When Australians sign a building contract, they know they will be making the biggest investment of their lives, but the truth of the inherent dangers of building and the extremely high probability of serious harm is kept from them.

Put simply, the fundamental facts are buried, and are not ‘discoverable.’ Regardless of their efforts, this consumer class has been consigned to be unaware, starved of all basic ‘buyer beware’ knowledge. Shamefully, no possibility of protection is our consumers’ plight.

‘Buyer Beware’ charade

For consumers, being educated is the key tool in their ‘protection box.’ All have a ‘right’ to be able to obtain accurate information, investigate realistic choices and to make a judicious decision. But no matter their commitment, for building consumers realizing their ‘right’ is an impossibility.

As ‘caveat emptor’ consumers would envisage, past conduct could be an indicator of future behaviour; hence the importance of sourcing building practitioners’ past history. How frustrating, then, to find such endeavours are futile. For decades, government agencies have collected voluminous information, but almost none of this is available to the public. All consumer complaints information, ‘dispute’ data and detriment statistics are hidden, securely locked away in the Consumer Affairs Victoria’s treasure trove. As for the information held by the Building Commission over its 20 long years, in 2014 this was entirely erased by the ‘new’ VBA. The limited publicly accessible information is fragmented, difficult to find and hopelessly inadequate. The ‘buyer beware’ option is bogus, a contemptible charade.

Consumer protection con

Government spin has been remarkably successful, duping prospective consumers into thinking ‘consumer protection’ exists. But the reality revealed from numerous independent reports and well-documented consumer experiences is the juxtaposition of ‘systemic failure.’ For 23 years, the ‘consumer protection strategy’ has been a ruse, the malfunctioning system calculated perfectly to malfunction (Victorian Auditor-General’s Report, May 2015).

In stark contradiction to its stated purpose and imperceptible to consumers, the ‘protection strategy’ was shaped to ‘protect’ all in the building industry, whilst consumers were designated to be defenceless and without any safeguards inexorably exposed to exploitation. From 2005, we can chart the destiny of hundreds of thousands of owners every year; fated to incur massive financial loss, years of living in limbo, shattered families and if not dead, left lingering under unending traumatic stress.

To describe the cornerstone of ‘consumer policy’ as punishing would be an understatement. Rendered ignorant, consumers are incapable of making informed, wise decisions, their disadvantage further compounded under the Government’s dispute-driven modus operandi. Unknowingly, 40 per cent of owners are compelled into ‘disputes’, powerless to combat the pitfalls of an unfair, unjust legal system and unable to avoid the additional monetary loss. Helpless, their predetermined destiny is patently undetectable.

The truth deficit

Most government reports and records have been withheld from the public. The information obtainable is negligible, tightly controlled, defectively deficient and quintessentially a truth deficit.

Even if a motivated consumer were to locate the Practitioner Disciplinary Register (PDR) on the VBA website, it would be pointless. Few names of building practitioners appear on disciplinary records, since the bulk of real offenders either ‘never appear’ or magically ‘disappear’ – move over David Copperfield!

Consider that there are thousands of consumer complaints every year (the VBA admits to only 978 in 2014-2015), but few are acknowledged, fewer investigated and almost none proceed to an Inquiry. Commonly, owners’ complaints ‘disappear’ and the files are customarily lost or closed. Many owners never receive any response. Only the most persistent, after lodging multiple complaints and hundreds of pages of evidence, will be informed that their complaints are ‘in the bin.’

An examination of the PDR reveals few builders’ or surveyors’ names (no company names) because to get listed, there has to be an Inquiry. Of 21,799 building practitioners registered in 2014-2015, only 94 were summoned to a disciplinary Inquiry or 0.4 per cent. These generally result in a reprimand and sometimes a small fine – though now in the latest VBA Annual Report, the actual outcomes are no longer reported.

Last year, there were 35 registered builders prosecuted – a 0.1 per cent probability of prosecution. In relation to plumbers, of 26,361 registered last year, only 18 were called to an Inquiry and 19 prosecuted – a minute 0.07 per cent chance of a plumber going to Inquiry or prosecution (VBA Annual Report 2014-2015). There is almost no prospect of punishment or deterrence!

Many of those called to an Inquiry will appeal their penalty and thus they never make it onto the PDR list. Finally, even when it comes to those once appearing on the PDR, names can be arranged to be deleted.

In this context, consider that in 2011, 256,000 Victorian consumers suffered financial detriment totalling billions of dollars. One would expect to find thousands of registered builders disciplined in 2011, their names on the PDR and some serious penalties metered out, but no! A review of the 2011 PDR reveals a mere 83 builders and surveyors listed. Of building surveyors (the most criticized group), only 12 appear. As for penalties, reprimands predominate and notably few suspensions or cancellations (not permanent), and most continue operating anyway. These statistics provide pathetic proof of who has ‘protection’ – and it’s not consumers.

Should an owner attempt to find information on cases at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), it would be another wasted exercise. Thousands of cases go to the VCAT Building List annually, but only a minuscule number make their way to the ‘official’ VCAT list. First, only those cases which go to a full hearing end up on the list – around 30 a year.

Second, all other cases, many dragging on for up to nine years and costing owners a mega fortune, are not listed; generally ‘finalized’ in favour of the building offenders, then ‘disappeared.’ Hence, of many thousands of VCAT cases over the last 18 years, whether volume builders or sole traders, all remain unknown. Most tellingly, VCAT does not refer any offenders for disciplinary action, even the many repeat lawbreakers. Consequently, no matter their aberrant or serial misconduct, all reprobates are protected and their past history covered up.

Deprived of power to control their lives, consumers have been robbed of any opportunity to prevent harm. CAV’s role is purportedly to protect consumers, and as a member of Consumers International, it committed to enforcing the eight basic Consumer Rights – including the right to be informed, to consumer education, to choose, to satisfy basic needs, and so on. Deplorably, and as has been very well documented, CAV elected to work vigorously against building consumers’ interests and artfully voided all their ‘rights.’

Now try to think of being a clueless consumer in a clandestine bureaucratic world. Have a crack at comprehending this imposed gullibility as one part of the whole duplicitous official strategy. Then imagine this combined with the building/consumer protection agencies’ infamous track record. We have the risible regulatory framework, zero enforcement of compliance, the unfair contracts (contracts over $300,000 exempt under Australian Consumer Law), enforced disputes and the notorious junk DDI insurance.

Our consumers’ plight is no accident. It is a direct consequence of a spurious scheme, and minus any ‘buyer beware’, it clearly coiled into to a consumer catastrophe.