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.