A recent article on Sourceable has underscored serious problems with Australia's building industry.

Whilst David Chandler’s informative article Undermining 200 Years of Confidence in Aussie Construction focused primarily on building certification issues, it has nonetheless illustrated the urgent need to establish quality assurance control across all building qualifications allied to a uniform licensing and registration scheme in Australia. Some of the most pertinent comments made in the article included:

“The federal government will eventually have no choice but to establish a Royal Commission into Australia’s construction industry to deal with a national undermining of public confidence in construction’s performance. Australia is going to have to face up to the reality that it will be unable to sustain a domestic construction standards and compliance regime which all vary in measure and application across a federation of states.”

Whether a Royal Commission offers the best way forward given the current fiasco revolving around the credibility of a commissioner and the political allegiances and perceptions that have arisen is questionable, however. So whilst the public confidence in future Royal Commissions may have been shot to pieces, this should not detract from the question as to why a uniform building compliance regime and licensing standard has not been implemented across Australia.

That simple action would certainly bolster public confidence in the building and construction sector and give it traction to be seen as being far more reliable, reputable and professional. Most would consider COAG the appropriate mechanism to specifically address such ‘regulatory alignment’ matters. Or perhaps some feel COAG’s usefulness is really only limited to that of providing a photo opportunity for our leaders. Putting aside my cynicism, let’s address the next piece of Chandler’s commentary:

“The current state of construction shortcomings has been years in the making. I estimate that there are hundreds of millions of dollars of questionable work and materials already in service. Their root cause has been the declining quality of trades and supervision, weak quality assurance and certification practices, a lack of investment in the modernisation of building codes, fraud and a failure to hold anyone to real account. In this day and age, there is no defence for these shortcomings. Ignorance is certainly not one, and nor is indifference.”

That is a powerful rebuke to the construction industry and government. Unfortunately, it provides a fairly accurate appraisal of the general state of our construction sector workforce skills at the trade, supervisory and project management levels, which consequently impacts greatly on achieving the desired quality standards of many building projects being delivered.

By walking away from establishing a nationally accepted accreditation scheme for building construction practitioners and allied professionals and ensuring that well structured trades, post-trade and professional formal training regimes are delivered by our world class technical colleges and universities, our government has shown that it cannot claim ignorance but has chosen indifference with their inability to proactively address the problem. Finally, let’s look at the summation of Chandler’s piece:

“In Australia our standards and capabilities are falling further behind each year. All the while, the Australian construction industry sustains a culture that places not enough emphasis on ‘good’, settling instead for ‘good enough’. Well good enough is not good enough. The time has come for some serious corrective action. The current NSW review of building professionals’ performance like the Senate enquiry really misses the point in the depth of problems and the risk to public confidence in an industry that underpins much of the nation’s wealth.”

NSW’s claims as the ‘Premier State’ belie the fact that its builder licensing system operates exclusively for residential construction work. This represents a major departure from other states. NSW formal training requirements for builder licensing only requires a basic trade qualification at Certificate 3 level (in either carpentry or bricklaying) plus a Certificate 4 level qualification in building. The licence issued will allow a builder in NSW to construct anything from a ground floor home extension to a multi-storey, high-rise apartment complex.

The absurd proposition that basic trade and technician level qualifications provide a comprehensive understanding of the complexity of construction covering all types and sizes of residential building works is further compounded by the fact that there is no builder licensing requirement for any other type of construction project. That’s right, any person in NSW is considered to have the innate ability to construct shops, offices, retail complexes, garages, workshops, gymnasiums, factories, laboratories or warehouses of any size and height without any building qualification based licence whatsoever.

This is in direct contrast to other states, including Queensland, which sensibly recognises and links progressive qualification levels with different classes of building licence. To suggest that the NSW system is superior or in any way beneficial to the creation of a high standard, high quality built environment within the state is ludicrous. It’s arguably the worst of an inherently bad regulatory system.

So what is the Baird government’s response to redress this obvious failure? Well, apart from a great photo at Kirribilli, nothing really. However, the ubiquitously titled ‘Minister for Better Regulation’, Victor Dominello, currently seems highly concerned about persons who sell buildings rather than those who actually build them. An article published by the SMH has revealed that current entry level licensing requirements for real estate agents, who now only require a Certificate 3 level qualification (the same AQF level as for a builder) may now be forced to gain a higher level qualification.

Under proposed reforms, Dominello is quoted in the article as stating “There’s an argument that you need more rigour to become a real estate agent.”

He may be right on that count, but perhaps consideration of the level of qualifications of the people who are responsible for actually constructing the buildings is of a far higher priority than someone who is simply acting as a salesperson to flog it off. Logically, you would expect that the person acting as the ‘builder’ would be subject to significantly more rigour from the Minister, and from the Premier for that matter. But politics, and by extension politicians, are often barriers to logic.

In 2014 a National Occupational Licensing System (NOLS) scheme for Australia was dumped. It signalled a triumph of bureaucratic ineptitude and apathy over progressive leadership and business reform. The description of the last COAG meeting held at the PM’s Kirribilli House in Sydney as a ‘Premier’s Retreat’ is ironically appropriate. It seems the only consensus to be reached by our national, state and territory leaders when hard decisions are required to make Australia’s building and construction sector stronger, consistent and unified was to give up and ‘retreat’ from pursuing any coherent and improved scheme of builder licensing.

contractor license

Take a look at the tailgate photo of a contractor’s vehicle. It epitomises the abject stupidity of Australia’s current situation. The only person to suffer a loss from the implementation of a coherent, rigorous and high quality system of building contractor qualification and licensing scheme applied across Australia might be the sign writer.