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Victoria tackles flammable cladding: safety “fix” or confidence trick?

Richard Wynne at construction site with two men
Richard Wynne, Victorian Minister for Planning, Housing and Multicultural Affairs

OPINION: In July, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and the state’s minister for planning, Richard Wynne, trumpeted that $600 million would tackle Victoria’s high-rise cladding crisis. It was paraded as a safety solution for owners of affected buildings but the “fix” was a contemptible confidence trick.

For years, the Andrews government was seemingly unruffled by the public’s outrage over its perceived inaction on flammable cladding. Some may have assumed this latest move was a belated response to the cries for action. Not so. Secretly, officialdom had been fiddling tirelessly, fine-tuning laws to further favour business, and had discreetly put a plan into action in early 2015.

Theatrical tricks

In June, stage-managed leaks puffed forthcoming news. Andrews’ trickled the tip-off that taxes would bankroll rectification works and a draft website surfaced signalling that a new government agency, Cladding Safety Victoria (CSV), would direct funding. For both, taxpayers were tapped to be the benefactors.

Then to diminish these disturbing dispatches, the website flashed the flimflam that CSV would “get buildings fixed and made safe, quickly” and provide “free services and assistance to apartment owners faced with removing combustible cladding”.

It was a theatrical campaign made up, simultaneously, of the leaks of bad tidings for taxpayers and the rumour that help would be offered to distraught owners to quickly fix their buildings.

Peddling “safety package”          

Then came the July media release from Andrews and Wynne, which was really little more than the clumsy fusion of cladding action and compassion.

Andrews told the media the “safety package” was “a world-first program” that included:

  • A $600 million cladding rectification fund, made up of $300 million from the state government and $300 million from new building levies
  • A new agency, Cladding Safety Victoria, with $15 million in initial funds
  • Rectification work for about 500 of the most dangerous buildings

A very nervous Andrews knew it was a difficult gig, but despite his simple task of delivering a short, snugly scripted speech, he could not carry off the “community safety” charade. No amount of spurious spin could negate the facts or inspire conviction.

Wynne was interviewed by 3AW radio presenter Tom Elliott, with Wynne introduced as the “man at the top of this rather messy pie”.

Elliott focused on the unfairness of taxpayers being forced to fork out for the rectification of privately-owned buildings. Wynne’s response was that the Victorian Cladding Taskforce, which is overseeing an audit of buildings to identify dangerous cladding, recommended the government address the rectification of buildings. Astoundingly, this was nearly five years after the cladding on the high-rise Lacrosse building in Melbourne’s Docklands caught fire, igniting Victoria’s cladding crisis and alerting the public to the fact that tens of thousands of people living in buildings covered in lethal cladding were at risk.

When Elliott suggested corruption was the root cause of the crisis – building surveyors being paid by builders – Wynne had to agree. Could this be changed, asked Elliott? Wynne stammered, saying only that the government would look at it when it reformed the Building Act.

Wynne failed to mention “reforms” enacted four years earlier to shore up the status quo by protecting recalcitrant certifiers. In relation to non-compliant cladding, shamefully, the laws were designed to deprive the Victorian Building Authority (VBA) of its powers to order rectification works once owners had taken possession of a building. After handover, all involved in defective and unsafe construction, including certifiers who approved such works, were off the hook. Nominated as “consumer protection” laws, the statutes actually ensured consumers remained unprotected.

As Wynne must know, without any punishment or penalties, there is no incentive for the industry to change and the VBA is, in truth, the industry’s best friend.

Follow the money trail

Where the money will come from for the Premier’s promised $600 million package remains, predictably, unclear. Last July’s media release mentioned “grants” and possible “contributions” from the federal government.

At the press conference, Andrews gulped as he faked this could “fully fund” the 500+ buildings, knowing few would swallow this hogwash. Then rashly Andrews said: “No building can ever be completely risk free.” More oddly, he said that rectification would “get to an acceptable level of risk”.

Victorians were told they have paid $15 million for the initial creation of Cladding Safety Victoria, but the cladding catastrophe would soon cost them much more than that.

Andrews said that rectification of the most dangerous 15 buildings would be funded with money earmarked in the last budget. This misappropriation of taxpayers’ money is so large a sum that it was not divulged. If we assume that the average cost of rectification of a large building is $15 million, then for 15 buildings the total would be in the vicinity of $225 million.

Lastly, Andrews dropped another bombshell. Taxpayers would foot the bill for $165 million to rectify public buildings. The system, designed to fail owners and taxpayers, has compelled both to pay repeatedly whilst those responsible for constructing these dangerously, deadly buildings remain protected and at large. Builders aren’t punished or penalised and will contribute not a cent towards the enormous bill.

Future Owners

Andrews claimed flammable cladding was “beyond politics” and proposed that the federal government contribute $300 million to the package, a suggestion the Commonwealth has rejected.

During his 3AW interview, Wynne said the current modest planning levy of $350 (called a Building Permit levy) would be increased, and applied to buildings worth over $800,000, raising the $300 million. He failed to mention how any rectification of problems faced by future owners would be funded.

It will take five years to raise $300 million in levies, so no “fast fix” is on the way.

The real cost

As analytical research reveals, the likely damage bill for rectifying the combustible-clad buildings will be huge. Conservative industry estimates for Victoria alone suggest the aggregate bill is estimated to range between $28.75 billion and $115 billion, compared with the paltry $1 billion estimate made by the Victorian government.

