Bills: Customs Amendment (Safer Cladding) Bill 2019

19 September 2019

Second Reading

Consideration resumed of the motion:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Senator Patrick: Last week I was pleased to reintroduce the Customs Amendment (Safer Cladding) Bill 2019. This bill amends the Customs Act 1901 to expressly ban the importation of polyethylene-core aluminium composite panels.

The bill responds, in part, to a recommendation made by the Economics References Committee in its inquiry into non-conforming building products. Senators would be reminded that that committee straddled the 44th and 45th parliaments. It was initiated by former Senator Xenophon and taken up by former Senators Madigan, Ketter and others in response to the Lacrosse fire. I wish to take this opportunity today to speak further about the building cladding issue, which is unquestionably one of the most serious threats to public safety across Australia. This is an issue that requires urgent attention from federal, state, territory and local governments.

As Senators will recall, this issue first came to attention in this country on 25 November 2014, when the Lacrosse building in Docklands, Melbourne, caught fire. The entire exterior of the building clad in polyethylene core aluminium composite panels allowed the fast-moving fire to race up several floors, vertically up the outside of the building. It was only through great good fortune, and the professionalism and quick actions of the emergency services, that no lives were lost. In fact, I will go back to the testimony that was given by Mr Dalrymple, Acting Deputy Chief Officer, Metropolitan Fire and Emergency Services Board, before the committee. He talked about the fire and said that that fire alone could have 'claimed hundreds of lives if things had turned out a little differently'. He said:

We were probably really lucky that did not happen on that occasion. What we are saying here is that fire safety really should not be a matter of good luck. The fire started on a balcony from an unextinguished cigarette—an innocuous type of thing, you would think. This set fire to the cladding, and the panelling itself allowed the fire to travel the full extent of the building—23 levels in 11 minutes. That is something we have never, really, seen before. We would say this should not have been allowed to happen.

He went on to say:

In 31 years as a firefighter and 20 years as a fire safety specialist I have never seen a fire like this—in my lifetime—and I have made it my business to study fires of this nature, so we can get a better outcome for firefighters in the community. We have grave concerns about the use of non-compliant product and that it may result in disastrous loss of life, and we cannot tell you when the next event is going to happen.

Of Lacrosse, he said:

This is a modern building, constructed within the last five years. It has been a valid assumption, up until now, that newer buildings are relatively safe and probably safer than old ones. From a fire services perspective, right now, I cannot guarantee that and I cannot, categorically, state that that is a true fact.

So here we have someone who has worked in firefighting for decades making a fairly serious statement about the dangers of cladding. I think people understand the danger of this ACP flammable cladding, but they may not understand the severity of it. I wanted to read that to make sure everyone in this chamber understands what we are talking about. As it was, levels 6 to 21 of the building were affected by fire and many more were affected by water damage. Between 450 and 500 people required immediate evacuation and alternative accommodation.

Two-and-a-half years later, in June 2017—and I'm sure people remember this day—fire consumed the Grenfell Tower block in London. Again, flammable cladding fuelled a fast-moving fire, this time leading to a disaster which caused 72 deaths, left more than 70 people injured and required the evacuation of 220 residents. Most recently, on 4 February this year, the Neo 200 apartment tower in Spencer Street, Melbourne, also caught fire. Again, flammable cladding was the cause of the fire moving rapidly, vertically up the outside of the tower. Fortunately, the emergency services were alert to the danger and again moved with great speed to bring the fire under control and avoid fatalities.

No-one should underestimate the danger that continues to be posed by the many hundreds of buildings, many of them multistorey, that are clad in flammable polyethylene aluminium composite panels. Evidence given to the Senate Economics References Committee inquiry into non-conforming building products revealed these composite panels are so combustible that, in the event of a fire, one kilogram of polyethylene will release the same amount of energy as 1½ litres of burning petrol. We need to understand that when we put this cladding onto buildings, it is like wrapping them in petrol. Despite this danger, very little has been done in the nearly five years since the Lacrosse tower fire. 'Hurry up and wait' would seem to be a good description, but it's at the expense of people's safety. The federal government needs to act and ban this dangerous product to ensure that the Australian building industry is not detrimentally affected, and Australian homes are safe and fit for occupation.

The inquiry found that there are many places where this material can inadvertently end up on a building. It could be that the material that might be made in a foreign country is falsely certified. It could be that the material that is selected by the architect is wrong. It could be that the builder decides, 'I want to cut some costs here,' and instead of using the non-flammable cladding, they pick up the cheaper, flammable cladding and it ends up going onto a multistorey building—even though it's unlawful on multistorey buildings. By the way, I would point out that there have been some changes made to laws that also prohibit using it on single-storey buildings. Once it makes its way on to these buildings, it's not possible for the building surveyor to somehow determine whether it is flammable or non-flammable. So, in some senses, that's why this bill seeks to ban the import of the material, because there are just too many ways in which this material can make its way onto a building—just too many ways. By banning the material, we will get rid of 90 per cent of the material that comes into the country. I accept that doesn't solve the false certification problem, but we can chip away at that as well.

