Matters of Urgency - Building and Construction Industry

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (16:10): One would almost say this motion is a no brainer. Clearly it deserves support, as does any regulation or law deserve support. I know there is one union around the country, the CFMEU, that thinks that laws are made for everybody else except it. It seems to think that it can choose which laws it will abide by and which laws it will ignore, but the rest of Australia agrees that laws are in place to abide by, even if sometimes we don't think they're appropriate. As law-abiding citizens, we should actually abide by them. What Senator Burston and the One Nation party have done with this motion is to highlight the inconsistencies in regulation, or perhaps enforcement, of the national building code around Australia. I thank Senator Burston for raising this matter; I thank Senator Georgiou for his opening remarks, which highlight the issues of concern. They are no doubt of concern not only to the movers but also, I would imagine, to all of us in this chamber.

The Australian government clearly recognises there is genuine community concern about the use of non-compliant and non-conforming building products. Our National Construction Code is amongst the best in the world, and Australians across the board can have confidence in our built environment. We do recognise that we need to continue to work hard to ensure that Australians can continue to have that trust in our built environment. The federal government does not have legislative or regulatory power in this area, but it has an important role in working with the states and territories to ensure the safety of buildings. I congratulate the Minister for Small and Family Business, the Workplace and Deregulation, the Hon. Craig Laundy, for his work with the Building Ministers Forum, which brings together the relevant Commonwealth, state and territory ministers to set strategic directions for building and construction activity in Australia. The key issue that all governments have agreed requires priority focus is addressing building safety in ensuring appropriate compliance with the national code.

Now I understand, from Senator Burston's motion and from the speech of its mover, Senator Georgiou, that what One Nation is saying is it shouldn't be left to the states and territories; there should be a national code and national enforcement. You could argue about that, but that is, unfortunately, an element of our federalism: we do have a lot of areas of jurisdiction where the Commonwealth doesn't have power but has, over the years, tried to bring a national approach to particular areas.

The Commonwealth is not set up in a public service way to send the police around to enforce the National Construction Code. That has always traditionally been left to the state and territory governments. I understand that One Nation is saying, 'You should get the states and territories out of it and get the Commonwealth to do it.' That opens up the debate on how much the Commonwealth should be centrally controlling everything and how much we believe in federalism, diversification of power and the right of states to administer the things they were left to do under the Constitution. Things that weren't specifically mentioned in the Constitution as Commonwealth powers automatically become the responsibility of the states. That's how it has worked over the years. As I said, there are many different arguments about whether that's good or bad.

One area I would like to see the Commonwealth have more involvement in is rivers and streams, and the allocation and control of water in our vast country, but, unfortunately, only in the Snowy Mountains area and the Murray-Darling Basin, where rivers cross state borders, does the Commonwealth have authority under the Constitution. You can see what happened with the Snowy Mountains scheme, and particularly Snowy 2.0, the brainchild—and love child, might I say—of Prime Minister Turnbull. The Commonwealth is able to go in and do things there, whereas in my state of Queensland, as Senator Hanson knows, although the Commonwealth government can get feasibility studies done and provide money for water activity, we can't actually do it, because it is a responsibility of the state government. As Senator Hanson well knows, you cannot get the Queensland Labor government to do anything with water, because of the Greens political party which keeps them in power—although I might say they're not the only party to do so; One Nation's preference arrangements also assisted. Because of that, you can never rely on some of the water regulation and storage projects desperately needed in my state of Queensland, and I suspect in other states also.

But I have diverged slightly from the question of this motion, in which the senator has highlighted a number of quite dangerous and concerning activities that should be curtailed. I'm not sure whether the Commonwealth can—perhaps by better use of import and border protection powers—look at some of these imported construction enhancements that are not in accordance with the National Construction Code. They are in the code for a reason. The code was adopted by the Commonwealth and all of the state ministers at the ministerial forum. Each state agreed this code would apply. As I mentioned, it's then up to the regulatory enforcement authorities in the various states and territories to ensure those rules in the code—which, as I understand, are replicated in state and territory legislation—are enforced.

In his motion, Senator Burston raises that wider issue: should we leave that with the states and territories or take it over as a Commonwealth responsibility? As I said, that's a bigger concern. But I think that by raising this very important issue in the chamber today when, fortuitously, the other chamber isn't sitting, so we get a little bit more publicity for these sorts of things than we would normally get in the Senate, the mover has highlighted some of the existing problems and the need for enforcement action.

As I said before, it's a no-brainer. The law is there for a very valid purpose, and if it's being breached it should be enforced because we certainly don't want the people of Australia to be impeded upon by substandard products that can, at times, be very dangerous. So I thank the mover for alerting the parliament to this. A number of Senate committees have dealt with similar issues, particularly following the fire in London last year. It is an important thing and I'm glad it is being discussed. The more we can draw attention to this, the more we can get community support for the proper enforcement of the laws which deal with construction within Australia.

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