Xenophon joining the call for compensation to those who have been stopped short of being able to join the green-collar workforce.

Fortunately for those of us aggrieved by the scheme, there are a number of grassroots initiatives to help us band together. In the footsteps of Sustainability Assessors Australia's request for interest in a class-action lawsuit, another group called Green Loans Money Back is hoping to make a difference without resorting to legal action. (Note that SAA isn't imposing involvement in a lawsuit on anyone interested in signing up. Similarly, GLMB isn't ruling out a lawsuit but would prefer to avoid it. We're all more interested in networking at the moment.) Here in South Australia, there is brewing a large proportion of dissatisfied HSAs who are forming a lobby group to support local members; their web site is still all business, but there is some coverage of their activities on Twitter.

You can see the interest is swelling, and you can see that the dissatisfaction is motivating a lot of us to take action. One thing that is missing, so far, is the co-ordination between these groups - but that will come, since the groups' memberships have a certain amount of crossover already. Personally, I am hoping for some form of national network (SAA, for example) to connect the efforts made by the groups that are sprouting in local communities. Numbers are growing slowly but steadily in each splinter group, but if we are to have a real influence in this industry, we will need solidarity in the not-too-distant future.

We have a plan to get it, too. Watch this space.

*  *  *  *  *  *

As for Senator Wong, I can only hope for her sake that the next three months will not be as much of a trial by fire as these first three days have been. Much of that is up to her, of course. She is fielding questions from all directions on this topic, and certainly, she must seek answers to them as we have been. That said, hers is the position of authority, as well as responsibility, to demand the answers that the public deserves. It will be a month, and a telling month for sure, before the Auditor-General has finished his own (ahem) assessment of the GLP.

I'm sure that the Labor government is determined to look forward instead of backwards on this matter, and most pleased with themselves for doing do. We have many unanswered questions to deal with now, but it doesn't mean that the circumstances under which we arrived at this point are no longer important. However, the discontinuity between Mr Garrett's removal and Senator Wong's appointment will likely mean that the questions of the past will never be answered. If we are to take any indication from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's refusal today to release correspondence relating to the similarly failed insulation scheme - which is linked to four deaths and 100 house fires - we might just have our work cut out for us. It hasn't stopped me asking yet, though, and thankfully, there are a few like-minded and equally-determined senators to keep me inspired.

What I really want, though, is to see a successful green-collar industry in Australia. I hope that people do not misread this about me. As the GLP began to unravel before my very eyes, my greatest fear was that support for the emergence of such an industry would turn into a political taboo, a setback for years to come. Whether I am a part of that industry from the outset or not is now a secondary concern; I want it to succeed for all of us. However, that means taking it seriously, getting it right this time, and setting a good example for future projects. I'm far too cynical to believe that this aspiration to quality has merely been neglected or forgotten.

In any case, could we all just dispense with the five-assessments-per-week furphy? There can only be 15000 assessments performed every week, and there are already 4000 practising assessors. You can do a maximum of five jobs a week, but the average assessor does fewer than four. With another thousand HSA contracts up for grabs, that number will drop to three. Perhaps I shouldn't try to speak for the quite separate plight of those assessors who are actually working - but at least I can talk about it for what it really is. Let us see if our minister can do likewise.

No comments: