A senior bureaucrat behind the home insulation scheme was aware of safety risks but felt he couldn’t challenge more powerful public servants.
Kevin Keeffe, a former assistant secretary in the environment department, has told a royal commission he didn’t question plans to allow foil in Labor’s $2.8 billion program despite knowing about foil-related deaths in New Zealand during 2007.
“Can I remind you of my position?” he said under questioning from counsel assisting Keith Wilson, QC, on Tuesday.
“I’m assistant secretary. I have above me in the chair the first assistant secretary, a deputy secretary, a secretary and a minister.
“You’ve just asked me a question why I didn’t challenge fundamental policy parameters.”
In August 2009, Mr Keeffe authorised the printing of an industry pocketbook, which advised that stapling reflective foil laminate to ceiling joints posed a “high risk of electrocution”.
Three months later, metal staples were banned, several weeks after Matthew Fuller, 25, was electrocuted doing exactly what the pocketbook had warned against.
Leading insulation manufacturer, Fletcher Insulation, had circulated an internal email in July 2009 voicing concerns about the safety risks of foil.
“Stapling through foil is an unacceptable risk,” the company said in a note produced at the inquiry.
But the use of foil insulation was not banned until February 2010, when Mitchell Sweeney, 22, was electrocuted laying insulation sheeting in a ceiling cavity at a house near Cairns.
The inquiry was also told on Tuesday that in early July 2009, the same month the insulation scheme was rolled out, an environment department planning day summary regarded success as “no deaths”.
This note was seized upon by Richard Perry, QC, representing the families of Mr Fuller and teenager Rueben Barnes, who died from electrocution in November 2009.
“There was an acknowledgment at that time there was a risk of death?,” he asked Mr Keeffe who replied, “Yes.”
Mr Keeffe also answered “yes” when Mr Perry asked him if that risk included electrocution.
The Abbott government launched the $20 million royal commission to examine whether four deaths under the scheme could have been avoided.
The former Labor government’s home insulation scheme was announced in February 2009 as an economic stimulus measure during the global financial crisis.
It was meant to run over two years but was prematurely terminated in February 2010.
Mr Keeffe agreed on Tuesday that he was aware of deaths from foil insulation in New Zealand, before the Australian fatalities.
The inquiry resumes on Wednesday.