Monday, 12 February 2018
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (10:57): I congratulate Senator Patrick for bringing this legislation, the Customs Amendment (Safer Cladding) Bill, before us today. The Greens strongly support it. It is about saving lives. We've just heard the most extraordinary speech from coalition representative Senator Hume. She set out that the government will refuse to support this bill that is absolutely essential. We have seen the tragedy that can unfold. You feel that we're on the verge of more tragedies happening in this country, where people are burnt to death because of the state of the building industry. We've heard the government set out so clearly that they will not come on board with this legislation, that they in fact reject the need for a ban which has been set out so clearly even by our own Senate committee inquiring into this.
What we've heard from the government today will potentially cost lives. It sounds like it's just a matter of time, if the government will not move on this, because there is overwhelming evidence that it is time that the ban was brought in. We've seen the evidence in such dramatic form, with the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower. We only just escaped a similar tragedy at Docklands in Australia. We know that there are so many buildings with this cladding—highly dangerous and highly flammable, according to so many reports. So this is something that really does need to be taken on.
But we also need to identify what we're talking about here. It's not just about individual buildings and it's not just about the cladding on those buildings; it's why it has come to this point. It's come to this point because the building industry is effectively deregulated now, and, increasingly, we're seeing these products come onto the market. They can often make a building look good, and that was part of the tragedy with Grenfell Tower in London. It was a social housing complex in the middle of what had become a gentrified area, and many of the neighbours wanted the area to look good. The quick way to achieve that was cladding.
Unbeknown to the unfortunate people living in that building, they were living in a firetrap—and what a most terrible firetrap it was, as we saw so dramatically. Again, it's to emphasise that the private market has been deregulated. Again, it is an example of the dangers of neoliberalism and what privatisation means when the regulation system is left up to the private marketplace. It means it's not effective. How does this system work? It benefits the dodgy developers, the private-market speculators—those who are looking to make money. Their job—why they're on this planet—is to increase their profits. How do you increase profits? You do it by cutting corners in terms of labour and the products that are used.
So we have before us a situation that very clearly needs to change, but I did want to speak a little bit more about the British situation because the evidence is so clear about the pressures that are on. In some cases what we see is that the developers are making the decisions themselves to go with this cheap form of cladding. But also, in the case Grenfell Tower, what we saw there is that the contractors themselves were under pressure to go with the cheapest option because of the severe cuts that have been made to social housing in Britain. And so the contractors are forced to cut corners when it comes to quality and safety.
The Grenfell Tower investigation found that the contractor had the option of installing the fire-resistant version of the cladding but did not. The fire-resistant version costs just two pounds per square metre more. Imagine that. Those 71 people would still be alive. Their families would not be suffering, still grieving. All the people injured would still be living productive, happy—you would hope—healthy lives. But there was that terrible cost cutting. How minimal is that? Two pounds per square metre more, and we could have had the safer cladding used.
Social housing in Australia is under similar pressure. Despite record homelessness, rental insecurity and unaffordability, the government has not increased real spending on social housing. And this is where the pressure comes from. When the government is building social housing, there is a real worry that we could have a similar situation to what we saw in Grenfell Tower. Again, let's be clear that the money also for social housing, for public housing across this whole country, is there. It shouldn't have happened in the first place that the benefits were given to those who are wealthy enough to have many homes to increase their own wealth, but now we know it's robbing the public purse of badly needed money for public housing. There were $7.6 billion in capital gains discounts and about $4 billion in negative gearing in one year. That's effectively what the government is giving away to those who already have housing benefits. Surely that's money that should be put into our social and public housing across the country.
Again, it is relevant to what we're talking about here, because so often what happens with this very dangerous cladding is that it's used on public and social housing, with potentially tragic impacts. But we also know that it goes beyond those who are disadvantaged. This is a serious crisis that can affect all of us and our loved ones, depending on where they're living. And the evidence about this issue is now so clear. I do refer you, when you're considering your position on this bill, to the Senate Economics References Committee inquiry into the bill. The evidence was really overwhelming and very clear, and the recommendations and the findings from the report set out a case that very much backs up Senator Patrick's bill that is before us today.
It was the committee's report on aluminium composite panels that came down in September last year, and it recommended that the Australian government—these are the words from the committee; you couldn't have had them clearer—'implement a total ban on the importation, sale and use of polyethylene core aluminium composite panels as a matter of urgency.' That's referring to terminology that we hear quite a bit in this. But, again, it is very clearly a total ban.
Again, what we've just heard from the government ignores the Senate report that sets out the case so strongly. The government, therefore, has rejected the need for an import ban. PE core ACPs can be, and are, used in a way which does not breach the National Construction Code, in addition to being used in a non-compliant manner. That's their argument, but, again, it is a worthless argument. It is an argument that puts lives at risk.
