When the Professional Engineers Registration Bill 2019 was passed in Victoria in August, it represented a significant step toward strengthening the industry and securing public confidence and safety.
It was also a clear validation of Engineers Australia’s advocacy work in helping to get this legislation across the line.
Engineers Australia has been advocating for statutory registration of engineers for the past two decades and 2019 has seen momentum building in jurisdictions across the country.
To date, Queensland and Victoria are the only states with a mandatory registration; however, New South Wales has been the focus of much attention, with two registration bills currently before Parliament.
The Australian Capital Territory looks set to follow, with the Chief Minister putting a timeframe around his commitment to introduce such a scheme.
Other states, particularly Western Australia, are also stepping up efforts toward registration requirements within the building sector, which has been in the spotlight since structural defects in Sydney’s Opal and Mascot towers revealed alarming cracks with the building industry.
Jonathan Russell, National Manager, Public Affairs, at Engineers Australia, says progress is largely due to the advocacy efforts of the professional body.
“It is difficult to get a bill passed and it is hard to influence government, but the engineering profession has had a very public and influential voice driving the issue of compulsory registration forward,” he says.
A new law for Victoria
Passage of the Professional Engineers Registration Bill in Victoria was hard fought, with the state opposition strengthening its resolve to reject it when it was introduced to Parliament in May 2019.
The support of the Upper House cross bench was essential, and Engineers Australia worked relentlessly with all parties to reinforce the case for registration.
With the Bill now passed into legislation, Engineers Australia will continue to influence how the law will operate in practice.
The process is to be managed by Consumer Affairs Victoria (CAV) and information about its processes, timelines and opportunities to engage is available on the Victorian government website.
“Engineers Australia will work closely with CAV and we will be seeking member views to shape our advice to the Victorian Government for making the registration scheme as robust and efficient as possible,” says Russell. “We expect this to be a focus for CAV early in the new year.”
Broadening the scope in NSW
In NSW, progress toward compulsory engineering registration has involved more politics and complexity.
In March this year, the NSW Labour Opposition voiced a commitment to introduce registration across all engineering sectors as part of its election campaign. Meanwhile, the Coalition Government went to the polls with a pledge to implement the Shergold and Weir Report recommendations, including a registration scheme for engineers in the building sector.
The Coalition was returned to office and, in June, it released a building sector reform discussion paper, Building Stronger Foundations. However, the scope of its proposal was limited, and an Engineers Australia advocacy campaign was created to broaden — and strengthen — the reforms.
By the time the Government introduced its bill to Parliament in October, the provisions for registration of engineers had improved, but registration still focused on the building industry rather than across multiple engineering sectors.
Furthermore, the mechanism for registration was insufficient, as it would be implemented via regulation.
“Engineers Australia is concerned that if the development of a registration scheme is left entirely to regulations, the community will be left with an insubstantial regulatory framework,” says Russell.
“This has been illustrated through inadequate efforts to regulate engineering practice in NSW in the fields of certification and fire safety engineering.”
Campaigning for change
In consultation with Engineers Australia, the NSW Labour Opposition introduced a private members bill to the Lower House in October — the Professional Engineers Registration Bill 2019. Based on the best aspects of the Queensland and Victorian laws, if passed, the bill would:
- establish a Board of Professional Engineers in NSW
- apply registration to at least five areas of practice — civil, structural, mechanical, electrical, fire safety — and more that could be added later via regulation
- ensure registration will apply to someone providing professional engineering services, and rules will apply to services provided in any industry
- ensure it does not apply to someone operating under the supervision of an appropriately registered engineer, or someone applying prescriptive instructions or design.
In recognition that the private members bill was unlikely to secure the essential support of the Government, the Opposition revised it as an amendment to the Government’s own Design and Building Practitioners Bill and sought to debate this change in the Upper House.
“In November, the Government withdrew the bill from the Lower House before this could happen and moved consideration of the issue to the Legislative Assembly Committee on Environmental and Planning,” explains Bruce Howard, Sydney Division President of Engineers Australia.
Howard says this represents an opportunity for Engineers Australia to work with the Committee.
“We hope that the private members bill will be re-introduced into the Lower House early next year in a more comprehensive form,” says Howard.
“We think the two NSW bills should be passed as a package. Our strategic aim for registration is much wider than the building industry. We want to secure the public’s confidence in engineering in general.”
Progress across the country
While Victoria and NSW have been the focus of the registration debate throughout 2019, Engineers Australia has also been working with other states and territories to build the case for reform.
At a recent multi-stakeholder meeting that included Engineers Australia, the ACT’s Chief Minister and Attorney General announced that their Government would begin consultation on a comprehensive registration scheme in early 2020. At this point, it appears that a proposed registration scheme would apply to anyone providing engineering services in any industry (unless if under supervision or only applying a prescriptive standard or design).
While Tasmania and South Australia are yet to commit to action beyond responding, in general terms, to Recommendation 1 of the Shergold and Weir report, progress is being made in other jurisdictions.
The Western Australian Government, for example, has begun informal consultation in its efforts to meet Recommendation 1, and formal consultation is expected to begin in February next year; however, the proposal is likely to be restricted to the building sector.
Meanwhile, the Northern Territory Government has already begun formal consultation in its efforts to meet the recommendation, though details of its next steps are yet to be announced.
A stronger industry for all
In 2020, Engineers Australia will continue to campaign for its policy objective, which has been shaped through member consultation. There will be more opportunities throughout the new year for members to engage in this important reform with more consultation events to be held in the jurisdictions where the issue is most active.
“Our objectives are clear,” says Howard. “We would like a nationally co-ordinated system for engineering registration with mutual recognition to reduce red tape and discrepancies. It should also apply to anyone who delivers engineering services across the industry spectrum [unless if working under the supervision of a registered engineer, or if only applying a prescriptive standard or design].
Professional bodies, such as Engineers Australia, should be appointed to assess an individual’s qualifications and experience, Howard added.
“It’s been a been a big year for campaigning,” he said.
“Victoria was a big win and, in 2020, we’d like the other states to follow.”