Storytelling is powerful. Sharing stories provides one of the best ways of making sense of our world and learning from the experience of others. But what is much more powerful is leaving some stories untold. In the case of building, the true stories of owners, especially those whose lives have been destroyed, have been conspicuously concealed.
Most powerfully, the core messages of a shared narrative have been kept secret, the untold truths designated ‘undiscoverable’.
In the absence of real life accounts of individual building consumers, a fictional fantasy has been fashioned for community consumption. It is one that persuasively negates the facts, repudiates the high risks, and by default provides a false sense of security. This dishonesty impedes sound decision making and nullifies any cautionary forewarning.
Denied the opportunity to know and interpret the individual and collective experience of others, consumers cannot realize the hidden reality. They cannot discern the clear and present dangers
– these are invisible. They cannot become aware of their vulnerability – this is veiled. Through imposed ignorance, consumers are rendered powerless, and for the 40+% whose lives are destroyed through deciding to build, there is no possibility of preventing the predestined tragedy and terrible trauma.
Failed governance on the record
Over the last several decades, there have been hundreds of reports on the failed governance of Victoria’s building industry. All reports have criticized the complete lack of ‘controls’ across the industry, canned the worthless ‘registration’ regime, decried the ‘no enforcement’ gambit, denounced the insurance scam and slammed the conflict of interest and collusion endemic across the ‘system’. Most notably, all reports have repeatedly challenged the reality of the non- existent ‘consumer protection’ policy.
We know that 96% of Building Permits do not meet the minimum building and safety standards (Victorian Auditor-General’s Report 2011)! We know of the insidious nepotism in the jobs- for-mates recruitment process for public officials, the massive over spending and lack of accountability, the cosy relationships with business and sponsorship donations, and what shamefully passes as ‘governance and administration’ of the key building ‘regulator’ (Victorian Ombudsman 2012). We know that since 1993 the Government has failed to provide any protection for building consumers, with not one element of the supposed ‘consumer protection’ regime affording consumers any safeguard against the unscrupulous in the industry. (Victorian Auditor-General’s report, 2015)
Consumers’ stories omitted
Extraordinarily, these reports have deliberately ignored consumers, discounted their horror stories, and most significantly suppressed the very serious consequences inflicted upon them. Be it investigations into the Building Commission (renamed the VBA), or Consumer Affairs Victoria, or Government agencies broadly, those investigating have continually pointed out the outrageous ‘systemic failure’ (for 23 years) and they have been scathing on the many fundamental ‘weaknesses’ in ‘governance and administration’. They have censured the use of
false statistics, panned the cronyism and condemned corruption. As well, they have been prepared to stress the negative impact on consumers – but superficially and without any stories.
Although consumer stories have been submitted to those officially investigating our ‘governance’ arrangements, even when charged with examining the veracity of ‘consumer protection’ (VAGO 2015), the decision was taken to exclude real life consumer stories, not to reveal the atrocities suffered by owners simply seeking to provide shelter for their family. Electing not to expose the life-changing and life-threatening outcomes that are the unthinkable aftermath for so many building consumers is indeed a telling omission.
The reality of the harm to consumers has been camouflaged. No mention of consumers being discounted (not officially ‘stakeholders’), rendered non-existent, or reduced to the role of cash cows! No suggestion of a Building Ombudsman, no recommendation of formal consumer consultation and representation on Boards, no proposal to use fair contracts, to legislate fair laws, or to give consumers half a chance through reform of the biased-for-business ‘legal system.’ No advance of an impartial, objective and honest ‘justice’ system. And as a first measure, no comment on cleaning up the industry and cleansing the official class – or consigning the consumer class an opportunity for a fair go. Lastly, no criticism of voiding owners’ ‘consumer rights’ – or in 2016, rescinding their human rights!
Are consumer consequences inconsequential?
Stating the observable and obvious, no government department has ever undertaken to release a study publicly reporting on the short-term and long-term consequences of our lawless building industry and its failed governance as it impacts consumers. No report has been published to divulge the financial detriment since 2011. No report has ever disclosed the psychological and emotional damage which is the natural sequel to a serious building tragedy.
We do not know exactly how many ordinary Victorians lose their life savings, their house, or their business/job. We have no information on how many suffer major physical and mental health problems, how many marriages have collapsed under the relentless pressure of long- standing building disasters, or how many families are now permanently fragmented. We do not have the data on how many owners end up homeless, how many lives are irreparably damaged or how many crumble under the weight of sustained stress and subsequently lose their life – from heart attack, stroke or often from suicide – just because they wanted to build a safe, secure home for their family!
Be it the VBA, CAV, or the ABS, no one has reported the reality of the fallout of decades of failed governance. There have not been any owners’ stories, nothing on the devastation caused to their lives, and no acknowledgement even that we have a consumer catastrophe – greater than any natural disaster in our history – man-made and preventable. Think the Lacrosse apartment fire. It was widely covered in the media, but no stories on any of the owners, though the onus was placed on on them to pay the multi-million dollar cladding replacement bill and to grapple with their agonizing heartbreak and severe distress.
It is not that the devastating consequences for owners are inconsequential. Rather, what is relevant is that they remain unstated. Of most import is ‘protecting’ the status quo, ensuring the key beneficiaries retain their privilege, power, and prosperity.
The power of the untold story
The fact that all consumer stories over 20-plus years remain untold is astounding – though it is not truly surprising.
Over this period, we are talking about millions of Victorian families who have been bullied, battered and left broke and broken. However, with their stories ‘classified’, they have never been articulated publicly. Obscured, unspoken and unseen, they are unintelligible, as if with a wave of the magic wand, the harm did not happen. Thus vanished, the ‘big story’ is simply a figment of the critics’ vivid imagination, and the critics are certified as “crazy nutters.”
Withholding stories has worked well. However, if the truth were ever to filter out, the ramifications, both economic and social, would be phenomenal. If the community learned the truth, heard of the horrendous harm to millions, they would understand. And if sane, reasonable persons could comprehend the extremely high risk of signing up to the ‘business of building’, they would be shocked – presumably alarm bells ringing out a rational response not to build!
Yes, storytelling is powerful, but not telling stories is immeasurably more powerful!