Imagine that the most burning issue facing Australia today is not on the agenda for the upcoming federal election – again!
The issue is our flawed building policy. In political speak, it’s termed a ‘hot potato.’ Enjoying bi-partisan support for three decades, it has facilitated a framework for the building industry to construct an ever-increasing poorly built environment. However, this policy has been obscured from public view, with its consequences imperceptible to most consumers and the populace. In 2016, it continues ever more piping hot - and still classified as ‘top secret.’
By contrast, those who work in the industry - or in the offshoot ‘dispute industry’ - are acutely aware of this reprehensible policy and its resultant devastation, with Peter Mulherin designating the malaise an “industrial disease,” an apt description given its endemic nature. Appalling building industry practices, combined with decades of uniformly atrocious governance, have been thoroughly documented. As well, the destruction visited upon consumers has been quantitatively measured and authenticated in hundreds of reports.
Nevertheless, this remains a fiercely fiery issue, so potentially damaging politically that it has been forcibly and furtively filed away and forbidden from surfacing in public policy debate for two centuries!
An inconvenient truth
The most recent example of political contrivance may be the Senate Inquiry into ‘Non-conforming Building Products.’ Ostensibly set up to examine the extensive use and ramifications of non-conforming building products, and to make recommendations on solutions, the inquiry has now legitimately lapsed. Initially to report in October 2015, this was deferred, and when the Parliamentary double dissolution arrived early in May 2016, conveniently unseating the Senate Committee, no final report was written. One would have to question the timing of the election - most fortuitous for the major parties as the investigation into the building industry’s latest non-conformance calamity was discontinued.
Although an interim report was released in early May, if no new Senate Committee Inquiry is inaugurated, the damning evidence accumulated will remain ‘lawfully’ lost.
Instead of dealing with the revelations exposed by the inquiry, which would serve to exacerbate the already flaming hot policy, political expediency intervened with all disclosures validly vaporized.
The ‘hot potato’ parade
We could fill a book demonstrating the devastating effects of the ‘hot potato’ policy bucketing on our building parade. Suffice it here to highlight just a few of the menacing manifestations flagging Australia’s failed built environment.
Since 2013, 40,000 buildings across Australia have been identified as containing cheap, non-compliant electrical cabling. Today those in powerful positions remain impassively indifferent as residents in 22,000 of those buildings remain under threat of electrocution or fire.
Over the last 10 to 15 years, non-compliant cladding has been widely used on the exterior of buildings in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. In the cladding audit conducted by the Victorian Building Authority (VBA Report May 2016), over 50 per cent of buildings were found to have non-compliant cladding - or no permit issued regarding external walls. The NSW Department of Planning and Environment is concerned that up to 2,500 buildings in the Greater Sydney region contain highly flammable cladding “notorious for causing towering infernos.” In other states, the exposure to harm from this cladding has not been ascertained – such complacency a sign of the government's absolute defiance of their legal and moral obligations.
In 2015, the MFB expressed its serious concerns that 20,000 buildings in Melbourne may be non-compliant. In New South Wales, 85 per cent of new apartments are defective according to a 2012 University of NSW study, and whilst strata associations in Victoria do not have definitive data, their assessment is that it would be similar to NSW - 85 per cent.
Back in 2014, Victoria declared 4,300 cases of ‘slab heave.’ However, the VBA refused to release its report, obscuring the real extent of this problem. At the time, industry sources estimated the most plausible number to be 10,000 (cutting corners and cost-saving), but having continued unabated, now the number is probably much higher.
Recent findings in NSW indicate a higher proportion of defects in buildings constructed in the decade from 2002 to 2012. This is the same in Victoria, where statistics confirm building defects have caused an exponential increase in consumer detriment over the same period – dating from the introduction of Last Resort Insurance, indicative of an Australia-wide pattern.
In sunburnt NSW, there are now more house fires than bush fires! The number of house fires and fatalities ever-increasing, with 4,070 house fires across NSW in 2015, causing 17 deaths.
As if these issues of unabashed non-conformance are not enough, across the country we have a long list of non-compliant products in use - steel, glass, wood, asbestos, the list goes on. Governments’ collective response has been to employ duplicitous ploys to avoid any slivers of honesty, accountability or transparency. Consider the use of asbestos: banned in Australia in 2003, today it is still arriving in the country, and since 2008 there have been only two prosecutions! No enforcement means the industry considers it a joke, albeit a very sick one.
An analysis of statistics from the ACCC and Product Safety Media Releases is shocking. To take one example: from 2010-2015, there were over 913,000 houses affected by faulty electrical products - this calculation based on only eight products! The very latest in the long line of unsafe products is the Thermomix – used in washing machines, electric blankets, toys and other products. There is varying efficacy in relation to recalls; about 60 per cent for Samsung washing machines (42 fires), down to 10 per cent for electric blankets. The ACCC recently stated that builders and electricians are ignoring recalls. No wonder, given that ‘regulators’ refuse to regulate.
The number of suppliers distributing non-compliant electrical appliances simply beggars belief, and many of the offenders are among Australia’s biggest companies. But without enforcement, or any penalty, or punishment as deterrence, none of the offenders will change their conduct.
Therefore, even in election mode, it is impossible for Australians to hazard a guess at the totality of hazardous building products or the high probability of harm facing them and their families. Ratified to stay under the radar, government policy has promoted censorship ‘in the public interest’ – basically buttressing the vested interests.
This election has seen the politicians out early on the hustings and as the extravaganza rocks on, the stakes are high, with those holding privileged positions of power afforded many opportunities and unrivalled rewards.
If we examine the broad brushstrokes, there is little difference between the major parties. Predictably, both are focusing on the economy, acknowledging the building industry is the key economic driver. Building is quintessentially about business and money-making!
Unfortunately, any dialogue on the real building policy is taboo. Thus for this election, the debate has been diverted to ‘housing affordability.’ This classic strategy designed as a distraction from the most critical issue and to terminate troubling matters – just like the lapsed Senate Inquiry in May 2016.
So with bipartite support, the public’s attention has been deflected away from building quality and safety, and the tragic consequences for consumers, and instead directed deliberation to house prices, thereby again negating any scrutiny of the shameful ‘hot spud’ policy from this election’s agenda.