The election of a prime minister with a background in infrastructure along with a big focus construction on in recent times has created the perfect moment for new government policies. Consult Australia chief executive Nicola Grayson shares her views on the opportunities and danger points.

Over the past week, the big challenges the built environment  faces around skills and supply shortages have been the focus of intense political, media, and public attention.

The catalysts have been a mix of housing and climate becoming the big federal election issues; a recent string of collapses that has seen the likes of Probuild, Condev and Privium go under; the ongoing housing affordability crisis; and recent speculation about Metricon.

Delivering the infrastructure we need to reach net zero by 2050 relies on having a healthy building and construction sector.

Consult Australia chief executive Nicola Grayson told The Fifth Estate the reforms set out in Infrastructure Australia’s recent reports aren’t just needed for infrastructure projects – they apply equally to all aspects of building construction.

“We really haven’t seen the speed of reform that we need in order to have saved some of those organisations. And unless we get serious about reforming the industry and addressing some of these challenges, sadly, we may well see others following, which we absolutely hope to avoid.”

Along with keeping building and construction sector leaders up at night, surging inflation and rising salaries from skill shortages are making it difficult to cost tenders for multi-year projects.

“Even the government is ringing up engineers and offering substantial salary increases to try and tempt them to come and work for them. So that is all playing into inflationary costs,” Ms Grayson said.

A big issue is that there is not a level playing field. Power imbalances – between big players and small businesses or between private companies and the government – mean the “unknown risks” of big projects are getting shifted on to the organisations least likely to carry the risks.

In the private sector, Ms Grayson said misleading and deceptive conduct protections intended to protect consumers and small businesses are being used by very large organisations to intimidate other organisations into settling claims, because there’s no limit of liability.

Meanwhile, risk-averse public sector clients attempt “to shift all the risk onto the private sector, rather than having a conversation where we bring the contractors in early with the designers to work with that client or that owner to determine what are the risks involved in this project”.

“We need to address some of those fundamental competition issues that are creating this imbalance of market power in the construction and infrastructure sector, to ensure that everyone has a fair level playing field on which to enter into these contracts,” Ms Grayson said.

So how can we start fixing the skills shortages?

Over the past decade, the rapid growth of tech startups has caused governments around the world to focus more on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) education. 

But this has tended to weigh more on the science and technology skills needed to grow a tech company, over the engineering and maths skills needed to create a sustainable built environment.

“In the STEM space, there’s been a lot of focus on science and technology, which is fantastic but the rest of the acronym the E and the M needs a lot more focus. We do need support in terms of encouraging kids into engineering study,” Ms Grayson said.

The other side of the issue is that the hard border closures imposed during the pandemic lockdowns have made Australia a less attractive destination for top experts and skilled professionals. 

“We really need to sell Australia as a great place to come work and live, hand in hand with a really good immigration system that doesn’t put false barriers in place that make it difficult for us to get skilled workers into the country quickly,” Ms Grayson said.

Like many in the built environment sector, Ms Grayson is optimistic that Prime Minister Albanese’s experience with infrastructure will mean addressing the longstanding issues around infrastructure and the built environment.

“Prime Minister Albanese has a strong background in infrastructure. He was the minister for infrastructure, so we understand this space very well. We’re looking for the new government to legitimately engage with business to really unpack these issues, and get to some strong policy reform.”

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