BUILDING AND PLANNING LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (GOVERNANCE AND OTHER MATTERS) BILL 2013

I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Building and Planning Legislation Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2013 on behalf of the opposition, and in doing so I indicate that the opposition does not oppose the bill. We think there are a number of aspects of the bill that make good sense and bring a level of regulation and consistency in this state to the crucial areas of building and plumbing.

By way of introductory comment, we are cognisant of the Ombudsman’s report that was tabled in this Parliament in relation to the activities of the former building and plumbing commissions, and we see a number of the recommendations of the Ombudsman’s report reflected in the bill that is before us today. Many of those recommendations make good sense, and that is why we do not oppose the bill.

However, there are a number of aspects that still need to be fleshed out and understood, particularly in relation to the future intentions of the government around questions of the registration of architects and the impact of the amendments to the Architects Act 1991. As members will know, that act covers the structure and governance of the architecture profession, which a number of my colleagues in this house may make contributions on as this debate goes forward.

Also by way of introductory comment, there is perhaps no greater investment that people make, of both a financial and an emotional nature, than the investment they make in their family home. All of us would understand the crucial importance of ensuring that there is a strong and robust regulatory environment in place when, often for reasons that may not be foreseen by any of us in the construction or renovation of our properties, circumstances occur such that building disputes happen or perhaps when the building or plumbing profession has not fulfilled its legal obligations under the act.

That is where you get the intersection of the building and plumbing commissions.

I do not think there would be a member of this house who has not on occasion had cause to deal with constituents around matters pertaining to building disputes. Certainly I am cognisant of this.

A number of constituents have come to see me deeply distressed about the whole process by which they seek remedy through the various regulatory bodies that pertain to building disputes and the building insurance sector more generally, which is again a vexed area. I will come back to that because the government has signalled that it is interested in doing a bit more work in that area.

There would not be a member of this house who has not at some point had a constituent come to their office to outline what are often quite horrendous breaches of building codes or building practice more generally. To really work your way through the mire of trying to seek a remedy, particularly when you have builders who walk off sites, change their legal entity, disappear or operate in such a shoddy way — —

We are talking, Acting Speaker, as my good colleague the member for Pascoe Vale reminds us, about domestic building. I think it is important that we do understand — at least in my experience of people who have been trying to deal with domestic building disputes — that it is quite a difficult task for people to navigate through the regulatory processes and the potential investigatory processes of the Building Commission, or indeed the Plumbing Industry Commission. I simply make that point by way of reference, because I think it is fair to say that some further reform needs to occur in this space.

In the context of the bill the government has put before us today, we do in fact support many of the initiatives enshrined within this legislation. The first of those is that the legislation establishes a single regulator for builders, plumbers and architects. I will come back to the architects because I think there is a different set of issues there.

I am sure the government has received some pretty vigorous representations from architects in relation to their capture under aspects of this legislation.

The bill creates a management framework and a single commissioner for building and plumbing with an oversight board. There is an expectation from the government that this new framework will be in place by 1 July. I note that it was always a rather odd arrangement where you had the commissioner straddling both the building and plumbing commissions. This separate arrangement has not necessarily worked in the broader interests of the community, so I think this approach makes a deal of sense. Having the one management structure oversighting what is essentially the domestic aspects of building, whether it is the building or plumbing aspect, is a sensible reform.

We do note though that the Minister for Finance is considering changes to the last resort insurance policy and to existing dispute resolution mechanisms for disputes between builders and consumers. I note that this will be a welcome reform because, as I indicated at the start of my contribution, this is an area that I do think requires further clarity and, frankly, pathways that are understood by consumers. At the moment anybody who is in this form of building dispute finds it incredibly difficult to understand how they could potentially seek a remedy to the particular matter they may be confronting as a consumer.

Whether it is shoddy workmanship, a failure of the builder to complete their contractual arrangements, a circumstance where a builder simply walks off site for whatever reason, a builder who has got so many projects on that they are completely exposed financially and end up going broke, leaving the whole site in disarray, or that the builders, as in some cases, are deregistered but are still operating out there in the building industry, there is a lot to be done in this space.

I encourage the government to consider these options very carefully and to consider them from the point of view of the poor punter out there, the consumer, the person who has invested their life savings in making these extraordinary financial commitments and who has also made the emotional commitment that goes with that. In my experience there are two areas in this particular sphere that involve an enormous emotional investment by people. The first is the planning process.

Consumers invest an enormous amount of time in the whole planning process, and often if it involves an area of disputation it can constitute an enormous emotional burden for people to have to go through all of the planning process — particularly, as I say, if you are a party in a dispute. The second area is of course where a building project has gone wrong.

In relation to both of those circumstances I know from the experience of people who have made representations to me that many people never actually recover from those experiences. They do not recover emotionally, and they certainly do not recover financially. They feel as if the system — for want of a better word — in its broadest sense and the whole regulatory structure has ultimately failed them. I think that if we as a Parliament can do anything in this space to assist consumers through a simplified and clearer process, then that will always be a good thing.

I note that the authority will have an independent board of commissioners appointed by the Governor in Council on the recommendation of the minister. As we have often said in this house, when you have the minister of the day appointing members to such panels or positions in advisory processes, you need to be absolutely confident that the minister is attracting to these advisory positions people of the highest skill level to provide timely advice not only, as in this case, to the commission itself but more broadly advice relating to how further reform might occur. We want to be confident we get the right people coming into these advisory processes. Obviously we want people who are expert in the various technical areas of building and plumbing — that is a self-evident point.

