Cracks showing as Fair Trading loses friends

Fair Trading, the unheralded and little-loved corner of the NSW department of Innovation and Better Regulation has always had its resources stretched to breaking point.

It’s a vital service cursed by crazy variations in its responsibilities, ranging from dodgy retailers to real estate agents, from building regulations and broken toasters to, of course, strata.

Now it seems the strain of the two headline issues of the past two years – Airbnb and flammable cladding – have taken their toll.

Just last week that most conservative of bodies, the Real Estate Institute of NSW (REINSW), announced it was pulling out of a government advisory committee.

Why the dummy spit? Because, basically, they felt the government was going through the motions of consulting, but not really listening.

That’s a criticism you will hear from all sorts of people who say they are invited to various consultation groups then leave feeling that no one was actually paying any attention.

In a searing indictment of the process, CEO Tim McKibbin pulled REINSW from the Real Estate Reference Group (RERG), saying “further involvement with the group would be an exercise in futility.”

McKibbin said that REINSW’s policy contributions had always been guided by the belief that what was good for the consumer was good for the market and the property services industry. However, this approach was often ignored.

“Throughout the term of RERG, NSW Fair Trading has exhibited a demonstrable obedience to misguided philosophical views which have impeded, or entirely restrained, many beneficial outcomes,” says McKibbin.

“NSW Fair Trading worships competition as the only relevant market force,” he says, but adds, “that competition must be among competent professionals.”

The decision to resign from RERG was apparently prompted by the Government’s introduction of the Residential Tenancies Amendment (Review) Bill 2018 into State Parliament without notifying REINSW, despite its contribution to the review.

“REINSW finds itself – all too regularly – the antidote for legislative and regulatory disaster created by bureaucrats who have no industry knowledge,” says McKibbin. Ouch!

It’s not just real estate agents. Now building certifiers in NSW have piled in, accusing the government of scapegoating their industry, blaming them for the serious flaws in building defects.

The Association of Accredited Certifiers slammed an options paper, released unexpectedly by Innovation and Better Regulation Minister Minister Kean last week, that attempts to address allegations of corruption and conflicts of interest in the industry.

“Much has been said about the ‘dodgy certifier’,” a spokesman told The Australian newspaper, “but what is being done to deal with the ‘dodgy developer’ who employs the ‘dodgy builder’ and ‘dodgy subcontractors’ who build these projects?”

To be fair, you can’t blame the Government for wanting to lance this particular boil on the backside of the Australian building industry; it’s a serious blemish that’s been around for far too long.

Minister Kean was apparently responding to reports that there have been more complaints about private building certifiers in NSW so far this year than in any of the previous five years.

He is probably one of the most overworked members of the NSW state government. His department runs Fair Trading, although there is no reference to that in his or his portfolio’s title (but then there’s no reference to strata in Fair Trading’s title, so at least it’s consistent.)

On a personal level, Matt is one of the nicer guys in the government and in the past he has certainly said some very complimentary things about me and Flat Chat.

I was hugely impressed earlier this year when he stayed behind for an hour after introducing an Owners Corporation Network (OCN) seminar, standing in the foyer, answering questions from (mostly) angry strata owners.

But there’s only so much one man can do. His portfolio covers something like 80-plus different pieces of legislation.

Every day I get two or three press releases from IBR (as I have now decided to call his gobstopper department).  “Don’t deal with this or that builder … new regulations for motor mechanics … consultation on new laws on building certifiers … crackdown on real estate auctioneers … congratulations for some prize-winning business … retailer fined for bait and switch tactics … fines for safety breaches …”

Don’t bother looking for a pattern because there isn’t one. It’s a massive and insanely varied portfolio and now the cracks are showing.

What’s the answer?  Start listening to the people involved – especially strata owners and renters – and by that I mean, really listening, rather that ticking the “consultation” box then asking vested interests and policy wonks what they think you can get away with.

That involves time, patience and genuine engagement, resources that are in desperately short supply in Fair Trading.  There is, of course, an answer.

Take strata and residential tenancy away from Fair Trading, give them their own minister and (please!) ombudsman.  Give that minister time to listen and then formulate policies that benefit everyone.

You would keep tenancy and strata together for the simple reason that this is, or should be, about housing people – and half the residents of strata are tenants.

Strata numbers are significant and growing. More than 17 percent of the population of NSW now lives in strata and by 2030 half the four million-plus population of Sydney will be living in an apartment or town house.

The government needs to get serious about this. Lurching from one crisis to another, pointing fingers and ignoring the advice of people on the front line is no way to plan social policy.

We frequently praise Minister Kean for giving us the most apartment-friendly short-term letting laws in Australia.

But we shouldn’t forget that we were literally only hours away from having the worst – with no limits on commercial holiday lets at all – until the solid work of the OCN paid off in a threatened back bench revolt.

And has been noted elsewhere, the NSW government’s response to the flammable cladding crisis was not the “most comprehensive” in Australia.

Sorry Matt, but your counterparts in Victoria literally laughed when I repeated that, saying it was “sweet” but palpably untrue.

There is no Strata Party in NSW politics – although it would potentially have more members than the Shooters and Fishers – but the first established party to grasp the idea that apartment residents – renters and owners – need a bit more TLC, and fewer confused and contradictory policies thrust upon us, could pick up a few extra votes at the next election.

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