14 September 2010

HSA delay - Volume Nine: Work, Choices

I want to write this time about the Department of Climate Change and about ABSA. This was originally going to be two letters, and then two articles, with many of the key details duplicated. Bear with it being one long article now; it's been a long time since I've written publicly about what's happening, so there's a lot to cover.

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Formalities aside, Australia has a new federal government, albeit by the narrowest possible margin. Perhaps this is a positive sign: the possibility of neither Labor nor the Coalition being able to dominate the political landscape for the next three years is simply too wondrous a prospect to be true. Politics makes strange bedfellows, as the saying goes, but it's hard to imagine just how strange. (That said, if you'd rather not lose your lunch from today, don't take that too literally.)

From an environmental standpoint, it's nice to know that we still have an environment, Hobson's choice though it may have been. Labor's credentials have looked ever more shaky since its high stance of ratifying Kyoto, but at least the Greens and independents - who hold the balance of power in both houses - are prepared to stand up for action on climate change. With any luck, the half-baked policies of the past won't be good enough now; dare to dream.

As far as the Home Sustainability Assessment Scheme (HSAS) is concerned, it will at least see out the year. Green Loans will be replaced in November by Green Start, so at least some assessors will remain in some work for the rest of the financial year.

Raining on the parade, however, is the prospect of Green Start halving the base of assessors once again. Only 4,410 contracts were issued among the 9,522 HSAs trained for Green Loans, and my initial estimate of a workforce of 3,000 in Green Start is now looking exceedingly optimistic (the median figure among the guesses I've heard is 2,500). The fact that this hasn't prevented assessors from scrambling to make business cases and industry links - in a desperate attempt to re-apply for jobs we are all already supposed to be doing - is almost more troubling than promising. I expect a lot of disappointed applicants, for whom the only outlet may be among those already fallen.
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Having previously been called upon to fix the Home Insulation Program, Greg Combet is set to become the third minister to oversee the Green Loans Program in a little over six months. That said, it would be in incredibly poor taste to use the expression "baptism of fire" in this context. Suffice it to say that following that development, he's now taking over the entire portfolio. (I had written "taking charge" there, but that's just as distasteful.)

There are far more nonsensical Cabinet appointments to be confirmed this time around. Peter Garrett, beset from all angles by questions of where he's been hiding for the past six months, will be the Minister for Education; I can only presume this is the easiest way to dispose of all the extraneous buildings commissioned in BER. Penny Wong, Garrett's successor in overseeing Green Loans, moves coincidentally to the Department of Finance, who are currently holding onto a substantial compensation claim on behalf of over 100 HSAs who were never contracted by Wong's old department. (I'll be in touch.)

It is truly an insult to all of us that both Garrett and Wong have been, in effect, promoted; neither of these people have any business purporting to be responsible for anything. For the catastrophes they (and Garrett in particular) have supervised, I would prefer them never to be in any cabinet that can't be locked from the outside. At least, for their sakes, the principle whereby employees are promoted to their respective levels of incompetence is already named for a different Peter.

An environmental portfolio seems a far cry from Combet's previous position, as Secretary of the ACTU during Labor's campaigning against WorkChoices some four years ago. I can only hope that he hasn't forgotten the anger that welled up among honest, hard-working Australians whose disadvantaged in their work, if not left entirely without work, because of callous government practices. To that end, from the perspective of those of us seeking a clean break from Green Loans, one might be tempted to consider this a promising development. Alas, I'm wary about getting anyone's hopes up; we are seeking from Combet a compensation package of a great deal of substance, and as much as we can all cross our fingers for common sense to prevail, it would be the exception in the context of the HSAS.

The shoe is never comfortable on the other foot, sure, but it's a simple problem with a simple solution. Really, all that's required is a more consultative approach to the operations of the programs. DEWHA and DCCEE have a lot to answer for, given the scathing reports published in July (and an even more scathing report due from the ANAO in the next month), and their attempts to placate stakeholders in the Green Loans and Green Start programs do nothing to assure tangible positive results, particularly in the short term. I expected little else.