I put to the government the proposition that it might think about having a consumer representative — somebody who is able to bring to that process the particular perspectives of consumers.

I do not seek to be more prescriptive than that, but it strikes me that if we could find that balance in the advisory process between people who clearly have very distinct and articulated expertise in the building, plumbing and architecture areas and somebody who has a consumer focus, that would further enhance the advisory role of the independent board.

I note that the existing industry consultative bodies — the Plumbing Advisory Council and the Building Advisory Council — will continue. We think that is a good thing. It is not clear to us, however — and maybe the government will be able to assist us in relation to this — how this function will be compatible with the Victorian Building Authority board. What will be the relationship between the two is not clear to us at the moment, and if government members could perhaps elaborate a bit on that in their contributions, we would welcome that. We note that the bill also provides for the establishment of the position of chief executive officer and that the CEO will not hold a board position.

Again in terms of contemporary governance structures, I think that is a good thing — that there be a clear delineation between the two roles. The CEO is there to run the place, and you have a board structure. That is what we would expect going forward in terms of contemporary governance.

There are a couple of other aspects of the bill I think are important. One is that there is an inconsistency in the appeals process at the moment, which is being sorted out. Currently appeals from the Building Practitioners Board go to the Building Appeals Board, which is inconsistent with the appeals process applying to plumbers and architects. Such appeals go to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), which I think is sensible. That is sensible, and that is clearly an appropriate role for VCAT, providing again a clear and unambiguous process for appeals. We think that is a sensible reform.

An application for registration or licensing must be accompanied by an authorisation to conduct a police record check. As I recall it, this was one of the Ombudsman’s recommendations. That will not apply, however, to existing practitioners. Going forward there are the police check changes, and the current requirement for applicants to proactively disclose if they have been convicted of an indictable offence and the existing criteria for determining what level of offence warrants refusal of registration and of a licence will continue.

I want to briefly touch on the amendments proposed in relation to architects. At this stage the bill makes only minor reference to the future of the Architects Act 1991 and the future of the Architects Registration Board of Victoria.

While there are still intentions to include the functions of the architects registration board within the new Victorian Building Authority, there is no clear indication of how the current functions will be transferred to the new authority and what improvements can be made in order to justify the extent of the proposed reforms. We would submit that there has been no acknowledgement of the detailed function of the board and the significant networking arrangements that exist between the boards of the various states and territories. The architects board, I would submit, acknowledges the need for the restructure of the Building Commission, but what that board essentially is wanting to understand is what the government’s long-term view is about how it sees architects fitting within this broader structure. Architects have indicated very clearly in submissions to us that there has been very poor consultation.

It is quite surprising that there has been very poor consultation between the government and the architectural profession through its various forms of governance in relation to this structure and what at this stage are — albeit relatively minor — amendments in this bill. I encourage the government, if it is going to bring architects under this new structure, to understand that it really needs to articulate how it sees this functioning vis-a-vis the existing Architects Act 1991 and the ongoing functions of architects and their registration and governance going forward.

At this stage the chairperson of the Architects Registration Board of Victoria has taken a quite unambiguous position that the government has failed to properly engage or indeed consult widely enough with the architectural profession more generally, not only about the proposed reforms that are before us today, minor as they are, but also, not surprisingly, because the profession wants to know what the future will look like and where architecture will sit in terms of this broader governance structure.

I have to reflect in that context that at least in my experience you rarely hear about problems with architects, the registration of architects and the general performance of the profession of architecture. In my experience I have not heard had any complaints coming to me about architects generally. Certainly you get plenty of complaints around building and plumbing matters and so forth, but I have to ask the obvious question: why has the government put architects in here? It seems to me there is a good structure in place, there is good governance in place, very vigorous professional assessment and registration of architects, and the issue of architects versus draftspersons has been pretty well sorted out.

It is not clear at all to me why architects have come within the purview of this legislation.

Again I hope in his contribution to the debate the parliamentary secretary, who will follow me in the debate, will articulate somewhat as to the government’s reasoning for bringing architects into this act, save and except for the fact that clearly they are the first stage of the building process. But I would be interested to get some further articulation of the reason the government has put them in there.

The history of the this government’s relationship with the Building Commission and the appointment of some of the people to the commission is well known. It is a sorry history, to be honest, and one I think the government cannot be particularly proud of, particularly in relation to some of its appointments to the commission.

We have read material in the newspapers about clear conflicts of interest in terms of awarding of contracts and so forth, and it is troubling going forward that we find these sorts of examples in this area. The recommendations of the Ombudsman were a call for action. Whilst I acknowledge that the government has picked up many of his recommendations in relation to the Building Commission, it is important to have confidence that the government will ensure that not only is the structure right but the people who get appointed to these boards are the best and brightest and people who are able to reflect the full aspects of the building industry and plumbing industry more generally.

With those comments I indicate that we do not oppose the bill but we look forward to hearing from the lead speaker on behalf of the government, and I hope he will take the opportunity to address some of the questions opposition members have raised.

I think they are legitimate concerns that have been raised with us by architects and others about whether the government will ensure that people who go on to the advisory structure not only will represent the very technical aspects of the building and plumbing industry but also will advocate on behalf of consumers. That would be an important and helpful add-on.

It is important for the government to articulate going forward, perhaps in the next tranche of legislation — as the Attorney-General indicated in his introductory comments to this bill that there will be further reform — about how domestic building disputes will be dealt with and about the last resort insurance policy, which is something very fundamental to consumers. We look forward to seeing how the next tranche of the legislation manifests itself. We look forward to the government speaker responding to and addressing some of those questions in his contribution to the debate.