If the Andrews Government’s ‘Consumer Protection’ legislation before Parliament is passed, it will have seriously damaging, far-reaching consequences for all Victorians.

The bells have been ringing for more than a decade, but successive governments have muted the dissenters, ignored public protests and muffled the media. However, this time it is different. Along with building consumers, the entire community is outraged. Not only does this legislation void consumers’ human rights, it is disrespectful of us all. Cries through the community are sounding the distress signal and ominously warning the government: for whom doth the bell toll?

Government on the gravy train

The consequences of the current lack of ‘consumer protection’ have been well documented, the government fully informed on the magnitude of the disaster that has swept across the state for the last 20 years. It knows the shocking statistics from government reports – all on the public record. It is very familiar with the ever-escalating numbers of Victorians caught up in what is now the greatest consumer catastrophe in our history, leaving in its wake the destruction of more than 250,000 families each year.

In incremental steps over recent decades, successive governments have abandoned democratic principles and opportunistically boarded the gravy train. Increasingly self-assured and smug, they have locked ‘people’ out, and in defiance of the public interest, fashioned their policies to suit the vested interests.

But in cases like this, there comes a tipping point, a time at which the affront to those damaged incites anger, and anger morphs into action. Hence it is now that time with disadvantaged, exploited building consumers. This legislation is literally the final straw. Building consumers are determined to spotlight their plight and expose the truth of their traumatic stories so far largely covered up; these obscured by government misinformation and secrecy, suppressed under threats from building interests of ‘defamation’ and concealed by official ‘gag orders.’

This time the ranks of disaffected consumers have been swelled by others who are speaking out across the Victorian community. These include many who work in the building industry, local councils, other community organizations, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and ordinary Victorians.

They have taken umbrage with governments prepared to put profits over people, and in so doing,  consciously causing the public serious harm. As the voices of Victorians have been stifled, cynicism has turned to resentment, and animosity converted into calls for action.

The momentum is building as Victorians reflect on being victims of a lawless industry, one enabled by uncontrolled, unaccountable governments and public officials who refuse to govern in the public interest and for the public good. Community hostility has intensified toward our government, especially as the reality of our third world built environment has been revealed, along with the perilous dangers for people forced to live in unsafe buildings.

Vic Community Speaks Out

This ‘Building Legislation Amendment Bill (Consumer Protection) 2015’ is so reprehensible that on February 22, the Victorian Building Action Group wrote to the Premier and relevant Ministers on behalf of building consumers and all Victorians to express a vote of no confidence in the government.

The letter concluded that the reprehensible legislation is: “irrational, unfair and unlawful. It is also unconscionable, an indictment on the Andrews Government and its scandalous betrayal of trust.”

As always with consumers, this elicited no response.

Following the three Victorian Auditor-General’s Reports (2000, 2011 and 2015) and the Ombudsman’s Report (2012) all scathing of the building ‘regulator,’ in July 2015 the walls of a construction pit in Mt Waverly collapsed.

Another failure of the ‘regulator’ was highlighted, with the Manningham Council describing it as “alarming.”

At MAV’s governing council meeting in October 2015, the Manningham Council declared the councils’ and community’s “loss of trust” in the VBA, moving a motion of no confidence in the VBA, with a call to the Andrews Government to protect the community. As expected, the VBA’s CEO Prue Digby responded, saying that the council “had not ‘understood’ the role of the VBA” and that it had “met its aim of expediting building permits to reduce work delays.”

Astoundingly, the VBA’s self-perceived ‘role’ that no-one else ‘understands’ is not a ‘regulatory’ one, with increasing the number of permits the VBA’s ‘aim’ – not safe, compliant and quality buildings. Of course, consumers knew this long ago, but now councils and the community are cognizant too.

Since the Lacrosse building fire in November 2014, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade has spoken out continuously. When the building caught fire, it sent shock waves through the community, no one more shocked than the MFB who for decades were led to think that Victoria had a robust regulatory regime. Justifiably, the MFB was aghast. It had been misled and more disturbingly learned that the community and firefighters had a ‘regulator’ who has never done any ‘regulating.’

Over the past 15 months (not one person held accountable for the Lacrosse fire or other buildings with the non-compliant cladding), the MFB has been highly critical of the VBA – for good reasons. The MFB has published reports, appeared at the 2015 Senate Inquiry and tried to make the government listen. Deputy chief Adam Dalrymple has expressed “grave concerns” with regard to the flammable cladding crisis and “questions whether the VBA understands the extent or consequences of the problem or how to resolve it (Fire Brigade Slams Building Authority, The Australian, December 9, 2015).

Prue Digby’s reply was that she would discuss the “important issues it raises.” Such a condescending response underscored the contempt of officials, not only for the MFB but for consumers and all Victorian residents. Our money, our safety and our lives are of no import, our sad stories not of ‘interest.’

In the MFB’s report on the Reform of the Building Regulatory Regime published in November 2015, perhaps one of the most frightening issues raised was the future “unquantified public and consumer risk.” The MFB report applied the VBA “figure of up to 1% of building permit documentation showing serious non-compliance” and based on this figure calculated that “this means there were potentially 20,000 building permits issued based on documents which are seriously non-compliant.” However, this did not include “buildings built without a building permit, or those buildings where the documentation may have been compliant but the building work is non-compliant.”

For those familiar with the building industry, this is no surprise. But in light of the VBA’s highly unreliable ‘figures,’ one can but imagine the potential 20,000 buildings posing risk as very unrealistic. Scary!

We all know that those in power know the financial loss and heartbreak, the staggering numbers of Victorian deaths from heart attack, stroke and suicide and the impact on those forced into bankruptcy and homelessness through no fault of their own. Sadly and simply, such stories do not seem to register with those in charge.

Governments are spectacularly skilful. They have many helpers on our payroll. They can fool many people much of the time, but as Abraham Lincoln wisely remarked, they “cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”

The bells are ringing, sounding rich in reverberation literally and metaphorically. The pealing portending: for whom doth the bell toll?