National Accreditation Needed for Imported Building Materials 4

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Monday, January 11th, 2016
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There is a concern that Australia and New Zealand have not kept up to speed with some of the downsides of globalisation, not the least of which is the importing of building products that lack fitness for purpose.

An important question now needs to be asked: is it time to establish a federal  regulator (in the case of Australia) and a national regulator (in the case of New Zealand) who would be charged with the responsibility of accrediting imported building product that is deemed, once approved, suitable for the antipodean building industry? Or could there be a trans-Tasman regulator?

Currently there is a flood of imported material washing onto antipodean shores, without any regulator equipped with either the resources or the legal power to determine whether imported product is fit for purpose. This long-standing “situation vacant” is in urgent need of filling. Is it too much to ask to have in place a regime that dictates that any imported building material or building system be analysed and tested by appropriate laboratories to determine whether it is fit for the Australasian market and ultimately public consumption?

Time could well be of the essence here because the free trade agreements with China that have been ratified by Australia and New Zealand may well act as enablers for a potential avalanche of imported goods. These agreements herald a “high noon” for the establishment of a federal or trans-Tasman regulator to act as an accreditation body for the assessment and approval of imported products not only from China but also from greater Asia.

The rationale for a national regulator

Building product development and innovation is a process that will always be a scientific work in progress. Product capability and product potential cannot be fully verified unless it has been subjected to rigorous scientific testing.

As manufacturers are always anxious to get ‘product to market’ as quickly as possible, they would not be ordinarily regarded as the best arbiters of best practice product quality. This task needs to be undertaken by independent, government accredited bodies that have the scientific capability and the requisite level of objectivity and detachment to determine whether product is fit for purpose.

One can’t leave the task to building officials. They have become the “claytons” (i.e. the product accreditor when you don’t have a real product accreditor) arbiters of the notion of “that which complies vs a vs that which does not comply.”

This is a huge ask, as they have neither the training, nor the experience, nor the financial wherewithal, nor ready access to the testing facilities that are implicit in the determination of whether a particular imported product is fit for purpose when the imported product has not been independently accredited and visible on a product accreditation register.

The Crown, however, does have sufficient means to create the human resource infrastructure necessary to assume this critical public function. Such a body may well present as a coalition between the government regulator and a hybrid of the likes of CSIRO and BRANZ.

Better still, both Australia and New Zealand could generate a mutual recognition product accreditation protocol with the view to the development of a trans-Tasman register of products that have been accredited as a result of vigorous testing. Of course, it would be a user-pays system so that any manufacturer intent upon exporting product to the antipodes would have to pay the testing laboratories of the accreditation body for the assessment of their product.

If offshore manufacturers cannot achieve the local benchmarks required, an opportunity exists for Australian and NZ manufacturers to populate this space. Consideration could be given to the establishment of tax incentives for research and development to reignite local building product manufacturing. Needless to say, this would be very welcome at a time when the negative headwinds confronting Australian employment are gathering velocity.

With the benefit of hindsight, there may have been mileage in establishing a national or trans-Tasman imported product accreditation body some time ago. With that ship having sailed, however, globalisation and the burgeoning free trade agreements now suggest that both Australia and New Zealand are in dire need of the establishment of a regulator that will determine what gets in to the country and what stays out. Only then can the consumer and the local building industry feel confident that vital construction elements of the as-built product will be fit for purpose.

Furthermore, if one attacks the problem at source, the cumbersome, costly and time-devouring process that is otherwise known as litigation will indeed be the last resort.

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4
  1. James Lee

    What comes to mind is a numerous amounts of questions about the statement made on federal accredited organisations and its dealings with imported products. As a company that imports building material and a workforce that has vast experience in the building industry globally, we believe that Australia is one of most stringent countries to get product compliance.

    There are a couple of accredited organisation that provide mandatory acceptance for building materials products after the stringent process has been completed which are being used by building certifiers currently. In fact these organisations have their criteria process for product compliance governed by ABCB and JAS ANZ.

  2. Kim Lovegrove.

    Organisations with the ability to accredit product have existed for many years but this is not at issue or in issue. The issue is that huge volumes of material have been coming into the country for many years that are not passing through an accreditation gate keeper. There needs to be a gate keeper that is established to ensure that nothing gets into the country unless it has the emprimada of the likes of the relevant statutory body. One need not worry about that which has been accredited by these venerable institutions and I am intimately aufait with the very robust capabilities of the ABCB having been a past employee but that to reiterate is not the issue. The issue is how do we capture that which has not been accredited yet finds its way into the building industry, this is the issue that this piece is focussed on.

    • George Baker

      The Australian Institute of Building proposed an "office for construction compliance" in its 3 August 2015 submission to the Senate's current Inquiry into Non-conforming Building Products. While this submission has several debatable details (depending on one's viewpoint and interest), it pinpoints clearly factors in the present market and regulatory regime which have allowed, permitted and even encouraged the admission of overseas sourced non-conforming products, materials and equipment that have been incorporated into buildings of all types in Australia, some of which have proven to be life threatening if not fatal to occupants of some of those buildings (and there are likely to be many more with latent issues, "waiting to happen"). Key points in AIB's paper are the diminution of technical resources, lack of Government involvement (in product conformity and assessment), and buyers in the global market being less well informed "whether the products and materials they are purchasing have been subject to product conformity and conformity assessment". The problem is made worse by lax certification processes, from manufacturers through installers/builders and Principal Certifying Authorities who accept product and installation compliance certificates without proper scrutiny. AIB's recommendation for a National Register of Certified Construction Products should be the minimum first step outcome from the Senate Inquiry.

  3. Matt Campbell

    A common base line for material standards in Australia and New Zealand would be a smart play for both governments, especially in light of our geographic and environmental similarities.