06 July 2010

HSA delay - Volume Eight: from the Senate Inquiry

I was in Sydney on Tuesday, 29 June 2010, to give evidence to the ongoing Senate Inquiry into the Green Loans Program. It was an interesting day, certainly, but it was exactly as much fun as it sounds.

A proof transcript is available online here.

In my all-too-brief few minutes in front of the Committee, I mainly spoke about the plight of those accredited Home Sustainability Assessors who never got contracts to commence work. I have to tip my hat to a very good friend of mine - herself an uncontracted assessor, just as I am - who convinced me to go at what was almost literally the last minute. It proved to more important for me to be there than I had initially realised, since the issue of 5000 trainees was merely a tangent to proceedings for most of the day; if I hadn't gone, we might not have gotten a mention at all. Being a minority is even tougher when you know there are more of you.

The hearing produced some alarming revelations. It was by far the most detailed account of the GLACO saga that I'd yet heard, and a case for compensation that's perhaps more compelling even than the one I'm trying to make. A consortium of over 50 assessors who worked for GLACO before its collapse are claiming over $500,000 in unpaid invoices. It's worth a read, since it captures the hardship caused by not only the laissez-faire oversight of the Green Loans Program before 19 February but by Mr Garrett's heavy-handed knee-jerk reaction as well. Of course, it's also a lesson in having a media-friendly sound bite that works a bit too well: NineMSN and The Sydney Morning Herald couldn't resist running with the quote that the lack of checks and balances "attract[ed] every shark and shonk in Australia" (ECA 13), but ABC at least dug a little deeper on The Drum.

It hardly got better after that. Remember how DEWHA promised assessors an on-line booking system? Remember how Fieldforce ended up with one when no-one else did? It's not surprising that Fieldforce developed this system themselves. However, it turns out that they offered to licence it to DEWHA free of charge back in December - just before the Green Loans phone system went into meltdown. DEWHA never made a decision about what to do with this, so Fieldforce continued to use it until February, and everyone else missed out.

The issue of the excessive assessor numbers was just as startling. Here's an exchange between Senator Simon Birmingham and ABSA CEO Alison Carmichael about the thousands of applications that showed up on the doorstep almost overnight (emphasis mine):
Sen. Birmingham: To be clear on the issue of the number of assessors: the government never set an actual cap in their agreement with you?
Ms Carmichael: That is correct.
Sen. Birmingham: Equally, the government never made it clear to you that it was unlimited or that you were not able to cap?
Ms Carmichael: When we were having conversations through the period of August to October of 2009, they certainly said there would be no cap. When we got so few withdrawals in January, before we started to take the payments I rang a senior departmental official and said: ‘We’ve got all these sitting here. If I take their payments, will you honour their contracts?’ They said yes. It was 10 days later that we had the first announcement from Minister Garrett. [ECA 63]
Allow me to indulge in a bit of personal background here. I know people who smoke. I tell them that it's bad for your health, even though I'm sure they already know, but it never seems to be enough for them to put the cigarette out. However, I can mockingly gloat for the rest of the day that I tried to help someone quit smoking. You'd be surprised how many people in government circles get the joke: you often hear how people have tried, but you always wonder how much of an effort they really made.

That ABSA warned the government well in advance about having too many assessors is not news, but the effort they made has only now been known publicly. It's a tale whose veracity I had always questioned, but the above passage (along with a few others like it) has put my cynicism to rest. I get the impression that even our professional body, purportedly our front line of representation with the government, must have felt at times like a voice echoing in the wilderness. Don't worry; I also know how hard it is to speak when you're not sure if anybody's listening.

In fact, ABSA's obvious frustration fits two patterns established throughout the hearing. Firstly, DEWHA received plenty of advice, with plenty of advance warning, and simply didn't bother to take it. DEWHA's decisions, however necessary, were either not convincing, not timely, or not made at all - sometimes in combination. Secondly, DEWHA's communications with interested parties were, to be as fair as I can, appallingly inadequate. Disappointment towards poor decision-making is one thing, but for committed parties to learn of the outcomes after the fact, and by way of media releases at that, just isn't good enough. (Incidentally, little has improved on this front with the Program's shift to DCCEE.)

Of course, the hearing has left a few questions unanswered.

