G20 Argentina
Scott Morrison, image: G20 Argentina via Flickr

News from the front desk 455: There have long been voices suggesting that three levels of government in Australia is simply impractical. But while state governments are often targeted for not doing enough, it’s the federal government that’s falling short on many key agenda items.

The way the system works between the feds and states appears to be holding back progress on key fronts, including construction regulations, consumer protection, waste management, decarbonisation of the energy sector, low carbon transport and water policy.

It’s Safe Work month in October, so let’s take workplace health and safety as an example. Key players in the building industry have been advocating for national harmonisation of workplace health and safety (WHS) laws for years now, but rounds of discussion, consultation and endless advocacy have still not achieved a result.

It makes sense to have uniform laws across the country, after all, a fall from height is just as likely to injure or kill a worker in Queensland as it is in Victoria or Tasmania.

Sources have been telling The Fifth Estate for years now the issue with national harmonisation is the states with the best regulations and practices don’t want to lower their standards, and those with the slackest don’t want to catch up. So getting collective agreement on what harmonised WHS laws would look like has been impossible.

The leaders and laggards scenario applies across so many crucial areas where governance needs to be cohesive and comprehensive.

The National Construction Code is another case in point. While the NCC is national, the states and territories can and do tweak it for their own industry.

The federal government shrugs its metaphorical shoulders on issues such as cladding compliance and consumer protection, saying it’s up to the states. The same with implementing Shergold and Weir – it comes down to the states and territories to address each of the recommendations.

This is despite the fact the report was produced under the auspices of the federal government, and that the federal government held the lengthy non-conforming products inquiry.

So while the federal government issued the recall on Infinity cables, it’s leaving it to the states to try and reduce the risks of a similar widespread non-conforming product issues happening again.

The federal government has been happy to trumpet its Building and Construction Commission as a way of improving the industry, but the BCC’s role appears to be mostly about eroding the ability of unions to address issues like workplace health and safety risks.

Its remit doesn’t include actually ensuring buildings are fit for occupancy, safe and are up to standard. How does this even make sense?

State and territory-based codes are delivering wide variations. Six stars for energy in residential in Queensland can be achieved with an overhead fan on an outdoor patio.

NSW requires some assessment of the thermal performance of the building envelope. Victoria gives points for using rainwater to flush toilets.

From examining the CSIRO dashboard of energy ratings across the states and territories, it also looks like there’s a difference in what can be deemed compliant in performance terms.

Changes to the NCC and broader shifts to address compliance and verification are seeing the same quirky localised approach to implementing sensible measures. It’s taken on the tone of a State of Origin match, as each state and territory claims a “first” for whatever idea it has proposed before the others.

Victoria claims its first for comprehensively tackling the flammable cladding issue. Queensland claimed a first for its construction supply chain legislation. NSW invented NABERS, the ACT could be first to make energy ratings for residential mandatory and is currently first for disclosure.

The federal government is big on talking up efficiency in the public service – govspeak for reducing public sector worker numbers and also reducing spend on public goods like pensions, education, emissions reductions and catchment protection.

But how exactly is the selective handballing of policy implementation to the states and territories efficient?

A builder, trade or consultant working across state and territory borders has to be across multiple versions of building codes, workplace health and safety legislation, Fair Trading rules and other key regulatory mechanisms. That takes time, money and concentration in an industry where everyone is short on at least two of those things at any given point in time.

It also varies to whether or not key parts of a project team, such as engineers, carpenters, concreters or building certifiers, have to be registered and professionally accredited in some way.

In Victoria, tradesperson numbers are a fraction of what they are in NSW and Queensland. Not because the state has a shortage of tradies, but because many key trades don’t need professional credentials, such as trade registration, to deliver their services. In NSW, a company does not need to be a registered builder to construct a major commercial office project.

Energy policy sees similar shenanigans. The federal government brokers agreements on an international level incorporating national emissions reduction targets, but when some of the states take the lead and set their own targets and make solid progress towards them, Canberra gets all worked up and threatens to dismantle them.

It would appear the whole “that’s a state thing” is a selective position. It’s a state thing when it suits the federal government to take as little responsibility as possible, and state things become federal concerns when the federal government doesn’t like the state or territory agenda.

The result is an entirely counterproductive mess that keeps constitutional law experts busy, and frustrates collective progress on key concerns like saving the planet, ensuring the buildings in our part of it are safe and compliant, and ensuring every worker everywhere is fairly paid and goes home intact every day.

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  1. Interesting article – States are either leading or lagging – and the federal system is so shonky as to be totally untrustworthy. Three tiers is at least one too many – or is it? One system with regionalisation portfolios for governance and policy implementation – how good would that be!

  2. At last. I have been saying for years, with such a large (geographical) and diverse country we should succeed from the Federation. There is so much bickering between the states and there is also so much duplication at the federal level. I have emailed all the states and territories. If we have separate country states, they keep ALL the taxes they correct and never have to beg the Feds for their money. Makes economic sense. Federation is for the self interest of the federal politicians not for the good of the nation.