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Speech: Safe Cladding

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 19 Sep 2019

I rise to speak to the Customs Amendment (Safer Cladding) Bill 2019. The bill amends the Customs Act 1901 to expressly ban the importation of polyethylene aluminium composite panels, which are a type of flammable cladding. I support the comments by Senator Patrick and Senator Pratt with regards to banning this type of cladding.

As we've heard, the Senate Economics References Committee conducted a detailed inquiry into non-conforming building products in 2016, and the report made a number of very strong recommendations. In 2017, the committee called on the Australian government to implement a total ban on the importation, sale and use of polyethylene core aluminium composite panels as a matter of urgency, yet the government did nothing, and it has been close to two years now. The flammable cladding problem has the potential to cause tremendous harm and loss of life. We know that that is exactly what happened in the Grenfell Tower disaster in London in 2017, where flammable cladding helped spread the devastating fires. The tragedy made news all over the world, of course, and it had profound and devastating impacts on the lives of so many people. But three years before that, in 2014, the Lacrosse building in Melbourne went up in flames. This was also a residential building with people living in it at that time. The fire started with someone smoking a cigarette on their balcony. That is how flammable the cladding in question is.

The fires in the Lacrosse building, Grenfell Tower and other high-rise buildings in Australia and internationally which have been linked to flammable external cladding highlight a wide range of issues. The Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade concluded in their investigation of the Lacrosse fire that the rapid vertical spread of the fire was directly associated with the external cladding. Their report said:

Had the external wall cladding been of a non-combustible type, the likelihood of fire spread beyond the level of ignition would have been greatly reduced.

Mr Adam Dalrymple, the fire safety director of Melbourne's Metropolitan Fire Brigade, told the Senate inquiry when providing evidence about the Lacrosse fire that the flammable cladding allowed the fire to travel the full extent of the building—23 levels in 11 minutes.

The states of New South Wales and Queensland have both called on the federal government to institute a ban on the import of these dangerous flammable cladding materials, but nothing has eventuated. In my home state of New South Wales, my Greens colleague in the upper house of NSW parliament David Shoebridge has been working to expose the lack of action on this issue. They recently found out, through secret documents obtained by the Greens in New South Wales, that hundreds of buildings in the city of Sydney are at risk from flammable cladding. The list includes prominent high-rise buildings, residential apartments, a childcare centre and student housing. This is a serious issue of public safety, and it has been described as a ticking time bomb. This is really a combustible cladding crisis.

We know that there is a problem with the Building Code of Australia and its compliance, and, as a civil engineer, I know that quite well. A Four Corners investigation revealed that some international manufacturers and their Australian suppliers were aware of the risks associated with using PE cladding on high-rise buildings, but they continued to import it because Australia's lax and ambiguous building standards allowed them to. Other countries have instituted a ban on the import of flammable cladding. Of course, state and federal governments need to take responsibility, and, more importantly, they need to take action to fix this. Australia can, and should, do this. The risk of not taking action is too grave. The Greens support this bill.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Askew ): The Senate will now adjourn so that senators can attend the presentation of the address-in-reply at Government House.

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