Customs Amendment (Safer Cladding) Bill 2017 - Second Reading


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (11:13): I apologise to Senator Ketter for messing him around on the speaking list, but I am here, so I will speak where I was supposed to. This is an interesting debate. I was particularly interested in what Senator Rhiannon said and what I understand Senator Carr said previously. I just want to indicate that the coalition government understands the issues and the problems and is setting about fixing the problem. In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire there has been concern in the community about combustible material in high-rise buildings, naturally enough and appropriately enough. The Turnbull government has been working with state and territory building ministers to implement multiple reforms to prevent the misuse of aluminium composite panels and to ensure the safety of Australia's built environment.

Some of the things the government is doing include, importantly, the reinvigoration of the Building Ministers' Forum. The Building Ministers' Forum was convened by the Australian government. It is made up of the state and territory building ministers, and it's responsible for building and plumbing policy and regulation, because, as I think has been mentioned previously, those building and plumbing policy regulations are matters for the state and territory governments under the system of government in Australia. People often say the system shouldn't be like that, but unfortunately that's the way it is—that is, over the years and under the Constitution, the authority that has responsibility for making these regulations is the states and the territories.

Typically with the states and territories, particularly these days, if there's good news, they claim it—it doesn't matter where it comes from—and, if it's bad news, it's always the federal government's fault. We know that across Australia, in so many different ways, the Commonwealth government has good policies. It makes election commitments, only to have them negated by recalcitrant state governments. The one that I continue to be annoyed about in my home state of Queensland, up in the North of the state where I come from, is a policy the government went to an election on. It promised to set up a northern Australia infrastructure fund to encourage development of northern Australia—entirely a Commonwealth government initiative and entirely Commonwealth government funded. But unfortunately the legislation setting it up, for constitutional reasons, said that the money had to pass through the states, and the states therefore had a veto authority.

Recently the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility has wanted to look at funding a particular infrastructure development, but the state has said, 'No, we don't like that development, so we're not going to allow the money to pass through us from the Commonwealth to the developer of that infrastructure.' I'll be more specific: it's about the Adani rail line that would join Abbot Point near Bowen, just south of where I live, to the new coalfields in the Galilee Basin. It would create, according to independent estimates, up to 11,000 jobs in the Townsville region, where, unfortunately, there is regrettably high unemployment at the moment. Small business in the Townsville region is struggling, and the Adani proposal was a lifeline almost from heaven. Here was billions and billions of dollars to be spent and huge numbers of jobs to be created, and the Townsville population were ecstatic at the thought of not only the jobs that this would create but the confidence that it would give to that section of northern Australia. But the Labor Party government in Queensland, for no real policy reason but because the Greens political party keeps them in power in Queensland and the Greens don't like mines, vetoed the Commonwealth money going through the infrastructure fund as a loan to Adani—just vetoed it.

Mr Shorten now is having two bob each way as he campaigns in Batman, trying to hold off the onslaught of the Greens political party in that Melbourne latte set electorate. People down there don't give a damn about jobs in North Queensland as they sit around and sip their latte coffees. All they're interested in is this interesting battle between the Labor Party and the Greens over a federal electorate in the Melbourne area. They don't give a stuff about jobs and the unemployed and small business in North Queensland, and they don't have any interest at all in the development of the North of our country. Mr Shorten, after initially supporting the NAIF and what it could do, is now resiling, backing off. This is just an instance of where the states and territories, as in the matter that is the subject of this bill, are trying to say, 'We know it's our responsibility, but we don't want to do that because it's a negative for us politically, so we'll try and blame the federal government.'

The Building Ministers' Forum, which I was talking about, is convened by the Australian government but made up of the territory and state building ministers. The forum is chaired by the federal minister, and the current minister, Minister Laundy, has performed this role since 2016. The Labor Party have been critical of that forum and critical of the Commonwealth government, but their criticism is entirely hypocritical, because the Australian government has at last reconvened that group, since the coalition government has been in power, and is attempting to move forward in a collegiate way with the involvement of state and territory governments. You see, when Labor were in power, for those horrible six years, they failed to convene a building ministers' forum over the 38 months when they were in power between 2010 and 2013. So Labor criticise that meeting, but when they were in power they didn't even bother to call it together and didn't even have the meeting; that's how much they cared about what the states and territories were doing to ensure a safe built environment.

These meetings are not just token meetings. At every meeting that the current federal government, the Turnbull government, have convened they've worked collaboratively with the states and territories and held them to account for their compliance and enforcement issues. If there are issues with combustible material on high-rise buildings, that is something the states and territories should be addressing. This bill, the Customs Amendment (Safer Cladding) Bill 2017, seems to be trying to bring that in as a responsibility of federal government, when the powers to do things about combustible materials are already in place in state and territory legislation. But the states and territories, for some reason—political, I suspect—don't want to do it.

