Air Conditioning and Mechanical Contractors' Association (AMCA) executive manager of policy and communications, Ben Hawkins, identifies industry priorities in the lead up to the federal election which is likely to take place in May.
1. Building reform
Heading into an election year, the building and construction industry has found itself firmly in the spotlight.
In late December, concerns about the safety and quality of commercial buildings were highlighted when occupants were forced to evacuate their homes at Opal Tower in Sydney.
Soon after, building safety was again front of mind when the Neo200 apartment building in the heart of Melbourne’s CBD caught fire.
As a result of these incidents and others, confidence in the building and construction industry is being undermined. The fear is that these incidents foreshadow a deeper and far-reaching compliance problem that extends right across the industry.
While these stories are of course shattering for those on the receiving end of poor building practices, they also present opportunities for leadership and action.
At the Building Ministers’ Forum in February, we saw some evidence of the type of action we can expect, where the New South Wales Government announced their plan to register and place statutory obligations on building practitioners. At the same meeting, the Victorian Government proposed a total ban on the use of combustible cladding on building facades.
These announcements follow reforms already being undertaken in other jurisdictions, especially in Queensland where significant changes are being introduced to strengthen and expand supply chain responsibilities under the non-conforming building products regime.
As we approach the federal election in May, the question needs to be posed as to what role the federal government plays in ensuring the safety and amenity of buildings, as well as the fairness, prosperity and sustainability of the industry more broadly?
With so much of the responsibility for building regulation and oversight housed at the state level, these are not such easy questions.
The following outlines four key areas that the AMCA is prioritising in our conversations with all political parties at the Commonwealth level.
2. Shergold-Weir recommendations
Authored by prominent experts Professor Peter Shergold AC and Ms Bronwyn Weir, the Building Confidence Report was commissioned in response to concerns raised well before the Opal Tower or Neo200 building incidents.
The report was published in February 2018 and offers 24 recommendations aimed at restoring public trust through effective implementation of building and construction standards.
Recommendations covered a range of compliance issues, including the registration and training or practitioners; the roles and responsibilities of regulators; the collection and sharing of building information; the adequacy of documentation and record keeping; as well as those relating to inspections, post-construction information management and building product safety.
The AMCA was pleased to see the implementation plan finally released on March 12, and along with many of our industry colleagues, strongly encourage government to implement the Shergold-Weir recommendations in full. A collaborative approach and strong leadership at the Building Ministers’ Forum is required, and we would like to see a commitment to periodic reporting of the actions taken by each jurisdiction.
3. Payment practices
Of course, the focus on building safety, quality and compliance is paramount; however, it is important to recognise that buildings are delivered within the context of contractual and procurement arrangements that have a very real impact on practitioners’ ability to execute their work in accordance with the National Construction Code and other technical and regulatory requirements.
Even before the incidents at Opal Tower and Neo200, the building and construction industry was in focus for very different reasons. Following several high-profile corporate collapses in 2018, mainstream media turned a spotlight onto the number of construction industry insolvencies, the poor payment of subcontractors and the prevalence of unfair contract conditions.
Numerous inquiries—at both Commonwealth and State-levels—have looked into these issues over the past twenty-five years. These inquiries have repeatedly identified common areas for reform; however, many worthwhile recommendations remain unimplemented with significant economic and social costs.
As a starting point, the AMCA in advocating for a change to the Unfair Contract Term Protections for Small Business Act, so that the protections are more accessible by specialist contractors operating in the building and construction industry.
This includes amending the thresholds so that businesses with up to 100 employees and higher contract values are not precluded from accessing the Act. It also includes providing guidance (and amending the Act if necessary), to ensure that the standard form contract requirement is broad enough to apply to subcontracts that often start out based on a standard form, but can be heavily amended to suit the needs of the head contractor.
More broadly, the AMCA is advocating for government to take leadership in construction procurement by using their purchasing power to drive change in procurement and contract management practices.
This includes adopting more collaborative project delivery models and contractual arrangements, standardising contracts where possible, clarifying procurement approaches and providing guidance material that clearly defines key terms, adopting a value-based approach to contractor appointment and risk allocation, and committing to greater oversight of the contract conditions and payment practices for supply chain participants beyond the head contract.
Retain the Australian Building and Construction Commission. Unfortunately, the role of the Australian Building and Construction Commission has become a political football and we expect clear differentiation between the policies of the two major political parties.
The AMCA believes that the commission plays an important role in acting as a deterrent to the worst examples of behaviour that can occur on constructions sites; however, we also highlight the improvements that the ABCC have made towards being a full-service regulatory body.
In addition to matters relating to freedom of association, enterprise bargaining, right of entry, industrial action and coercion; the ABCC receives complaints in other areas such the underpayment of wages and entitlements, security of payment and sham contracting.
Furthermore, the impact of their new website, E-Alerts and ABCC Onsite application should not be underestimated, as it serves to further industry knowledge and set expectations regarding the rights and responsibilities of both employers and employees.
4. VET Review
AMCA welcomed the review of the Vocational Education and Training (VET) system when it was announced late last year, and without presupposing the recommendations to be handed down by the former New Zealand skills minister, Mr Steven Joyce, we are encouraged by his public comments which appear aligned with some of the things we have been advocating for some time.
These include the need to address a lack of information for school leavers about VET career pathways and the merits of VET over university education, ongoing confusion and policy uncertainty around funding, and most importantly, the responsiveness of training packages to the needs of industry.