President’s Column 23 August 2019

Image shows President David O'Loughlin smiling in front of a black background

This week’s 4 Corners investigation, ‘Cracking Up’, shone a national spotlight on shoddy apartments and building certifications across Australia.

We saw problems with buildings such as Opal Tower and Mascot Towers in Sydney with cracked walls and foundations and forced residents to flee, while frustrated owners showed their leaking apartments in Canberra and Melbourne.

I can empathise with homeowners’ fears at being given two hours by firefighters to pack up and move because of cracks in a building’s basement, and the unknown of when you and your family can return.

I understand the pressure that would mount at having to spend your savings or dip into your superannuation to correct defects because a development company collapsed.

The 4 Corners story highlights a problem affecting building certification and inspection schemes across eastern Australia, and shows the extent and complexity of the problem.

It opens up questions about the role of local and state governments in tackling the issue.

It’s not as simple as saying that local councils should become responsible for inspections and certifications.

In Queensland, for instance, LGAQ notes that most councils are in no position to return to providing certifications, which were effectively privatised about 20 years ago, because of a shortage of qualified staff.

It’s highly likely councils would not get the State Government money needed for the task, a view echoed by my colleagues in New South Wales.

My colleague, LGNSW President and ALGA Vice President Linda Scott told a NSW Parliamentary inquiry last week that while some councils in regional areas might happily take on an expanded role of certification, others have reservations about the risks, and need details about timeframes and funding.

Furthermore, there are questions about inspecting hidden problems.

These include the excavations, structural concrete, fire systems, acoustic separation and drainage, such as checking that floor levels in bathrooms actually drain.

It is not possible for the average purchaser or occupant to understand these things or inspect them if they are already incorporated into a building.

Furthermore, as the 4 Corners story showed, sometimes developers create multiple companies that loan monies between each other, which makes it difficult for homeowners to determine which company is liable for a fault.

How are they made accountable? If they are a $2 company, how is their accountability backed up, and what happens if those some company founders cross state borders and set up another company?

I hope that some of these challenges can be solved in the wake of the Building Ministers Forum which in July agreed to rewrite the strategic plan of the Australian Building Codes Board and expand its membership to include greater representation and engagement from industry.

The ministers also agreed that States and Territories will maintain responsibility for building and construction matters, while the Commonwealth will continue to assist them.

The former will also take responsibility for remediation and rectification.

The bigger picture amid this is of course regulation itself. Sometimes regulation can be excessive and redundant those which are unnecessary can streamline a process.

But in other cases, the regulation is there for a purpose, and if it is removed under pressure from special interests, then you create problems, such as we’ve seen with defective buildings.

David O’Loughlin

ALGA President