Building: The Power of the Untold Story 13

Monday, August 22nd, 2016
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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’.

Fictional fantasy
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!

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  1. Andrew

    Once again Anne is spot on. It never ceases to amaze me just how knowledgeable and observant she is on this very important subject. Much to ponder and let's hope someone is listening. Keep up the good work!

  2. Mark Whitby

    Well said Anne…

    And such a tragedy, courtesy of our Common Law system of gag orders used by negating solicitors and barristers to keep all of us in the dark; and stymie what would almost certainly be enormous public outrage… and so the negating continues unabated as home owners continually strive to have their poorly built homes brought to a reasonable condition under a grossly unfair dispute system, with yet another (I think repressive)hurdle to overcome in compulsory conciliation (also secretive and subjected to gag orders?) as demanded by the Auditor General's 2015 VAGO report.

    It's so refreshing to see someone point out these sad lacks in our building industry instead of just looking at the rise and rise of the industry… but when are governments going to wake up and really help building consumers?

  3. Roy Barrett

    The implications of this article are massive. I have to accept that Anne, as a Building Consumer Advocate, has been involved in enough cases to be able to provide statistical evidence of the number and nature of significant cases in which she has been directly involved and that have gone unreported either in the media or via relevant public authorities or 'building' or 'consumer' organisations [together with similar case information from other advocates with whom she would no doubt be regularly in contact],
    The media, and the 'opposition' to a sitting government [of whatever colour], would usually be expected to report on these types of issues of the 'weak' against the 'powerful'. If there is substantial evidence that this is not occurring then the clear implication is that those bodies who would have most to benefit from non- [or 'played-down'] reportage, including the media itself, have more financial influence over the private and public organisations and authorities involved in this 'arena' than is proper, or healthy, for any democracy. To paraphrase Anne – the 'silence' speaks loud. It is good to see that 'Sourceable' is not silent.

  4. Irvine

    This is a powerful article with a very powerful message. Those without power have no voice. To think of the reality that millions of stories are missing leaves one in little doubt as to the motivation for hiding these true tales from the Australian public. Much more has been masked than the poor state of affairs in building. The stories of the damaged owners and their families that we know of are shocking, their lives left in tatters, the financial loss only one part of their sad stories. The stress on marriages and then this affecting the children is more than many can withstand and so many lives crumble. The years turn into decades and for so many who are the victims a life sentence has been imposed. None of this their fault and once signed in there is no getting out. This indicates more than systemic failure. Such treatment of ordinary, hard-working Australians is an indictment on all Governments and they should hide their heads in shame. Instead it seems that what they are hiding is the truth from the public. The big story here is more than in the public interest. All Australians have the right to know! Well done, Anne.

  5. Anne Paten

    Roy thank you for your comment. We have thousands of stories unreported, forcibly hidden away. The 'gag' is unbeatable in protecting the 'untouchable' – all 'registered' in the building industry. Other than Sourceable, the media have been very quiet on this subject in recent years. We have the building stations and channels and the ABC dependent on Govt funding to survive. Either way not a legitimate excuse, but one can understand that pressure has been applied, the response inevitably self-protection! A recent exception was the report by ACA on the 'Faulty Tower' in NSW – 800 defects, mushrooms growing through the carpet, water leaking near lights, rusted walls in all units, mould, etc. Requiring demolition, more than 5 years on the retirees are still in a legal battle – along the way two have died! This is a typical story, the owners' lives destroyed, the lawyers taking any money that some had left – link is:
    The major problem is that Govt agencies run the Govt. For example, if one sends a letter to a Minister, it goes to the Department – whereupon as a general rule it is either totally ignored or months later a "we can do nothing for you" response is sent – the letter then officially put 'in the bin'! Think Sir Humphrey in 'Yes Minister': status quo maintained, policy to suit business, 'officials' sustain the natural 'order' and consumers' crushed. Yes, the bureaucracy/vested interests' team have much to answer for – they the only voice. As for any democratic principles, or any semblance of 'democracy', both died decades ago – as you say 'unhealthy'. But for individual owners, building and the Tribunals pose an unrivalled risk and major health hazard – with no prevention and no antidote!

  6. Christine Sullivan

    My reading of the above article raises questions for me which will probably remain unanswered … "Why aren't consumers and their experiences important?" and "How does this unfair system continue in our very 'governed" state?"

  7. Les williams

    Powerful stuff all right – watch the beauracy being questioned by senate committees.

    The ever increasing involvement of the legal profession in both the construction industry and our Parliaments has been a disaster for both .
    The behavior of peak industry groups, their incrstuous relationships with industry regulators and their influence over state based law borders on perversion of the parliamentary process.
    The national CEO of a peak industry group informed a senate committee in 2015 that he was on an ATO Phoenix task force. Pre-packaged liquidation and Illegal Phoenix activity is rife among his members used to void their responsibilities under their home owner scheme and while their at it take their subcontractors and suppliers money with them.
    How does that all work? It all works because this peak industry group has credibility as industry experts and has huge improper influence over industry law

  8. Mary Farrugia

    As a consumer placed and living this nightmare I ask where is the justice system ? We fight for our rights as a consumer for what can clearly be seen as an unjustice and we believed how could it be otherwise? Surely justice will prevail? But it appears there is no justice in our building industry and no registry that warns you about these dodgy builders who are allowed to continue to work and continue to ruin peoples lives. They are allowed to continue bullying us into believing that we have no choice but to pay for what is so obviously wrong! Why are the innocent being punished?? Why aren't our voices being heard?

  9. Les williams

    This is powerful stuff and right on the money. The agenda is controlled by peak industry associations, lawyers, accountants and insolvency professionals. Legislation by donation. The regulators are branch offices of peak industry groups – dial up some policy. Read the website and see how many of the bigger builders have defect demerits recorded as a warning to consumers. Investigate how many builders have liquidated to subvert home warranty . We paid $47m on a royal commission to get one blokes backside in a sling but the massive corporate crime within the industry continues

  10. Julie

    What a marvellous article, and yet also so frightening. How are consumers able to make informed decisions when the information they require is hidden from them?! There is a big dirty secret lurking beneath the surface of the building industry which has been cleverly concealed from the general public until now.

  11. R. Jones

    Maybe a lot of copies of this letter sent to the PM. & Premier who would both send them to the so called person whose responsibility it is would be worried about his job at the next election as a letter campaign is the only way to get anything done if an adds campaign is out of the cost frame. Russ. Jones.

  12. Nyree H

    Well said Anne, hats off to you. It is great to see others who believe the everyday person of Australia is being hard done by in the building industry, not only Victoria, however Australia wide. I hope many are reading and listening to the silent voices of our country. May change prevail.

  13. Dubravka

    Yes as Roy says the implications are massive. Why have our governments decided to support the powerful and make the weak so disadvantaged? The stories of owners I know of are so sad. Apart from the money loss the other consequences are so terrible. The couples and their family stressed for many years and awful pain and terrible suffering. Most of these stories are not in the media and the silence points to government that is wrong and definitely not healthy for a democracy.