Government must step up on dodgy building materials

Not too many Canberra homeowners lie awake at night wondering what brand of cabling their electricians used in the roof cavity. They assume, quite rightly, that as long as the wiring complies with relevant safety or building standards and has been correctly installed, brand names are immaterial. However, as this newspaper detailed on Monday, homeowners might want to develop an interest in the otherwise mundane subject of home wiring, and quickly – especially if their homes were built or renovated between 2011-13.

Infinity and Olsent-branded cables were widely available at that time, and used extensively in homes, apartments and commercial premises in the ACT and across Australia. Far from conforming with safety and design standards, this Chinese-made wiring used cheap plastic insulation which degrades over time leading to it becoming a potential fire hazard, particularly if disturbed.

This would be less of an issue if governments and authorities had recognised the threat to life and property and promptly rectified matters. Instead, state and territory governments, and the Commonwealth, have shown little active interest in ensuring the dodgy Infinity cable is systematically replaced – perhaps believing it to be an isolated incident or an issue to be dealt with by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission or by the building industry itself. In fact, the "life safety risk" posed by non-conforming building materials or products in Australia is massive, and present.

In 2014, a fire started by a cigarette butt on the eight-floor balcony of a Melbourne Docklands apartment complex raced up to the 21st floor in less than 15 minutes – the result of the building's exterior being clad in in aluminium composite panes which did not meet minimum fire standards. The same type of cladding, of Chinese origin, has been used in thousands of high rise building around Australia. Imported timber, steel, glazing, solar panels, and fire sprinklers have been implicated in numerous failures and accidents, including at ASIO's new headquarters in Campbell. The collapse of a hangar at RAAF Fairbairn in 2003 was attributed to poor quality imported bolts which split in two, or bent and cracked under load.

The rising incidence of product failures has not coincided with any relaxation of actual building standards or product conformity codes. Rather, it's followed the the flood of cheap, imported building materials into Australia and the introduction of privatised building certification standards. Inspecting and assessing imported products to ensure compliance with Australian standards has been woefully inadequate, however.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection claims it lacks the "legislative powers to ensure that imported building materials conforms with building standards or performance levels" and that monitoring "would have a considerable impact on the resources of the department and would have the potential todivert resources away from the other operational priorities".

A Senate inquiry now underway into non-conforming building offers some hope that the unhappy confusion over building materials may be resolved. But real progress will only occur when the government owns up to the problem it created by cutting red tape and facilitating industry self-regulation.