A number of building audits have been conducted around the country by state governments. An audit conducted by the Victorian government discovered 22 properties are 'at extreme risk of fire' and 500 homes are considered 'at the highest risk of fire'. As a result, the Cladding Safety Victoria agency has been established to oversee the reparation work over the next five years. I take my hat off to the state government for doing this, although I note that the federal government has refused to weigh in and help financially.

An audit has also been done in my home state of South Australia. Disgracefully, the South Australian government has refused to release the list of buildings and homes in the state that contain highly flammable cladding. One of the claims that has been made by the government for not releasing this material is that it would 'result in the use of that information by terrorists'. Of course terrorism is a significant threat, but terrorist related arson events are few and far between. There have been reports of cases of deliberate ignition of fires to advance a political objective. One published security study identified that between 1968 and 2005 only 56 terrorist groups worldwide employed deliberate arson as a tactic. That is fewer than two cases a year worldwide over 30 years, so it's not necessarily the choice of terrorists by any stretch of the imagination. While it can't be dismissed as a potential threat, politically motivated arson doesn't appear to be in the first chapter of jihadist and other terrorist manuals.

Of course the general threat of arson can't be dismissed, but surely the biggest threat comes from the risk of accidental ignition in at-risk buildings where residents are uninformed about the circumstances. Secrecy doesn't help people living in buildings that may be a fire-trap. Earlier this week, the South Australian infrastructure minister, Stephan Knoll, tried to justify the refusal to release information to the public, citing the risk of terrorism. Basically, the South Australian government knows that there is a problem but is hiding behind secrecy.

Secrecy doesn't deal with the problem. I was informed this afternoon by my MLC colleague in South Australia the Hon. Frank Pangallo that he has sought to gain access to a whole range of documents under FOI. The government, once again trying to refuse access to public safety information, simply claimed that the request was too voluminous. I'm happy to report that the budget and finance committee of the South Australian parliament has now ordered the government to hand over all of the documents that had been requested under FOI, because this is such an important safety issue.

The problem we have, and I've talked to many in this place, is that the government suggest that we can't stop the import of this material, because it's used in caravans, signs and so forth. The government say, 'Those industries are important. We need to look after them.' I understand that we need to do that, but there are alternatives. The problem is that the federal government will claim, correctly, that in actual fact the building codes are a state issue. I accept that. They are. But we have a Building Ministers Forum. We have been trying to address this, but it has taken five years—five years since the Lacrosse fire—to do essentially nothing. That's why we now have to seriously consider this measure. There is support building around the country to stop the import of this flammable cladding, because governments have just spun the wheels. They haven't moved on this. Whatever rebuttal comes from the government in this debate, just keep in the back of your mind that nothing is being done—all talk; no walk. That is the problem. Lives are being put at risk because of the inaction of public officials and parliamentarians, and by ministers in particular.

One of the good things that would come from the identification of the buildings, if the South Australian government were to release this public safety information, as they should, is that it would probably prompt people to deal with the issue. I understand that dealing with the issue would be costly, but that's no reason to keep this information secret. It's no reason to keep the people who are occupying or working in these buildings in the dark and ill-informed about the situations that they place themselves in. If particular buildings are identified as being high-risk residences, the occupants should be notified and fully informed. If security is an issue, then governments are duty bound to take the necessary measures to ensure public safety. That should be done through the prompt removal of flammable cladding installations or the installation of improved fire suppression systems or, if necessary, improved building security measures. The veil of official secrecy isn't going to help, especially in the case of South Australia, where one must wonder whether the horse hasn't already bolted.

After all, in October 2017 documents released to the Adelaide Advertiser under FOI revealed that almost 200 buildings in Adelaide's CBD were identified as being of concern and potentially built with aluminium composite panels. Moreover, in February 2018 the Adelaide City Council released a map of those 195 buildings identified as being of concern. If terrorism were the primary problem, there is already enough information in the public domain to help a politically motivated arsonist. At this point the official suppression of details of specific buildings at risk only inhibits efforts to address the reality of this critical safety problem.

As I indicated, there have been some FOIs in relation to this. Maybe—hopefully, through the South Australian parliament and the efforts of my colleague and, indeed, Labor MLC members in South Australia—we may get to see these documents to keep people informed. It's totally unacceptable that the state minister, Minister Knoll, is keeping this information from the public.

But I bring the conversation back to this bill. This bill is necessary because after five years we have been unable to solve a problem, and this problem puts people's lives at risk. We don't know when the next fire will occur, but we can stop this material coming into the country and making its way onto buildings, making them unsafe for Australians, for South Australians, for all of us. We know that some of this cladding has made it onto the Adelaide Convention Centre, so it might not even be Australians; it may well be visitors who we invite here and who should rightfully expect that when they come here they are safe.

It's with that all in mind that I put to this chamber that we do need to act. We do need to look at this bill very seriously because it seems to be the only way in which we'll get proper movement to help solve this problem—certainly moving forward. And so I commend this bill to the Senate.