Combet's job isn't going to get any easier if the thugs from Limited News have their way. He hasn't even been sworn in yet, and he's already been cornered onto the front page of The Australian, which revealed his apparent choice of protecting coal industry jobs over action on climate change. Senator Christine Milne's staffers, suspecting that the smear is on, were also contacted but contributed as little as possible to the story. Of course, the Greens are in the crosshairs themselves, as The Australian's editor, Chris Mitchell, last week labelled them "hypocrites" and "bad for the nation", and called for them to be "destroyed at the ballot box". I'd comment on that further, but it's still going on now, Paul Barry covered the story so far in last night's Media Watch. Besides, watching the squirming, impotent rage of the conservative press is just too much fun.
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A few months ago, ABSA advertised in its member newsletter, Sustainably Speaking, that it had a position vacant in marketing. I laughingly considered applying for the position, for which I'm not the least bit qualified. Then again, my application wasn't going to be for that job: the plan was to apply for the job that ABSA wasn't advertising but desperately needed to fill.

A great many of ABSA's members remain largely dissatisfied with the organisation, which has little to no impact on the HSAS and a poor record of communication. The latter is improving, fortunately, even if the former is not. Green Start is set up in such a way as to favour larger organisations over the small businesses that DEWHA was trumpeting about eighteen months ago. Furthermore, while it technically allowed uncontracted assessors and even non-ABSA-members to apply for grants, those of us without contracts are in no position to explain how an assessment business would function, as the application process required.

None of this is in the interests of ABSA members. More assessors are out of work than are working, despite the hair-splitting; some 2,000 trained assessors didn't get their ABSA memberships processed before Mr Garrett's fateful announcement in February, and some 800 uncontracted assessors who did become members have given up with at least a partial refund of their fees. As for practising assessors - two thirds of whom, according to an ABSA member survey conducted in April, work as sole traders - the bias towards larger organisations is too obvious not to be deliberate, although I'm sure that nobody would dare admit as much.

The only saving grace is that Labor managed to form government. Despite the efforts of Greg Hunt MP and Senator Simon Birmingham to help attract some attention to the catastrophic tale that is Green Loans, Coalition policy was to scrap the entire program. I'm sure ABSA and its members would agree that having a couple of thousand of us remaining in the workforce is better than none of us. Actually, it alarmed me that so many members on the ABSA Forums were tipping, if not outright rooting for, a Coalition government; one fewer program of wasteful spending there may have been, but by Hunt's own admissions, such a result would surely have cost those assessors their jobs. (Perhaps more alarming is that members found this information out from each other, not from the organisation purporting to represent us.)

One thing ABSA is trying now is to foster local assessor groups, which will provide not only a thin layer of local governance and co-ordination but also, hopefully, a basis for establishing partnerships with industries related to building sustainability. I'm keeping an ear to the ground for this, but I'm not sure how much time I can devote to it, particularly without a job in this industry. In a way, this is a reactive move, not an innovative one: the co-operative that Dennis Hensman is forming has been trying to do this for months, although I'm not privy to what this group has achieved. It's also difficult to know what can be discussed while largely ignoring both the wake of the Green Loans and Green Start programs and Mandatory Disclosure, which is still eight months away and about which little is known yet. Still, I agree with the momentum towards both ties with private industry and local representation, at least in principle, and at least in the longer term.

My primary concern, though, is the impending exodus of members once the Green Start grants are announced. ABSA offered a partial refund of membership fees to those of us who are members but who never got Green Loans contracts, although fewer than a third of those eligible (around 800 people) took them up. All anyone can make of this is that there is insatiable demand among the general public for green-collar employment. Yet, within the scope of Green Loans and Green Start, this is not a positive outcome: many who held off on this will only be disappointed all over again. Those of us without work are the majority in this industry, though not among ordinary members of ABSA; this will not be the case in the new year.
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Still, the question remains: where can we possibly go from here?

The good people at ABSA's Sydney office have been racking their brains to figure out where to go from here. DCCEE staff have spent six months saying as little as possible, probably under strict instructions. Nobody seems to have any answers.

This is about where I should say something condescending. Allow me, I would say. If nothing else, it would be your cue to get ready to say "easier said than done" afterwards.

It has been argued that what assessors will really need in the future is a paradigm shift. As the argument goes, most of us have only ever seen what Green Loans has provided, but we literally won't be able to depend on government programs beyond the next two years (if that). If we start creating partnerships with vendors in the private industry, the opportunities will be there in the future as we effortlessly wean ourselves from the government teat.