Also from the Senate committee was this additional finding:
In light of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy, the committee does not consider there to be any legitimate use of PE core ACPs on any building type. The committee believes that as there are safe non-flammable and fire retardant alternatives available there is no place for PE core ACPs in the Australian market.
That is again another emphatic statement from this inquiry.
It is a reminder about what's going on with the government here. Why have they been so blatant in their rejection of this most important bill that we have before us? It has been a responsible action by Senator Patrick, responding to the crisis that we have in the building industry and responding to this most important inquiry. Why has the government gone to this length of protecting the dodgy developers and the property speculators? Because they're the people that they protect. Their interests lie in working with corporate Australia, so that they can maximise their profits, even when it risks lives, and we know that's real because lives have been lost in the tragedy that we have before us.
The CFMEU has come out very clearly with a position of support for the recommendations from the inquiry. This construction union has advised their members to refuse to install PE core ACPs on high-rise buildings. Interestingly, what do we get from the government on the advice, which is about saving the lives of the public, of residents, of homeowners and of people staying in hotels? Again, they don't want to know about it. We saw that very blatantly from the former minister, and that's worth sharing with you, because often there're some very ugly debates in this place about the work of the CFMEU.
Here you have very clear evidence of this union taking a responsible position in support of what we now have heard from the recommendations from the inquiry, but where did the government stand? It wasn't just Senator Hume—she is clearly speaking from the government—let's look back at what former minister for industrial relations, Minister Cash, said, and the former head of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. They've said that they would state the refusal by workers to install would not be considered an illegal industrial action. So no backup there. No backup there from the minister, from the Commissioner of the ABCC, for workers taking the responsible position of refusing to install this material. That would be the responsible position.
We might have our severe fights here about unions, et cetera, but what we're talking about here is about saving lives, about ensuring that buildings don't get burnt down, putting more people at risk. Surely that's where we should have a common position. But, no, the government is always working with corporate Australia to put profits first even when it comes to risking lives. That's simply unacceptable, and it needs to be exposed at every turn.
The Assistant National Secretary for the CFMEU Dave Noonan has said:
Fire authorities, unions, and even property developers support a ban on these combustible cladding products entering Australian ports, which is the most effective way of ensuring they don't end up in Australian homes and workplaces.
It's good to hear that some property developers are on side, working with the union and working with the fire authorities on this.
There is this growing awareness, and growing building of alliances, and meanwhile the government is refusing to give national leadership on this most important question. And it needs a national response, because, as we heard from Senator Carr earlier, the evidence is well and truly out there. We've seen extensive privatisation in the industry, particularly with regard to the Australian building code, where neoliberalism has ripped through it. The weakness of that code makes it one that doesn't provide protection to residents, to builders or to the workers in this industry. It has become so worthless and the job has become so much harder because of the imports of building materials.
The development of building materials is going ahead in leaps and bounds. It's just changing the whole nature of building construction. You can see that in our cities, where the rate of development is just going ahead so fast, largely driven by the new products on the market. Not all those products are safe. It's going ahead so quickly. I acknowledge it's often hard for the authorities to keep up to speed with it, but something needs to be done, and that particularly means the issue with regard to imports.
That's why I again draw your attention to what Mr Noonan has said about the need to ensure that these products are not entering Australian ports. That's where we need to be giving added attention, because, once these products are in the country, they're often classified in incorrect ways, and they end up on our building sites. I imagine that some developers are not even sure what they're putting into their buildings. Workers have very little information, and certainly the residents—when they buy a new home, or if they are lucky enough to get a public housing place these days—have no idea as to what their building has been constructed with and to what degree it is a fire hazard.
So we're left with a system now where, with the government adopting the position it has, thousands and thousands of lives are at risk in this country because this dangerous form of cladding is being used. It's being used, as we speak, in many of the buildings that are going up, buildings that we might live in or that we might stay in when we're working, let alone the rest of the population of Australia being put at risk on a regular basis.
So this bill needs to be passed, but we need to commit to a much more thorough regulatory system for building in this country. Yes, that is a state matter, but increasingly there is a role for the federal government, largely because of this importation issue, but also we need to get rid of the privatisation aspects that have crept into so much of how building is managed in this country. It's to the detriment of residents. It's to the detriment of what our neighbourhoods look like. It's to the detriment of workers. And now we know that lives are being put at risk.
We need to change how we operate in this country and ensure that people's wellbeing is put first. We've seen, in a most blatant, crude way, with the way the government has rejected this bill, that that's not how the government judges important legislation that comes before this house, like the bill we're considering today. The Greens definitely support it.