Senate debates

Monday, 29 July 2019



9:55 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

From across the chamber, I acknowledge the passing of a person who was determined to serve this nation. It's a great honour to do it and it is a great commitment for your family to enable you to do it.

The work that we do here does matter. This evening I want to raise concern about the nature of the work of the current government, the new Morrison government. Another day has gone past and another occasion upon which this government has failed to adequately respond to a critical issue for Australia right now, and that is the public safety concerns around housing. There's no agenda on the horizon, from what we can see, about the responsibility to protect people in what they comfortably know, for the most part, as their own home. We saw the failure of this government immediately in this month's Building Ministers' Forum where it failed to address legacy issues in the building industry and, instead, offered only a modicum of regulation on new buildings, offering no relief to the plethora of current buildings that are in strife.

Last Christmas, and I say this as a senator from the great state of New South Wales, the country watched in horror as residents of Sydney's Opal Tower were evacuated as cracks crept up the walls of their homes and threatened to destroy the building itself. Now, only a few months later, we have seen another Sydney tower block, in Mascot, evacuated due to similar shoddy building practices. This epidemic of dodgy development isn't confined to Sydney alone, but I do know from my conversations with the new leader of Labor in New South Wales, Jodi McKay, the member for Strathfield, that she is very concerned about the failure of the Liberal government in that state to own up to not paying attention while these buildings were under construction and currently failing to deal with the reality that people are at risk in their homes. But it's not just Sydney, and that's why it matters what happens here in Canberra as well. In Melbourne, flames engulfed the cladding of the 43-storey Neo200 building in February, and last year incomplete grouting in Central Melbourne's Collins Arch project caused the pre-cast concrete columns to crumble.

There is a crisis on our building sites across the nation. Every Australian should feel safe in their own home. A home is somewhere to relax after a tough day at work. It's somewhere to raise your family, to build memories, to be a sanctuary against the slings and arrows of the outside world. No Australian home should make their owner fear for their safety; nor should any Australian be forced to live for weeks out of a hotel room, fearing that their home is going to collapse. The Morrison government has, instead, ruled out any federal funding to remove cladding, despite the horrors of the Grenfell Tower disaster in the UK and this year's Neo200 fire in Melbourne.

Only last week, in my beloved home place of Robertson on the Central Coast, the Erina ice rink has been forced to close for at least a year due to the concerns over dangerous and possibly flammable cladding. The disaster of that in terms in a public health risk is one thing, but behind the inability to access that service is some young person's dream of success or some family's practice of providing opportunity for their son or daughter to grow their skills. They won't be able to access that building because the supervision of it has been so grossly inadequate that its safety is now an issue and it's too dangerous for people to actually use the building for the purpose for which it was designed. That is a failure that should not be happening in Australia in the 21st century.

In New South Wales the Berejiklian government has also failed to adequately respond to any of the crises in the building industry in Sydney despite the clear case for action and, unlike the government in Victoria, the Berejiklian government hasn't announced any money to replace dangerous and flammable cladding.

The 2018 Shergold Weir report identified many problems with state enforcement of building codes, saying that intervention by state governments is rare and that enforceable is lax with very few providers having their licences revoked. And, in some cases, we've been hearing that licencing simply doesn't exist.

The construction industry amounted to about eight per cent of Australia's GDP last year. It's the biggest non-service sector of our economy, employing about 1.1 million Australians, and people who work in this industry are rightly proud of the great work they do, the buildings that they build for Australians to live and work in safely, to recreate in. They go with the best intent, delivering what is enabled and allowed by the laws and regulations of this time. It's the regulations that are failing, not good hardworking Australians.

This is an important sector in our economy. It cannot be allowed to have the confidence in it undermined or to maintain outdated and dangerous practices. This has caused such a crisis that many insurers now have refused to renew indemnity policies for many building certifiers or they've flagged an increase in premiums due to a flood of claims. So, for some certifiers, premiums have jumped by over 300 per cent in this last year alone. That is drastically increasing the cost of doing business.

Labor understands that reform must be led from this federal government and that it must be uniform across the nation. A house is a house is a house no matter what state or territory you live in. Conditions of safety are required for every family and every workplace. And that's why Labor supports commonsense reform, such as introducing direct identification numbers to help catch dodgy phoenixing directors, to improve compliance with the National Construction Code and to toughen up penalties for noncompliance. These are essential changes that the federal government could take right away to ensure that bad apples in the industry are punished and that key points of the broken regulatory framework are fixed. But have we seen any action from this government in responding to the crisis that people are facing across this nation as homes around them are so unstable that they're forced to move out with their children and live in temporary motel-like accommodation with sometimes $700,000 or $800,000 worth of mortgage still hanging over their head and the cost of remediation being targeted at them?

This disaster is on the watch of two Liberal governments at state and federal levels. This crisis needs a revolution in both the culture and the practices in the building industry which have for too long clearly rewarded greed and speed at the cost of the very inhabitants of the buildings that were being constructed. The government needs to show leadership and to send a clear message to those who would endanger lives by cutting corners, cutting costs. We're not a Third-World set of practices here in building. We will not stand for this malfeasance any longer.

When this government and the New South Wales government defend the indefensible, remember this reality of homes literally falling apart has happened because there were safety provisions that they allowed to slip away in the name of reducing red tape. They sold off community safety to the highest bidder, to the loudest voices and to the most unscrupulous, and the price of their red tape reduction is far too high. Ask the families who once lived in Sydney's Opal Tower.

The reforms that we need cannot be piecemeal. Shameful practices cannot be allowed to flourish in any state or territory and, instead, they must be stamped out nationwide. The Morrison government cannot continue to abrogate its responsibility to safeguard the lives and wellbeing and property of Australians. Scott Morrison and Minister Andrews can no longer ignore the actions of dodgy operators and cowboys in the building industry. On behalf of the people of New South Wales, whose requests are falling on deaf ears in the Berejiklian government, and also here in Canberra, I call once again, urgently, on Minister Andrews and Prime Minister Scott Morrison to enact a coherent package of reforms, one modelled on that recommended by the Shergold-Weir report, and ensure that Australians buying their homes in good faith will not have their property and their dreams crumble around them. We cannot let another disaster like the Opal Tower, or something even worse, like the Grenfell Tower disaster, occur in an Australian city. The time to act is now. The Prime Minister should move on this issue.