Cracked tower ‘tip of iceberg’ of faults
Australia’s construction system should be audited “immediately” and a dedicated emergency fund set up for apartment residents displaced by dodgy building work, a national body representing $1.2 trillion of managed property says.
The chief executive of Australia’s peak strata body says poor building quality across the country — including the use of flammable cladding, illegal asbestos and cheap electrical cables — should be an election issue for Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.
Speaking for the first time since the start of the Opal Tower situation in Sydney, in which a 392-apartment building cracked and forced evacuations on Christmas Eve, Alisha Fisher, CEO of the Strata Community Association, said the incident was the “tip of the iceberg”.
“The bottom line is that the last 12 months have been a horror story for the construction sector in Australia,” she said.
“Thousands of people impacted by flammable aluminium cladding; we have problems with glass panels, we have asbestos products brought in illegally, and we have thousands of kilometres of defective Chinese electrical cable still out there.
“Like we’ve seen with the cracking at Opal Tower and in cases where buildings with flammable cladding catch alight suddenly, there’s no telling when Australian apartment owners will be next affected by poor construction.
“This is an issue of potentially
epidemic proportion and we believe it needs to be treated that way with a national construction sector audit.”
Shoddy construction needs to be identified early, Ms Fisher said, and one possibility to protect owners was a funding package to act as “emergency assistance” — like drought or flood relief — for residents when a building was found to be defective.
Both the Coalition and Labor rejected Ms Fisher’s two initial proposals, with the government insisting it had been pushing the states, who govern construction, to improve their systems, while Labor said it wanted to see all trades involved in the building industry registered and licensed.
The nation’s construction industry has been the focus of several senate inquiries and expert reports in attempt to bring about reform, most recently the Shergold and Weir report, Building Confidence, written by former Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Peter Shergold and construction law veteran Bronwyn Weir.
Their report, which was commissioned by the federal government-led Building Ministers’ Forum, made 24 recommendations, including that each state require the registration of each trade in the construction industry.
“The Liberal National government heard concerns around the construction industry and commissioned the Building Confidence report,” acting Industry Minister Matt Canavan said.
“We have brought the states and territories together, to make sure they meet their responsibilities around building and construction and have already begun work on an implementation plan.”
Mr Canavan said if Mr Shorten and Labor senator and industry spokesman Kim Carr were “genuine about reform and the people affected, they would encourage their state colleagues to implement the recommendations as a matter of priority.”
Senator Carr said a national audit of all ongoing construction would need to be done by each state.
He also said an emergency fund would be legally difficult, due to the many lawsuits that arise when a building is deemed defective.
“The establishment of a fund would be another excuse for people to avoid their legal liabilities,” Senator Carr said.
“I’m looking … at ways we can provide better protections for the public in terms of safety, and that’s why we’ve moved to strengthen the National Building Code and the issue of public safety and public accountability through licensing.”
Senator Carr said if elected Labor would commit to implementing a licensing scheme for all those involved in construction and pass the recommendations from the Shergold and Weir report “within two years”.
He said the current “woeful mess” of the building sector was the failure of states to take responsibility.
If negotiations with the states failed, Senator Carr said he would move to implement a national licencing system.
Next month, the nation’s building ministers will meet to discuss the findings of a Senior Officers’ Group, which was tasked with exploring how to implement the findings of the Shergold and Weir report.
Mr Shergold told The Weekend Australian last month that he feared without change, there would be a loss of confidence in the National Construction Code.
“I fear that’s happening,” he said.