I do take issue with ABSA's stance on its uncontracted members. Ms Carmichael did state on Tuesday that she would prefer its members to be working than to escape with compensation [ECA 62,71]. While understandable, it's perhaps unrealistic, since regardless of whether lapsed assessors (or "sleepers") relinquish their contracts, or how the remaining contracts are apportioned, there is simply no way to fit over 9000 trainees into 5000 part-time jobs. That said, ABSA has at least given its uncontracted members the option of a partial refund of last year's membership fees. It sets a good example, although not everyone thinks ABSA membership has been worth the $220 they plan to retain, let alone the $660 in total (particularly those without contracts). It also doesn't preclude DCCEE from using non-membership as an excuse not to talk to us - if, indeed, they say anything at all.

Besides, I'm not at all certain that 5000 assessors is the right number to have. How did we go from a preliminary estimate of between 800 and 2000 assessors to an argument about how we increase the numbers to 5000? I estimate, based on ABSA's member survey in April (and subsequently ABSA's submission to the Inquiry), that between 2500 and 3000 or the 4410 contractors are still working. Whatever the true figure, the workforce is only performing about 9000-10000 assessments each week; this will see all funding for the Program exhausted in early 2011, probably before Mandatory Disclosure is due to take effect in May. Furthermore, if 5000 is the right number of assessors, then 15000 is definitely not the right number of assessments; three bookings a week at $200 each hardly make for a viable salary. Assessors are already struggling, and adding more contractors will only dilute the job market further.

(As an aside, it's hard to see how any of these numbers of assessors could have kept the Program running for four years. Initially, there were going to be 1000 assessors and 360,000 assessments. For the arithmetically-challenged, that's 360 assessments apiece over four years, or less than two jobs a week. The new figure of 960,000 assessments is much more like it, but by the time that increase was announced, there were over 3800 assessors contracts, which more than offset the increase in the funding for assessments.)

Perhaps the biggest question is still unasked: what will become of the data that is being collected? This time next year, DCCEE will have amassed a database containing the property dimensions, building materials, and household water and energy use of nearly one in ten private residential properties around the country. What will happen to that data? Will it be retained, and for how long? Who will have access to it, and for what? And will this continue at a state level when Mandatory Disclosure comes into effect? Admittedly, I love a good conspiracy theory, but given the apathy with which DEWHA and DCCEE have managed the Green Loans Program so far, it's hard to imagine anyone thinking that far ahead.

*  *  *  *  *  *

None of this looks especially good for the government, but that doesn't mean it will budge any time soon, at least of its own accord. So far, it has said very little, thanks to its insistence on waiting for the report of an inquiry before it answers the questions needed to complete said report. If it can't see its own obvious circular logic, it's unlikely to see the problems it has both originally caused and more recently exacerbated - which are, if anything, even more obvious. It's up to us to keep the pressure on.

Fortunately, there is hope. I am putting together a claim for compensation specifically for uncontracted assessors. The intention is to have a form, to be distributed freely, that an uncontracted assessor can simply send on its way with little more than a signature and a stamp. Not surprisingly, this was inspired by the staunch resistance of the GLACO assessors (particularly Leanne and Vicky, who spoke at the hearing), but they are sympathetic to my plight: at least they got a chance to earn some of their money back. Please contact me, or join the GLA Compensation list on Google Groups, if you'd like to be involved in drawing this up. Perhaps the only way out is through.

Finally, I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone for their support. I don't get a lot of direct feedback on the blog or even by emails, but I bump into people from time to time in person, and they're always thankful and respectful for what I'm doing. I'm glad, too: it's that kind of energy and positivity that have kept me going and kept me wanting to make a difference. I won't rest until justice is assured - and with that, I hope you can rest assured.


Unknown said...

Good on you Aaron.
A great blog and the fact that you are out there walking the talk is even better. I for one would like to access on of your forms. I'll be in touch. Nick

Paul from South Oz said...

Good on you Aaron, I've been in the dark all year having dipped out of being a contractor by days thanks to the postal strike, grrr!
Calls to ABSA have either met with 'wait and see' or been unreturned.
Just signed up with the Goolgle group and sent an email to my ex trainer to let him know of your blog in case he's got others like me, that he can tell. Quite likely

Cheers matey
Paul J