The revelation this week the NSW Labor plans to create a new Strata Commissioner, should they win government, has been met with surprise and relief across the strata community.
As Shadow Minister for Better Regulation Yasmin Catley has observed, Fair Trading – the government department that currently looks after strata – may have too many distractions to properly serve the interests of the state’s two million apartment and townhouse residents.
Broken domestic appliances, dangerous toys, dodgy car mechanics, paintball arcades and tattoo parlours all fall into Fair Trading’s strained net.
But half the population of Sydney is predicted to be living in strata by the year 2030, so the oversight of everything from building defects to pet and parking by-laws, via flammable cladding and the relentless rumble and clunk of short-term holiday guests rolling their suitcases through unit block corridors, is surely enough for one office.
This could be seen as the first step in the removal of strata from Fair Trading completely and adds weight to the unconfirmed rumour that Labor may be moving towards a super-Ministry that takes in planning, housing, strata, renting and real estate.
What Labor’s proposed strata commissioner will do and how much of a fight the Sir Humphreys of Fair Trading will put up to prevent real power being taken from them is, as yet, hypothetical.
But Fair Trading has few friends in the strata community. Its extremely dubious, and highly politicised advice that apartment blocks could not legally pass by-laws to block commercial short-term holiday lets led to confusion and chaos.
And the uncertainties of taking disputes from mandatory Fair Trading mediation to unpredictable NSW Civil Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) rulings only add to the angst of apartment residents.
This pre-election shape-shifting on strata is limited to NSW … for now. But Victoria and Queensland are both currently reviewing their very different strata laws. In the former, strata comes under Consumer Affairs (the equivalent of Fair Trading).
In Queensland, over the last few decades or so, strata has bounced around from the departments of Horse Racing and Wine Promotion to Tourism, but has finally found a logical home in the Attorney General’s office.
Of course, the creation of a strata commissioner in NSW is contingent on Labor taking power at the next election. And this enlightenment represents something of a Damascene conversion for the party.
Here at Flat Chat, we can remember one Labor Fair Trading minister whose neighbours couldn’t prevent their block being overrun by American students because the minister didn’t want anyone to know he or she wasn’t living in the constituency.
Another was best known for their ability to raise political donations (you can guess from whom). Back then, politicians’ lack of genuine concern was motivated by a sense that apartment living was an aberrant lifestyle choice, rather than an inevitability in a growing city.
But the world and the government changed and new Fair Trading Minister Anthony Roberts, now Planning, initiated the massive strata law reforms under which we currently live.
Later, Victor Dominello, now Finance, not only midwifed them into existence but pushed through changes to other laws to protect strata owners.
However current Better Regulation Minister Matt Kean (Fair Trading isn’t even a ministry these days) almost gave NSW apartment blocks the worst Airbnb laws in Australia. It was only thanks to a backbench revolt that we now, arguably, have the best.
So is the proposed strata commissioner part of a much bigger plan to extract strata from Fair Trading completely? It certainly seems unlikely that they would create a Strata Commissioner then leave him or her to be mediated into submission.
An edited version of this column first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.