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Why Do We Have a National Code But So Much Variation Between States?


Australia has a National Construction Code, but that doesn’t mean builders and trades face the same rules in every state.

The Australian Construction Industry Forum has been advocating for greater national harmonisation of regulations, particularly in terms of occupational licensing.

Having national regulations means increased productivity and efficiency in the construction industry, ACIF Executive Director, James Cameron, said.

Among the professionals involved in the construction process ACIF wants to see national harmonisation of licensing and accreditation for are those in the protection sectors, such as fire protection systems installers.

“The focus of the National Construction Code is the safety of building occupants.”

“Licensing and registration for trades and professions in the construction industry need to be harmonised nationally”, he said.

This includes national registration for architects rather than the current state and territory registration system; and consistent national registration for engineers.

Having national regulations means increased productivity and efficiency in the construction industry, ACIF Executive Director, James Cameron, said.

“Governments must now move expeditiously to complete the process of harmonising licensing and registration across the country.

“However, this process must be completed without increasing red tape, operational costs for business or the introduction of additional ‘local’ requirements and hurdles.”

The process of harmonisation of various occupations has been attempted in the past, however the necessary agreement between all the states and territories as to what standards should apply across the country was not reached.

Instead of national harmonisation, mutual recognition schemes became the focus.

In a submission to the Productivity Commission Inquiry into Mutual Recognition Schemes in 2015, the Housing Industry Association noted that no two states or territories have the same licensing or registration system for builders or trades.

Cameron said that an outcome of lack of harmonisation for those in the building trades can be an added degree of complexity when they are working across state and territory borders.

For some in regional areas where borders are a fact of doing business, such as ACT-Queanbeyan, Albury-Wodonga and Tweed Heads-Coolangatta it can get particularly complicated.

The HIA submission stated it is also a limitation when trades are drawn from interstate as part of disaster recovery, such as after the Victorian bushfires in 2009 and the Queensland floods in 2011.

In both cases, plumbers, electricians, builders, carpenters and others required special permissions and exemptions in order to legally work.

Not all the states require licensing based on the NCC. Only Queensland, the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania base descriptions of what work licensing covers on the Building Code of Australia.

Only in Queensland and South Australia is licensing according to state rules required for all builders and trade contractors. In New South Wales and the Northern Territory, only residential builders must be licensed, not commercial builders.

Western Australia issues one type of open builder’s license for any work over $20,000.

“There are many reasons for legislative divergence in licensing arrangements among jurisdictions,” the HIA submission stated.

“The very causes for the current differences between state regulations is not however a result of inherently different risks in construction from state to state – since 1997 there has been one national building code, the National Construction Code (NCC), governing the technical provisions for the design and construction of buildings.

“Rather the regional differences flow for a variety of reasons, reflecting the outcomes of state/territory coronial inquiries, parliamentary committees (and government responses to), court decisions, election commitments, budget constraint, regulatory culture, and the like.”

The certification process for buildings – fundamental to their safety and compliance with the National Construction Code as well as state and local codes and requirements – also varies between states.

The certification process for buildings – fundamental to their safety and compliance with the National Construction Code as well as state and local codes and requirements – also varies between states.

In its submission of January this year to the Senate Inquiry into Non-Conforming Building Products, the Australian Institute of Building Surveyors said there are variations between states in terms of who appoints the certifier, what credentials the certifier must hold, and when – or even if – inspections are carried out during construction.

General Manager of the Australian Building Codes Board, Neil Savery, said there is no part of the NCC that cannot be varied by the States and Territories.

“The ABCB Inter-governmental Agreement (IGA) that establishes the ABCB to prepare and maintain the National Construction Code (NCC) is not legally binding upon the Commonwealth, States and Territories,” Savery said.

“In participating in the IGA, the nine governments commit to having a uniform and harmonised system of regulation for building and plumbing, but it also recognises that in certain circumstances, principally as a result of climate and geography, a state or territory may vary from the NCC, however, in doing so they should abide by the same COAG [Council of Australian Governments] principles as the ABCB in justifying any regulatory departure.”

The Northern Territory government announced in 2015 it was looking at state-wide changes to the NCC.

In announcing the review, NT Lands and Planning Minister David Tollner said there was widespread concern that national building regulations were encouraging the construction of highly air-conditioned “esky” homes with small windows and a lack of traditional Territory features.

“Territory homes have to comply with the National Construction Code, but this code was designed with the aim of encouraging energy-efficiency in the southern states,” Tollner said.

A Domestic Building Code Review Group was formed to suggest possible changes to the NCC in the state which included representatives of the Building Designers Association, Engineers Australia, the Housing Industry Association, the Master Builders Association, the Australian Building Sustainability Association and Master Plumbers NT.

Savery said the ABCB is not involved in any management of, nor does it have any jurisdiction over State or Territory variations.

“Under the IGA, State and Territory variations are to be reported to the Building Ministers’ Forum (BMF), but again the BMF does not have any authority over a State or Territory departing from the NCC,” he said.

“The ABCB, as part of each edition of the NCC, produces an appendix, which is intended to be a compendium of State and Territory variations, but these are only the ones reported to the ABCB by the States and Territories, whereas others may exist in other regulatory instruments administered by the jurisdictions.”


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