Opal Tower, Neo200, Mascot Towers, Australia 108 … building safety incidents in Australia keep piling up, driving calls for industry bodies and the government to take action.
In August this year, residents of 169 apartments in Sydney’s notorious Opal Tower began returning to their homes – eight months after their evacuation on Christmas Eve, when loud cracking noises sparked fears of the building’s collapse.
The tower’s structural failings were identified in a NSW Government report, released in February, which also outlined rectification works and a series of recommendations for how such alarming structural defects could be avoided in the future.
The first recommendation echoed a proposal from the landmark 2018 Building Confidence report by Peter Shergold and Bronwyn Weir, and has long been a high priority for Engineers Australia: the creation of an engineer registration scheme for all states and territories.
Industry in the spotlight
Engineers Australia has been advocating for such as scheme to be legislated for the past two decades. Peter McIntyre, Engineers Australia CEO, said the existing National Engineering Register (NER) has been effective in setting a uniform national benchmark of professionalism. However, its voluntary nature presents a limitation.
“We introduced the NER in 2015 because governments had not required mandatory registration in every jurisdiction,” he said.
“It has been very successful and has helped the public to identify practitioners that we recognise as having the right training, skills and commitment to ethics and ongoing development. But it doesn’t prevent those who don’t have the right qualifications, or who aren’t committed to ethical practices, from working as engineers.”
McIntyre added that the NER provides a good model for governments to adopt when developing an engineers registration scheme.
While the ultimate aim is compulsory registration for all engineering occupations in all industries, the building sector has become a special area of focus due to significant flaws identified in the Shergold Weir report. High-profile incidents such as Opal Tower and, more recently, cracks in Mascot Towers in Sydney and complaints of structural defects in the Australia 108 residential building in Melbourne, have also led to the erosion of public confidence in the building industry.
In its recent submission to the NSW Government discussion paper Building Stronger Foundations, Engineers Australia outlined three recommendations, formed in consultations with its membership, that it believes will strengthen the industry and assist in regaining public confidence.
Support for registration
While Engineers Australia recommends that all jurisdictions implement all recommendations of the Shergold Weir report, the scope of its submission focused on compulsory registration of engineers.
Such a registration has been in place in Queensland for 90 years, and progress is also being made in Victoria where the Professional Engineers Registration Bill 2019 passed through the state’s Legislative Assembly in May this year.
Compulsory registration has also garnered widespread support from Engineers Australia members.
In a national poll commissioned by Engineers Australia in July this year, 88 per cent of respondents agreed that engineers should be registered. In NSW, that figure increased to 91 per cent and is consistently high across all demographics.
“One of our concerns is that, right now, in any state or territory other than Queensland, anybody can call themselves an engineer – even if they don’t hold the appropriate qualifications,” McIntyre said.
“If you’re a doctor or a lawyer, you can’t do that. If you are a plumber or an electrician who works on a building designed by an engineer, you need to be licenced to ensure you’ve got the right skills and qualifications. Yet this is not a requirement for engineers, so there’s a gap in the framework of governance.”
Karlie Collis, Principal and Senior Structural Engineer for Northrop Consulting Engineers and Chair of the Engineers Australia’s National Structural College Board, believes the public assumes that engineers already require registration.
“The reality is that my five-year-old son could sign off on a 10-storey building if he wanted to,” Collis said.
“Registration is something the public expects and the public deserves.”
Guy Hodgkinson, Principal Project Manager and Engineering Design Manager at Middleton Group, and a member of Engineers Australia’s Victoria Division Committee, described compulsory registration as a “hot topic” in the industry.
“In the case of the proposed Victorian legislation, I believe that the devil will be in the detail,” he said.
“However, anything that can give more confidence in safety and systems can only be a good thing. Without engineering, nothing gets built and nothing works properly. If most other professions require registration, it’s quite baffling that engineering does not.”
Building a better industry
Engineers Australia’s first recommendation in its response to the NSW Discussion Paper is that the proposed new registration scheme be aligned with those already in operation in Queensland and those currently before Parliament in Victoria.
“The absolute gold standard is that we have a nationally recognised system,” Collis said.
“Failing that, we should have identical schemes in each state to iron out any red tape and discrepancies, and to simplify the process of being able to work between states.”
The second recommendation is that the new registration scheme for currently unregistered engineers be applied to all who provide professional engineering services in the building sector, with the exception for those working under the supervision of a registered engineer.
The final recommendation is that an engineer registration be designed to enable its eventual expansion beyond the building industry to all engineering occupations in all industries.
No ‘silver bullet’
McIntyre stressed that a compulsory registration for engineers is not a “silver bullet” to fix problems within the industry, but rather an important first step in creating a system to recognise competence. He also sees Engineers Australia playing an important role in a NSW registration scheme.
“We are the largest assessing body in Australia for the RPEQ (Registered Professional Engineer of Queensland) system to assess engineers’ competence to be on that register,” he said.
“We also do audits for the Queensland Government in terms of people’s ongoing professional development.”
Progress toward reform was signalled at the beginning of August with the appointment of an inaugural NSW Building Commissioner. While Engineers Australia welcomes the appointment, McIntyre said industry reform remains a matter of urgency.
“We are happy that the NSW Government is earnestly talking about registration, but we do want to see progress with more haste,” McIntyre said.
“Given that the Building Ministers’ Forum endorsed the findings from the Shergold Weir Report that it received in February 2018, it’s a concern that each and every jurisdiction is not actively progressing registration.
“To each government around Australia that does not have a registration, we encourage them to give more focus to the implementations of the Shergold Weir report as a priority. We want action on this issue.”