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.

  • Well said Brett!
    Unfortunately the regulators are busy plugging holes into a system that is clearly broken and evolved from a perfectly good working model some 30 years ago. It seems to me government have been more focused on simplifying the trade packages and thereby allowing more tradies to be licensed without the necessary skill sets whilst at the same time completely overlooking the contributions by those who have higher levels of educational training and practice. The demise of NOLA has not helped NSW as there is a definite need for the licensing and assessment of builders trading in the medium to highrise markets. A standard builders license to cover this area of work is no guarantee of quality or capability.
    Perhaps the regulators ought to be focusing on the system that works and is currently exercised by many reputable construction companies and implement strategies for those who have been lagging behind to lift the bar. This is in contrast with policy makers who see our industry tarred with the same brush.

  • Well said, Brett.

    If you were designing a new city or even a new country of 20 million odd inhabitants, would you have eight different builder registration and qualification regimes or one?

    The answer is clear. Yet in Australia, we continue to operate like eight separate countries. It's a silly and ludicrous situation.

  • Certainly Mr Chandler was correct on this building industry disaster; it has been decades in the making. 'Good enough', or more precisely 'bad enough' because I can get away with it is not an acceptable pretext for ruining our built environment and along with it, millions of innocent lives.

    As for qualifications and training, this is a critical issue. In Victoria, the criteria for becoming a 'registered builder' are irrelevant – one does not have to sit the test or pass the test, etc. to become 'registered'. If the criteria were met, such as having the supposed Certificate, it is meaningless as providing any evidence of knowledge or technical expertise. The very 'accommodating' culture, the contacts for contracts, the exchange of money dominates and credentialing is beyond farcical.

    As for NOLS, that was just another gravy train program for the 'in-crowd' – years of fees – then disbanded! So much for our taxes at 'work' – no accountability and no transparency, this typical of all things 'building'. As you say Brett, this disgraceful debacle requires a federal fix. But the Ministers are controlled by the bureaucrats – and it seems none are interested in Australia or its people.

  • There are families suffering extreme damage due to the worthless registration criteria and regulatory control of this industry. The lack of interest or more likely deliberate stone walling of appeals for assistance from damaged consumers who dared to risk their financial security when attempting to meet the very basic requirement for shelter often has devastating consequences.
    Politicians (of all parties) selling themselves on the election runways are all choosing to ignore this diabolical situation. Extremely short sighted as the financial, emotional and health repercussions of being exposed to incompetent and corrupt building trades has very real and long term effects on government coffers via depleted financial security, extreme stress, mental health and medical issues.
    When you trust the system and have faith in so called governing bodies who fail time and again to protect honest, hard working families, it is a fundamental breach of governance.

  • I run a construction group which spans 4 states and a 2 territories. It is very difficult to run a brand across a country when there are so many differences.

    Just simple things like running a website is convoluted. Slight differences in specifications means we have to have area specific products. It confuses customers, trades, internal staff members and me for that matter.

    I have tradies which can't work across boarders. I'm constantly running into licencing issues. Engineering standards which work in one state only to be blocked in another state for no apparent reason.

    One council blocked a form of construction which is accepted everywhere not because it wasn't up to code or not fitting an area. They blocked it because it came from and external builder and they wanted their own local trades to do the construction…The small town gestapo!

    Too many small hands are pushing their own agenda in state governments and even down to local councils. The system is a hodgepodge of mixed regulations and provisions which could all be blown away with a national approach to construction.

    Trade registration and licencing ain't the only issue. The entire system is garbage.

  • As a person working in the supply channel, I can tell you the view from here is more drastic. Down the Eastern Seaboard alone exposes differences.
    Best Example I can provide is the area of EIFS where 3 structures prevail:
    1. Queensland – Required to be a licensed Builder
    2. NSW – Required to be a trained and certified installer
    3. Victoria – required to be breathing

    On moving to another area of construction, the very same situation is apparent with building surveyors asking for advise as to what something is supposed to be so they can certify it. Where is the national body driving national standards for national accreditation, national training etc.

    • And you are spot on Ian with your particular example of External Insulation &Finish Systems. The truth of the matter is that there was a well documented case history of 'leaky building' syndrome in NZ where EIFS was extensively used prior to its strong emergence in Australia. What did we do with this knowledge? Nothing. The massive problem mounting right now is in the area of fast, no validity or assessment builder training with Certificate & Diploma level qualifications being heavily touted by several major private training providers using some superstars of the tv home renovation shows and footballers to promote it to legions of people who think doing word work at high school makes you ready to run a construction project . If you have ever picked up a hammer in your lifetime then these private 'trainers' will happily recognise your prior 'knowledge' and for a few thousand dollars give you the requisite qualifications to get a builders licence. It has to stop right now. The private for profit RTO industry is heavily corrupted and should not be allowed to deliver any course linked to builder licensing.

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