Building Amendment (Enforcement and Other Measures) Bill

MR DIMOPOULOS (Oakleigh) — It gives me great pleasure to make a contribution on the Building Amendment (Enforcement and Other Measures) Bill 2016. Obviously this is the second of a tranche of bills in relation to this very important area of public policy. It continues the reforms to Victoria’s building system that commenced under the previous piece of legislation, the Building Legislation Amendment (Consumer Protection) Act 2016, which I also spoke on. Effectively that bill introduced a package of measures to improve dispute resolution, effectively taking a load off the consumer and achieving a system that far better serves the consumer. We, the government, foreshadowed that further reforms were required. These reforms include implementing all of the remaining recommendations of the Auditor-General’s report, and this bill does that.

It is also an appropriate week for this bill to be debated given the significant announcement this government made on Sunday in relation to helping people buy their first home. That is a pretty extraordinary commitment we have made, which we believe will not only see first home buyers being able to purchase their home more easily but also engineer greater residential building activity. This is a very opportune time to have this bill come before the chamber — just ahead of a new wave of building that will commence, I think, because of our announcements on Sunday for housing affordability for new home owners through stamp duty exemptions and a whole range of other fantastic measures.

This bill does several things. It enhances regulatory powers to enable the Victorian Building Authority (VBA) and other regulators to be more effective and provide stronger offence provisions, because they were found to some extent to be wanting in the Auditor-General’s report and in other forums. The bill proposes to permit the registration of corporations for the first time, which is a significant step. Corporate registration will also enable the VBA to take any necessary disciplinary action directly against a company in addition to an individual building practitioner, which was somewhat of a gap. It seeks to introduce new maximum penalties for corporations, consistent with the principles in the Sentencing Act 1991. These penalties for corporations are set at five times higher than those for natural persons.

The bill seeks to replace existing ‘holding out’ offences with new offences prohibiting a person or corporation not registered in a particular class of registration from representing or implying that they are in fact registered. It also does a range of other things, including providing more flexibility for consumers in relation to the availability of building surveyors. Industry and consumer groups, including ones in my electorate, have told us that the current system is a bit inflexible. As an example, under the current arrangement, as the minister said in his second-reading speech, building work may be delayed if a building surveyor is on leave at the time when a building practitioner notifies that the mandatory inspection stage has been reached, so you have to chase the building surveyor. Corporate registration of building surveyors will provide greater flexibility in the deployment of the corporate building surveyor’s personnel so they can make decisions to designate another individual.

There are registration and disciplinary history provisions in the bill to make it more transparent for consumers. Again this is something I have heard time and time again — the need to look at the disciplinary history of the personnel being contracted. Again, that would avoid a world of pain in relation to some of the people who have experienced issues in my electorate.

There are a fair few provisions in the bill, but I want to come to the new indictable offences that the member for Box Hill spent a fair bit of time on in his contribution. As we know from the minister and his comments in the public domain, the recent demolition of the Carlton Inn — or the Corkman hotel — highlighted that the current offences in the Building Act, which provide for fines alone, are not a sufficient deterrent for people in the business of building who knowingly do the wrong thing. For this reason the act will create those indictable offences that the minister referred to in his second-reading speech and the member for Box Hill also focused on. Just in relation to that I want to clarify the government’s position.

The government’s position is that the proposed indictable offences are intended to apply only to the most serious contraventions of the Building Act. This may include circumstances where there are risks to health and safety resulting from those contraventions. The indictable offence provisions will not apply to minor breaches, which can be dealt with summarily. The offence will only apply in the most serious cases of deliberate non-compliance.

In relation to the strict liability offences the member for Box Hill canvassed, the government’s intention is that the offences to be inserted by clause 20 in section 16(3), section 16(4) and section 16(4A) are all strict liability offences and that the defence of honest and reasonable mistake is open in relation to them. It is expected that if a regulator was considering charging a person, for example, with a section 16 offence, the regulator would consider any evidence as to whether a person was operating under an honest and reasonable mistake. That would address the concerns of the Master Builders Association of Victoria, which has been in conversations with the government.

In my view the member for Box Hill painted a picture of the building industry in terms of it being a collaborative effort of different professions, and I accept that. In my personal view I accept that, but the problem is you cannot just assume that that will deliver the best outcome for the consumer, and clearly it has not done so in the past. This bill seeks to close some of those gaps and require a high level of cooperation between those people in the building industry to protect consumers, which is something we have heard is required.

The clarification I gave in relation to the indictable offences and strict liability offences is the clarification provided to the Master Builders Association by the government and the minister, and I think that more than addresses the concerns the member for Box Hill has raised by also addressing the concerns that consumers have raised with the government, with the Victorian Auditor-General and with me in my office specifically. I have had a couple of really high-profile cases that have ended up in the newspapers. I will not go into personal details here, and I have previously mentioned them in relation to the first bill.

The other provision that I think is very important that I want to also raise is clarification of the role of local government. I spent 11 years in local government and one of the most common things brought to me by residents and constituents was the fact that councils seemed to have a hands-off approach when it came to private building surveyors, because somehow it was not their problem anymore. Obviously that was a context created by the former Kennett Liberal government, so the Victorian Auditor-General has pointed to some uncertainty concerning the role of councils in administering and enforcing parts of the act where private building surveyors were involved, and I have experienced that, as I said, with my constituents.

This bill therefore amends section 212 of the act to provide that the appointment of a private building surveyor does not limit the administration and enforcement responsibilities of a local council. That is a great relief to my constituents. This amendment is not intended to alter the fact that the manner in which a council exercises, as the minister said in his second-reading speech, its responsibility for administration and enforcement may be affected by the appointment of a private building surveyor to the building work within the municipality, but all it does is clarify that the council absolutely has a role, and that is very appropriate.

This is a government that delivers on its election commitments. It is delivering on its election commitment to clean up the consumer protection laws and frameworks in relation to residential building for consumers and for my constituents. This is an important step in implementing the recommendations of the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office, and I commend the bill to the house.