Building regulator lets board members go after ‘appalling’ culture called out

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The terms of the chief commissioner and board members of Victoria’s troubled building regulator will not be renewed, in a sign the authority will be overhauled to deal with its “appalling” culture and failure to oversee the sector.

Five of the board positions at the Victorian Building Authority (VBA) expire this Saturday and the positions will not be renewed, this masthead has confirmed after speaking with 10 government and industry sources on Monday. They include chief commissioner Michelle McLean, Carmel Coate, Sam Torre, Yvonne von Hartel and Julia Cornwell McKean.

Victoria’s troubled building regulator is in line for a board overhaul.Credit: Darrian Traynor

Von Hartel said she informed the government months ago that she would move on after almost a decade in the role when her term was up, to give someone else a go.

Planning Minister Sonya Kilkenny has not given four other members the option to go voluntarily, deciding not to extend their terms beyond Saturday.

Six other board positions do not expire for 12 months. The VBA needs only five board members under state legislation, including the chair and deputy, and two public sector sources said new commissioners would not be appointed to the expiring roles to reduce the size of the board.

Reforms to the VBA have been expected after the suicide of experienced building inspector Rob Karkut last year exposed it as an unsafe workplace due to pressure to meet ambitious targets set by the Andrews government.

Andrea Holden at a memorial for her partner, building inspector Rob Karkut, in May.Credit: Marta Pascual Juanola

Former Fair Work Commission deputy president Greg Smith has investigated workplace safety at the VBA in two tranches of reviews, the first of which was released last year.

Sue Eddy resigned as chief executive in May and was replaced by Anna Cronin, the former commissioner for better regulation, who has been tasked with changing the culture.

Scrutiny had intensified in March when major home builder Porter Davis collapsed without the necessary insurance for its customers.

This masthead revealed it was not uncommon for builders to delay or avoid obtaining domestic building insurance, exposing customers to loss of deposits if the company went into liquidation. It opened the VBA to questions about why it had not more strongly enforced the requirement.

In May, this masthead and 60 Minutes also revealed inspectors were completing virtual audits rather than physically attending construction sites, despite legal advice that by doing so the VBA might breach its requirements under the state’s Building Act.

Announcing the long-awaited housing statement last week, aiming to deliver an extra 800,000 homes over the coming decade, Kilkenny said Cronin was developing a culture to ensure the VBA was there to serve consumers and regulate operators.

“Anna Cronin, as the new CEO, is hitting the ground running to turn around the VBA, to instil that resilience, and to instil a confidence in that organisation to become a good regulator that is going to help us deliver the kind of new homes that we want to see for Victorians,” Kilkenny said last Wednesday.

“She’s working very hard to address the issues in there, and it’s forming part of the bigger building system review piece of work that we’re undertaking, which … is going to deal with insurance, it’s going to deal with the life cycle of the build, mediation, conciliation, all of those matters.”

Kilkenny said the authority would soon release a regulatory statement “to identify the issues with the VBA”.

Wayne Liddy, Victorian board director of the Australian Institute of Building Surveyors, said the institute was working to implement reforms with Cronin.

“Anna Cronin, is working very hard to improve the internal processes and functions within the VBA itself. However, given that dysfunction appears to have been extensive and embedded across most business units of the organisation, it is understandable it will take time for Ms Cronin to work through all the issues,” Liddy said.

He said he hoped the board was supportive of Cronin’s efforts to address the “appalling culture that existed at the VBA”.

The Institute of Building Surveyors last year took the extraordinary step of stating it had “lost confidence in the ability of the Victorian Building Authority, as a regulating authority, to carry out its primary functions effectively and fairly”.

The VBA declined to comment. Kilkenny’s office was contacted on Monday.

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