COAG ‘Retreat’ on National Licensing a Misstep 2

Monday, August 17th, 2015
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Last month’s meeting of federal, state and territory government leaders serves as a reminder that politics is a roadblock to logic.

Setting aside the issue of getting our national economic settings right in terms of tax revenues, many opportunities exist for the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to act upon simply because no logical reason exists in maintaining piecemeal legislation that allows impediments to remain across major industry sectors.

Most would acknowledge the standardisation of building regulations in the construction industry, by adoption of a National Construction Code to be a logical improvement. BCA 96 allowed evolution toward a performance-based rather than prescriptive model of building regulation for construction works carried out across Australia. Some minor deviation remains by way of some state and territory provisions, but there is no doubt that its implementation to replace an array of inconsistent local building rules, by-laws and ordinances was a logical improvement. Its primary objective in achieving a national standard for the health, safety and amenity of building occupants and users can be regarded as a significant achievement in creating a better built environment for Australia.

A similarly standardised approach to establishing common qualification levels and work license categories of persons who seek registration as professional builders throughout Australia should have been the next logical step. Surely a national approach to qualifications and licensing standards required by builders who are expected to interpret and apply NCC requirements would be complementary in helping to achieve those same NCC objectives? So why did government abandon a rationalisation of disjointed and incoherent state based systems of training and accreditation?

In 2014 the National Occupational Licensing System (NOLS) was quietly dumped. COAG claimed problems with a standardised model could not be resolved without costs for state and territory governments. A lack of stakeholder consensus on the benefits of creating a standard licensing model was given as a factor in the decision. Whatever the reason, capitulation in the face of the logical move toward improving construction standards by seeking uniformity across state and territory based licensing and training requirements was a retrograde moment for building construction in Australia. So perhaps the description of the COAG meeting as a Premier’s ‘Retreat’ is appropriate.

“It’s just too hard” is not a plausible explanation. The current levels of disconnect with regulations associated with licensing of builders across Australia makes it hard to understand why a standardised solution was abandoned.

Some states choose licensing options only for residential building works. Others have progressive classes of building licence to cover all building classifications and types of construction. Formal training requirements for licensing purposes vary enormously from a basic Certificate 3 level in carpentry or bricklaying trade courses to holding undergraduate degree qualifications from an Australian university. Active intervention to abolish these irregularities and qualification anomalies flourishing across Australia’s states and territories should have been prosecuted by COAG rather than simply ‘retreating’ away from the corrective actions needed to remove such inconsistencies.

Media reports from COAG focused on NSW Premier Mike Baird’s role as the leading proponent of an increased GST to address future revenue shortfall. Given the significant economic role that the building construction sector plays in both the NSW and Australian economy, revisiting the National Occupational Licensing System for builders would have been a far more realistic and beneficial objective.

With NSW the engine room of many of Australia’s major construction projects, the Premier may be surprised to learn that his state is seen as being at the bottom of the heap in respect of how it regulates and manages its current builder qualification and licensing regime when compared with other states. And it’s set to get a lot worse with adverse impacts arising due to the rapid commoditisation of vocational training course offerings and qualifications linked to building construction roles and licensing. The bar is being significantly lowered in respect of creating a highly trained and well qualified workforce for the future. It will inevitably be detrimental to consumers and users of all residential, commercial and industrial built environment assets necessary for our sustained growth.

It may not have grabbed a headline like a proposed 15 per cent GST did, but standardisation of the training requirements and qualifications for builders combined with graded licence accreditation under a National Occupational Licensing System is an urgently required reform for Australia’s building construction sector.

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  1. David Chandler

    Brett, we may have missed the boat. Construction is now a global business. Australia is increasingly incorporating innovative new construction systems and materials fro overseas. Some are a problem, most are not. Our parallel challenge is the domestic effects of construction contracts passing on responsibility, lack of single point accountability for design and specifications, tick the box QA, she'll be right certification and a advocacy for lowest compliance levels.
    Solving this is now beyond our State or National governments or standards bodies to solve without becoming part of what's happening globally.
    While regulations will play a role in the background a new approach to delivering the industry's customers a better deal is needed. My own view is that the contract performance, conformance and delivery underwrites must be re-aggregated and be purchased on a project or program basis by a single party. It would be possible for the underwriter to rate each party to the value chain to determine risk and premium. This incentivises better outcomes. The laggards could continue to use the minimum standards tools. The leaders will see the opportunities to do better in a global market.

  2. Paul Thwaites

    Absolutely spot on.

    In a country of 20 million odd, it is ludicrous that we are still acting like the eight different countries of Australia when it comes to occupational licensing. To be doing so is simply childish. Let's grow up as a nation and get one set of consistent rules.