Labor has governed for 16 of the past 20 years in Victoria and continued systematically to entrench a failed system. For hundreds of thousands of consumers caught in the chaos, for future owners, and for taxpayers, the costs will continue to soar.

This subterfuge was sculpted to marry three incompatible objectives. First, it was contrived to quell criticism. Second, it aimed to rescue the government’s construction business partners by restoring reputational damage to the industry. Third, by covertly fuelling “systemic failure” underpinned by conflict of interest, this duplicitous “fix” would shore up cartel profiteering.

Anne Paten is an activist in the Victorian building sector with 13 years as a consumer advocate and activist on building and construction issues.


Spinifex is an opinion column open to all our readers. We require 700+ words on issues related to sustainability especially in the built environment and in business. For a more detailed brief please send an email to editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

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Comments

7 Responses to “Victoria tackles flammable cladding: safety “fix” or confidence trick?”

  • NERRIDA POHL says:

    Hi Anne. Excellent article. Thank you.

  • Sheila says:

    I went to the Victorian Building Action Group AGM last month and filmed Anne’s speech and wrote an article about this. (See video-link below) The attendees were mostly people who had been massively fleeced by the system, with few illusions remaining. There is so much more to know about this industry. It is like a mafia reaching into every corner of the country, into the government, the media, and the legal system, a mockery of what Australia is supposed to be like.

    Video here: https://youtu.be/zsyyVILjGpE

    Article here: https://candobetter.net/node/5851 Video: “Lies, spin and rubbish” – How government & the law mistreat Australian building consumers.”

  • Irvine says:

    Anne, your investigative articles are very insightful. Clearly the flammable cladding fix was a huge confidence trick by the Andrews government. As always your research is meticulous, obviously time-consuming and so most credible. Following on from your earlier article in the Fifth Estate (September 2018) where you gave an estimate of the total billion $ cladding bill for owners and explained how they landed it, this trick comes from the same government, and under pressure to pretend yet another fix. This to sound caring, but really to cover up the truth. The $300 Million currently allocated will be taken from taxpayers but it will be given to very few of the hundreds of thousands of owners with flammable cladding on their buildings – such a small amount and nowhere near enough. Recently, I read of an apartment owner who totally agrees with you, saying that $300 Million would perhaps fix a tiny percentage of buildings affected and known now. So what of all the other owners in buildings already identified? What of those buildings not yet checked? Then when the real total of both are combined, how many owners will be left out in the cold? This is not a building crisis, the conduct here is criminal. The truth swept under the carpet and the hundreds of thousands of people who only wanted a home also swept under the carpet with the magical story of Andrews so-called help. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading your next article.

  • Andrew says:

    Thank you for spelling out the truth of this story of the Victorian government doing its “tackling”, and when it had no such intention to tackle or to resolve any of the many causes of the widespread use of flammable cladding. Or to help those affected, likely to be in the hundreds of thousands of Victorians. This is just the latest and one of the biggest of the many massive issues in an industry completely out of control – because of a lack of any controls. This story of safety was dreamed up to make people think that all owners will be helped, but definitely another trick and nothing whatever to do with safety, or people, or the community, or anything other than propping up business. That was as Anne explained plainly an attempt to inspire ‘confidence’ where none could possibly exist. To help an industry in trouble daily in the press and one that needs to be ruled as the rest of us are. Here there was no concern for consumers, no compassion to help those who have had their lives ruined or any concern for their families. People must tune in to the truths if this is ever to stop. ,

  • Tim Renouf says:

    The biggest thanks must go to the FIFTH ESTATE, the only publication that is prepared to print forensic revelations and explanations on this difficult subject, and many more
    Its interesting that on the 4 Corners program, 19 August, Anne wasn’t interviewed – it would made for explosive television and dovetailed with her print story here.

    I expect the tipping point will finally arrive when building levies for cladding rectification spread across all sates of Australia, and then what amount is publicly bearable. I imagine that no state government wants to fuel an attack against the negligent builders, because it would set off a chain reaction . In my opinion, the ‘average’ person test question surely is – how could any of the builders have continued on using such products, when reports of cladding fire were known back in the 1990s? How could they all not have known or suspected that styrene burns. I have never been able to understand how sheet styrene is used extensively in residential construction, mostly upper story and never queried about fire or inherent lack of breathability.

    Do most builders compile a shopping list of project costs without any interest in checking if products are ‘fit for purpose’? And I don’t mean meeting legal conformance certificates. It seems to me that building practitioners (or whoever ends up finally being responsible for projects) will have to have to acquire some commonsense building knowledge and adopt or devise approximation real life reality tests.

    Something has to give, surely.

  • Trevor Hill says:

    Hi Anne,

    This a great article, it’s good to know someone is shedding light on the real issues.

    Trevor

  • Mark Whitby says:

    Well said Anne,

    The VIC GOV is definitely desperate not to hurt business it seems, because it nobbled the VBA just before the VBA was about to go for the builder of the Lacrosse Tower and the VIC GOV has also taken no action in almost 5 years against any of the participants who documented, specified, approved the building, although all are (obviously) negligent by virtue of the fact that they all or most acted as if they were possessing expert judgement when they documented, specified, approved the product used on the Lacrosse Tower… OR the developer may have changed the material AFTER the permit had been issued. We are continually denied the pertinent details which apply to any particular case it seems.

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