It is clear that the Domestic Building Consumer Protection Reform Strategy was created as a mirage, to give a vision of providing better protection for consumers.
On close examination, just like a mirage, we see an illusion with no visible means of any real consumer protection. In reality, the ‘strategy’ was never intended to enhance consumer protection; rather, it was intended to delude and deceive both consumers and the public.
For the payers of the pipers, consumers who finance the domestic building industry and directly fund all the government agencies involved in its supposed ‘governance,’ all were denied any say in the ‘strategy.’
Consumers’ voices were forcibly silenced, just as has been the practice for two decades, which was critical to the successful passage of what is really the ‘no consumer reform strategy.’ Crushed, the consumer ‘payers of all the pipers’ were excluded from contributing even a line to the chorus, much less calling the tune!
How did this ‘strategy’ come about?
In order to understand the governance of the domestic building industry, it is important to consider some of the historical background. Deregulated in 1993 and effectively uncontrolled, the industry and its governance descended into lawlessness, this documented in many independent reports and reviews over the past 20 years.
Underpinning the governance scheme was, and is, a weak ‘regulator’ and a meaningless ‘registration regime.’
There is virtually no industry oversight, no enforcement of laws and regulations, no monitoring of conduct and few practitioners are ever penalized. As a consequence of the no punishment for recalcitrant practitioners’ policy, there has been no deterrent to their abuse of the system. In reality, the cowboys have been encouraged to increase in number, with their ever-worsening misconduct sanctioned. Known in the industry as ‘gods’ and ‘untouchable’, those officials purported to be in control of the industry, with a supposed duty of care to protect consumers, in fact abrogated their responsibilities.
Instead, these officials have acted as collaborators, authorising and enabling cowboy misconduct. In truth, consumer protection has been sacrificed with consumers’ rights misappropriated; the building practitioner offenders - and not consumers - have been protected by the public officials. This certainly seems incongruous, but shamefully, this is the consumer reality.
The Building Commission/Victorian Building Authority has acted as a ‘no touch’ regulator, this leading to the inevitable artificially-created ‘building disputes’ - a direct result of a total lack of regulatory enforcement combined with disregard for all building and consumer laws.
In turn, this has spawned an ever-increasing ‘building dispute industry’; one in which owners who seek justice are forced into a biased and unfair legal system, where consumers have virtually no access to justice. Instead, we have a ‘legal system’ functioning as a ‘no justice system’, every year delivering large-scale consumer harm.
Finally, we have the ‘Last Resort’ or ‘no resort’ insurance scheme, another government stratagem compelling owners to pay for insurance premiums that are in fact donations to the VMIA and insurance brokers. Yes, building consumers must pay for insurance that 99 per cent of them can never claim!
Following the extremely damning report by the Victorian Auditor-General on Compliance with Building Permits in 2011 and the even more damning Ombudsman’s Report on the Investigation into the Governance and Administration of the Victorian Building Commission in 2012, the then-Liberal government was forced to make some response.
The conduct of the senior executives of the Commission, the Building Practitioners Board and the Department of Planning and Community Development were severely criticized, with both reports offering scathing rebukes of the bureaucrats’ conduct over two decades. These officials were put under the spotlight, but no action was taken against any individual. A small number of very senior officials were allowed to resign, but the majority remained, and then additional replacements were recruited at the senior levels, these predominantly from a similar background and culture.
Thus, the ‘no regulation’, ‘conflict of interest’ and ‘capacity for corruption’ culture continues unabated, and for the government officials in all the responsible departments and agencies, it is business as usual.
By 2012, the government was forced to make some policy-type response to a domestic building industry under siege. Not only was the industry in crisis, but decades of appalling governance had been exposed.
The public officials responsible for the calamity were called upon to create a ‘solution’ that could be sold to consumers as ‘meaningful reform’ but not deliver any amelioration or genuine improvement for consumers. The construction of the Domestic Building Consumer Protection Reform Strategy was the outcome.
Of course, the 'strategy' appears to have been aimed at calming the disquiet, placating the media and the community and most importantly, pretending to deliver some improvement in consumer protection. Those responsible officials rose to the challenge, cleverly crafting a set of stratagems, utilizing illusion to feign ‘real reform’ and better protection for consumers. As a close examination of the scheme reveals, the officials managed to go beyond ‘no reform’ and ‘no improvement’ for consumers. They excelled in ‘strategic thinking’, exceeding all consumer expectations, such that if this proposed ‘reform’ is fully enacted, building consumers will be worse off than under the current ruinous regime.
The last official statistics from Consumer Affairs Victoria in its Consumer Confidence and Market Experience Study 2010-2011 were shocking. We learned that 256,000 building owners, or 40 per cent, suffered financial damage in one year. This is without considering all the other serious harm to owners - work, health, relationships, families and loss of ‘normal’ lives. This detriment totaled in the billions of dollars just for 2010. Building is by far the worst consumer market sector in Victoria, causing the greatest damage to owners and their families, year in and year out.
Five years on in 2015, we know that this disaster is far worse than in 2010. It may be 300,000 or 400,000 owners who are negatively impacted in 2015. Whatever the number, it is scandalous. It is inexcusable that there is no political will to initiate genuine reform, to protect those that fund the building industry and drive the Victorian economy.
Beneath the cleverly crafted marketing and the splendid spin contrived to sell the Consumer Protection Reform Strategy, what is uncovered as ‘reforms’ are exceedingly ‘unreal reforms’, with present and future consumers’ outcomes as per the ‘strategy’ fated to be even worse than under the current dysfunctional system.
The word from industry repeatedly is “everyone knows, but no one cares!” This reflects poorly on a society where the credo isg “greed is great!” Worse still, it is a sad indictment on those in positions of power and privilege, those who are paid by owners, not out of the taxpayers’ purse, and those who we have elected to govern in the interest of the greatest good for the greatest number.
For building consumers who pay all the pipers, if they were in any other consumer market sector other than ‘domestic building’, as payers of the pipers, they would be calling the tune!