SABRA LANE: Karen Andrews, more than 18 months ago, there was a national audit ordered across Australia in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire which claimed 70 lives, to identify which buildings here had flammable cladding. Why isn’t there a public register of that information?
KAREN ANDREWS: Look, that’s a very good question. So let’s just deal with some of the background; each state and territory has responsibility for building regulations, each state and territory has gone about an audit in their state. Some buildings have been prioritised, so residential buildings by and large have been prioritised across the states and that’s fair and reasonable. One of the issues that came out of the Neo 200 fire earlier this week in Melbourne, was a pretty fair indication that at least some of the residents there had no idea that there was combustible cladding on the outside of that building; that raises the issue of how the results of these findings are going to be communicated. Now, at least one of the states has come out and said they have a concern with a public register because of risks of arson; I’m happy to explore that further, but there must be a way that states and territories when they’ve conducted an audit and they have findings of at least a moderate or a high risk in relation to cladding, that can be communicated properly to the building owners, managers, residents and workers in the case of a commercial building.
SABRA LANE: Alright. Well it’s 18 months since that audit was ordered and still residents are in no position to know whether they’re safe or not. How satisfactory is that?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, it’s not satisfactory and that’s one of the key questions that I’m going to be putting to state and territory ministers at today’s Building Ministers’ Forum. So there is an actual-
SABRA LANE: -so which states and territories are being recalcitrant?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, it’s not a case of any state or territory being recalcitrant; it’s an issue of getting an update on what the status of those audits are. So, are there all of the residential buildings completed across the states; at what time are they going to move to auditing commercial buildings – where that started, how far have they got with that, and what’s their rectification program? Those are the key issues. But we talk a lot about building cladding, as we should, because it is a key issue, but there is a broader issue of which cladding is a symptom and that is non-compliance with building codes across Australia. The National Construction Code already prohibits the use of combustible cladding on high-rise buildings, so that’s already in place.
SABRA LANE: But clearly that’s not working because it’s going up on new buildings.
KAREN ANDREWS: And that’s a compliance issue with the states and that’s why the Building Ministers’ Forum commissioned a report, which has been undertaken by Peter Shergold and Bronwyn Weir. So it’s a building confidence report; one of the report-back items today is the implementation plan from the states to deal with what is systemic non-compliance in the building industry across Australia.
SABRA LANE: Alright. Can Australians be sure that we won’t see an incident like the Grenfell Tower disaster here?
KAREN ANDREWS: Not while there is cladding existing on high rise buildings and that’s one of the key issues. We cannot be complacent about this, states and territories cannot be complacent about this issue because there are risks associated with it.
SABRA LANE: Alright. You talked about that Shergold Weir review report – that was handed over in February last year; it recommended a three-year plan to act on more than 20 recommendations. Many Australians will be scratching their heads this morning and saying: hang on, it’s a year on
since that report, why has nothing happened?
KAREN ANDREWS: Yep, exactly. So at the last Building Ministers’ Forum, which was in August of last year, agreement was reached that the states and territories, with their senior officers in charge, would move to develop the implementation plan. I’ve prepared to put an alternate plan on the table from the Commonwealth to progress this. I’ve also prepared to take action to step up the activity with that implementation; that will be an issue for discussion at today’s meeting.
SABRA LANE: Where is the haste in all of this? I mean potentially, lives could be at risk here. The Fire Protection Association says every time Australians buy an apartment they are playing Russian roulette when it comes to compliance, even if that apartment is brand new. How do you respond to that?
KAREN ANDREWS: Look, there are key issues across the states and territories with building compliance; that’s why the Building Ministers’ Forum moved to engage Shergold and Weir to assess the compliance and enforcement systems that are in place across Australia. There are a number of findings, recommendations that came out of that; each state and territory has been tasked with developing their implementation plans, they’re doing that through a senior officers group. I don’t think that that is fast enough. I am prepared to offer the support of the federal government to fast track this. It will be up to-
SABRA LANE: Why not have a federal government takeover of this? The states and territories are responding so slowly to this and there is some haste in this because lives, potentially, could be at risk. Why not have a takeover?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, the issue has always been the rights of the states in certain areas to legislate; and building regulation is one of those, which means that we do have, in Australia, each state and territory with a different system of building regulation. I’m all in favour of there being harmonisation but it depends on the willingness of each state and territory to proceed down that path and thus far, there has not been that willingness.
SABRA LANE: Alright Minister, we’ll have to leave it there. Thanks for joining AM this morning.
KAREN ANDREWS: Thank you very much.