Oh no, now the NSW Government has asked whether we think "there is a greater risk for conflicts of interest to arise in private certification work and result in poor certification …"

It’s always nice to have a wide vocabulary, having just the right word, or words, ready to be plucked out for every circumstance. Serious, business-like, charming, funny, kind, amusing, technical, professional, assertive, aggressive, robust, respectful, disrespectful and colourful words from which to choose the right one. It’s all about appropriateness and place, so you need a good range for all the different places and circumstances you find in life.

In the depa office, we love the concept of evidence-based research, so we also loved Emma Byrne’s book, “Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language”, which scientifically and thoroughly demonstrates that bad words, obscene or profane, or generally unacceptable language has many positive virtues - a wide range of benefits from promoting trust and teamwork in the office to increasing our tolerance to pain. Even some great research on not holding back during childbirth. You have to listen to the scientists, don’t you.

So, after vigorously opposing the introduction of private certification from as early as the 1980s and without ever compromising, constantly and consistently for almost three decades, when the NSW Government’s Improving Certifier Independence - Options Paper arrived in our office, we were not lost for words.

Seriously, don’t these people ever look back at history? How could anyone think that an organisation like ours, which has steadfastly criticised private certification for three decades because of the unavoidable underlying conflict of interest of a developer paying their own certifier, think it made sense to ask us?

With proper reverence to Monty Python, our office was the right room for an argument:

Policy Kiddie:  Is this the right room for an argument?

depa:               I told you once.

Policy Kiddie:  No you haven’t!

depa:               Yes I have.

Policy Kiddie:  When?

depa:               Just now.

Policy Kiddie:  No you didn’t!

depa:               Yes I did ...

in the 1990s, among other things, including being briefed by the Commissioner of the Victorian Building Control Commission who said “this sort of half-baked system will involve massive headaches”,

and with an unprecedented group of local government, union and community and environmental activists,

in publishing posters like this as part of our campaigning,

in the 2000s in a succession of enquiries, investigations, the setting up of the Building Professionals Board, the establishment of a process fruitlessly attempting to create independence of private certifiers who could never be independent,

inevitable fine-tuning of that, FOI applications against the Minister for Planning because he was telling us porkies, and the information we received in response proved that Cabinet had adopted lots of things before it went out for consultation but no-one told those involved in consultation that the decision was already made and we made them fess up,

in arguing against the accreditation of council staff from the mid-2000s and continuing, how the BPB wanted to accredit them and, in the famous Neil Cocks white board story, the BPB relishing the prospect of an income stream from 800 more accredited certifiers,

the 2015 Independent Review of the Building Professionals Act 2005,

and this year arguing about the proposed Building and Development Certifiers Bill 2018 …

Policy Kiddie:  Um, I’m not feeling safe ...

It’s an interesting Options Paper. In its early pages it contains concessions like:

“there are community concerns about certifiers, particularly private certifiers, being unduly influenced by the builders and developers they work for, given the certifier as being paid by the same party that they are supposed to be independently overseeing”, and

“the certifier has the potential to be affected by the inherent conflict that exists between maintaining a private certifier’s regulatory responsibilities and fulfilling their own commercial interests”, and

“certifiers can become reliant on the same entities for work, and these financial relationships may, over time, impact on the ability for the certifier to make impartial decisions” and

“this is particularly the case where the decision of the certifier may result in a substantial negative impact on one of the parties involved”, and on and on it goes.

Seriously, FFS. We don’t blame new generations of policy people having a bit of a go at things the previous generations have had a bit of a go at, but one of the costs of downsizing the public sector in the last couple of decades has been that there is no-one left to remember, to know where the files are, to know who was involved in consultation and policy-making in the past, how extensive or superficial considerations may have been, or even to know whether records are kept.

It’s all now in the hands of kiddies in policy without access to the past, compromised further by 30 second news cycles and bloody focus groups driving political decision-making. It’s not their fault, they just assume they are doing it for the first time and don’t give sufficient regard to Mr Garrison’s maxim “there are no stupid questions, just stupid people”.

(If you are interested in this phenomenon and the degradation of the public sector, check out Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay issue 60 in 2015 “Political Amnesia: How we Forgot How to Govern” for a superb analysis of the betrayal of the capacity of the public sector to develop policy by a succession of governments.)

In the 1990s an unprecedented group of organisations came together to oppose the NSW Labor Government’s plans, chiefly through Planning Minister Craig Knowles, to introduce the option of a private certifier instead of a proper regulator employed without a financial interest. We were part of that - together with the Australian Consumers Association (publishers of Choice), the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Total Environment Centre, the Nature Conservation Council, the other local government unions, LGNSW, Unions NSW and even the predecessor of the Local Government Managers. It was local government united, without dissent, unprecedented and never has such a broad coalition been assembled since. But it lost.

But the Labor government pushed through, it was waived past by the Coalition Opposition with a few observations expressed about community concern, “flaws but the government has failed to address them in spite of the fact that there’d been many months of consultation” and “the Opposition shares local government and community concerns that private certifiers employed directly by developers could have their capacity for independent decisions compromised.”

The ICAC submitted “private sector consultants to act as inspectors on behalf of local councils could raise new opportunities for corrupt conduct to occur. The ICAC believes these issues need to be addressed in the proposed legislation”. They weren’t, of course.

To summarise a long history, the Director-General of the Department of Local Government at the time famously said that the system would collapse within five years. He was wrong, it was collapsing after three and agitated members of the Legislative Council were moving to set up their own investigation where the government wouldn’t have the numbers. This forced the government to pre-empt and control the emerging calamity by setting up the Campbell Enquiry into the Quality of Buildings.

And relentlessly, consistently on message, strident when we needed to be, we hated a system that, regardless of what steps could be taken to manage risks, propriety and independence, the developer still paid the certifier. And nothing has changed.

We’ll lodge a brief submission in response to the Options Paper but really who cares whether it’s Option 1, the wheel of fortune rotation scheme, or Option 2 the cab rank scheme, surely to be joined later by the Uber scheme, or Option 3 the time limit scheme? Why not all of them?

In the end, the fundamental and compromising conflict of interest - the developer paying/paying off their own certifier continues. It was the fundamental problem identified 30 years ago and it continues. It always will.

Put in a submission if you like, there are 27 questions to answer!

Submissions close at 5pm on 30 October to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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