We do need a new paradigm, but this clearly isn't it - unless you're not quite sure what a paradigm is. This is hardly a new model for understanding our place in the industry; in fact, I've been writing about this direction since May, and not in a positive light. On the contrary, it serves only to justify the narrow view that we already have. We need to look more deeply.

What I am advocating is that we all come to terms with a frank and uncomfortable reality. Let me put this as simply as I can: there is not enough room in this industry for all of us. Even with Mandatory Disclosure arriving on schedule in May, even with two rounds of Green Start going exactly according to plan, and even with solid ties to every construction and utility company in the country, there are not enough jobs to go around, and there won't be for a long time to come. For those of you holding out, I'm counting in years, not months.

I did say it would be uncomfortable, but it's not a beast so dark that we should not dare speak its name. It is certainly a reality, though, and one that we have to deal with before it deals with us. Despite having spoken in favour of compensation on several occasions, ABSA's policy has long preferred that its members find gainful employment rather than accept a hand-out. After two years and hundreds of millions of dollars of government support for the industry, the trail of destruction is growing to its inevitable peak. It's time to clean up the wreckage.

My conclusion is that ABSA should be supporting the claims put forward by its members for compensation from the federal government. However principled, the policy to ignore these efforts is divorced from the truth of the hardship that thousands of assessors - and therefore thousands of ABSA members - are forced to suffer every day. We are destined to part ways at some point anyway, since, not necessarily through any fault of their own, ABSA will no longer have anything to offer us. When that time comes, the option may still exist, at least, to exchange mutual respect; but only if we face that destiny in advance. Nobody wants their fate decided by another knee-jerk reaction and unveiled in another shock announcement on a Friday afternoon.

To me, nothing illustrates the shortcomings of the current mindset more precisely than the government's Green Start "assistance package". Those assessors who remain out of work after the Green Start grants are awarded will be eligible for "assistance" appearing to consist entirely of a free pass to jump the queue at Centrelink.

As a show of goodwill - albeit a minimal one - it was imperative that ABSA make a statement regarding this policy, which no fair-minded human being would ever consider adequate. I've asked on the ABSA Forums several times that ABSA state its opinion on this matter, and I'm under the distinct impression that it doesn't have one. It figures that ABSA responds as quickly as possible to good news, and yet, having had six weeks to respond to this bad news, the organisation has uttered not one word. Those of us already facing this challenge deserve representatives prepared to join us.
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I went for a drive on Sunday to take in Sustainable House Day, a nationwide showcase of all things environmental that people can do with their homes. As a discipline, building sustainability fascinates me; as an industry, it often makes me sick. When you know something intimately, you also know its faults.

It's still an industry and a discipline that I care about and that I see as enormously important. Speaking for myself, though, I can just feel it slipping away. Sure, I'm committed to seeing the compensation claim through, but beyond that, I'm struggling to see myself in this picture. I've been looking for simpler, more stable circumstances, and I know they're also looking for me; if they find me, I suspect they'll make me an offer that I can't refuse.

I remember writing in January, right back at the beginning, that if programs such as Green Loans fell apart, it would leave a sour taste in many people's mouths from the very concept of employment in the area of environmental sustainability. That prediction is proving almost as great a tragedy as the story itself. Still, the truth is always more subtle. At the moment, we hear only of satisfied customers. We need to listen to the people who don't want to be a part of this, but we also need to speak to those who do want to but simply can't. Silence is consent.


Andy said...

Hi Aaron,

I note with interest the points you make regarding ABSA's leadership (or lack of).

This should not be a surprise to anyone, ABSA does a lot of business with various government departments and made a significant amount of money from the GL scheme (have you read the Faulkner report, published on 8th July and available on the DCCEE website).

If you read through the report, there's so many signs pointing to conflict of interest that it's unbelievable. It will be interesting to see what comes up at the next ABSA AGM.


FilthyCro said...

Hey Aaron,

nice blog.

It is unbelievable to amount of disrespect we have been shown by both ABSA and this Government. I think this wouldve been a large part of the reason so many people wanted a Coalition Government on the ABSA forum.

It's tragic things turned out this way...being a GL Assessor was my dream job. Even at half the pay they were giving it would still be my dream job.