The federal government can't support this bill, although we recognise there is a genuine community concern about the non-compliant use of combustible external wall cladding in Australia. The safety of occupants of high-rise buildings, including fire safety, is and has always been a priority for the Australian government, but the solution presented in this bill will not fix the problem. Aluminium composite panels, including polyethelene core aluminium composite panels, are a safe and legitimate building product in Australia if they are used appropriately and in compliance with the National Construction Code, and it's the responsibility of the states and territories to make sure they are used appropriately and in compliance with the national code. The introduction of border controls to resist the importation of a legitimate product would be neither effective nor practical to implement. These products are not just used in high-rise buildings, which are the cause of this bill's concern. I understand the concern of the bill's mover and appreciate it, but it is misplaced. We should be managing cladding, not banning it. Banning the importation of these aluminium composite panels would have unintended consequences for those businesses that use the product correctly, legitimately and legally.

We need to ensure that the Australian public has confidence in its built environment. The coalition government takes that responsibility very seriously, but banning specific products that may have legitimate uses outside of high-rise buildings is not the answer. Banning imports of this product is equivalent to just treating a symptom. Instead the Commonwealth government is working to solve the actual underlying problem and it's working in that regard with the state and territory governments, which it should do, and is doing. The problem is accountability of all participants across the building supply chain in ensuring that products are installed in a way that is compliant with the National Construction Code.

I understand the inquiry into Grenfell Tower is not yet finalised. I understand that event shocked everyone, and those who saw the video footage of that would well understand that. We do know that that building in London was constructed in 1970 and it appeared to lack many standard fire safety features of modern buildings, even fire sprinklers, and it had only one fire-insulated staircase for evacuation. There are reports that the cladding was retrofitted to the building shortly before the fire without also addressing numerous other fire safety hazard concerns that had been raised by residents. The combination of these factors appears to have contributed to the spread of the fire and to the very unfortunate and regrettable loss of life. I know all parliamentarians and, indeed, all Australians would express their sincere and heartfelt sympathy to the residents and families affected by that fire.

In Australia, the National Construction Code has strict fire safety requirements for high-rise apartment buildings. The National Construction Code contains fire safety requirements that limit the spread of fire, alert occupants to the detection of smoke, facilitate evacuation and enable fire brigade operations in those buildings. Specific requirements vary with the building size. The provision for a typical high-rise apartment building in Australia includes requirements for smoke detection and occupation warning systems; fire isolation of exits such as exit stairs; more than one exit for each storey to allow alternative means of escape should one exit become unusable; exclusion of smoke from exit stairs; fire sprinklers; fire-resistant construction to limit the spread of fire between apartments and between storeys; non-combustible external walls; resistance to collapse as a result of fire; and features to assist fire brigade operations, such as fire hydrants.

Aluminium composite panels are a legitimate building product in Australia—I've said this before, and I emphasise it—if used appropriately and in compliance with the National Construction Code. However, if it's used in a noncompliant manner, as was the case in the Lacrosse apartments in Melbourne and the fire that occurred in November 2014, then it can contribute to the spread of fire. The National Construction Code does not permit the use of combustible material in the external wall cladding of these high-rise buildings. This has been the case since Australia established a national code back in 1990. The problem with the Lacrosse building was that due to the failures in practitioner competency and state government administration compliance systems that building was allowed to exist, and it had that disastrous consequence. The Victorian Building Authority conducted an investigation and is undertaking disciplinary action against the building's surveyors. Of course, it's a bit too late after the event. It is necessary for the state authorities to actually ensure compliance during the construction phrase and at all times thereafter. The Building Ministers' Forum asked the Australian Building Code Board to review the evidence of suitability provisions in clause A2.2 of the National Construction Code, which requires that products must be fit for the intended purpose. The Australian Building Code Board office found that the underlying problem at the Lacrosse building was due to failures, as I say, in the compliance systems and in the practitioners' competency.

In December two years ago the Building Ministers' Forum agreed to implement a comprehensive package of measures to address these concerns of non-compliant use of wall cladding and fire safety in high-rise buildings. The package includes referencing a contemporary and rigorous testing standard based on internal best practice for full-scale testing of fire performance and external facade systems. Also, rigorous, contemporary and clear National Construction Code requirements need to be provided to improve application and compliance. We need to enhance on-site checking, auditing and enforcement and provide practitioners with tools and supporting materials to support compliance with the National Construction Code.

While I appreciate the concern, the thought and the goodwill behind this proposed bill, for the reasons I and other speakers from the government have mentioned it's not appropriate at this stage because the panels that the promoters of this bill want to ban from importation do have a perfectly useful and legitimate use if used appropriately.

I conclude by returning to Senator Carr's attempt in some way to blame this all on the federal government. I repeat that the federal government is at least at last reactivating the Building Ministers' Forum, something that Labor let lapse over 38 months. They did absolutely nothing. We hear about that all the time. I congratulate the current minister on his work in getting the Building Ministers' Forum together so that these things can be talked about between the states and territories so the states and territories can discharge their obligations in compliance and approvals for buildings being built in Australia. Whilst I appreciate the thoughts behind the bill, for the reasons I've mentioned it's not one that the government can support.

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