Opinion/Comment, Politics

The ‘combined smell’ of politicians and developers is becoming impossible to blow away

We had no idea how far the disease had spread until the autopsy was carried out.

By Gary Linnell

We’d known something was wrong because there was no mistaking that pungent smell of rot and decay.

The cladding in the Grenfell Tower in London was changed half way through construction. Similar things are now strongly suspected here in Australia too.

But when we peered into those dark cavities after the first incision was made and the fragile skin had been peeled back, the full horror of it all became clear.

By then, the culprit was long gone.

The subject of this post-mortem examination was our new apartment building and it soon became obvious it had been sick since birth because of neglect and incompetence.

The shoddy workmanship was breathtaking.

The building was only a few months old when the first cracks began to creep across walls and ceilings like webs spun by drunken spiders.

Whenever it rained water cascaded down the walls of upper-level apartments, softening the plaster and soaking carpets and furniture.

There were pipes unconnected to outlets.

An electrician assessing the wiring pulled apart a fuse box and said: “You’re kidding me.” The brittle plastic in his hands was a cheap, third-rate system made in China that should never have passed inspection.

The strata costs began to mount with no legal way of recovering them from the insurance companies or the developer.

opal-tower
Apartment owners in Sydney’s Opal Tower have sued the NSW Government after hundreds of defects were found after construction. Photo: ABC News

And what a nice piece of work he turned out to be. As soon as he had sold the last apartment in the block he continued a pattern well established throughout his career – declaring bankruptcy and moving on to his next project using a new “phoenix” company structure.

You’ve heard it all before, of course. Our experience took place more than a decade ago just as state governments and councils across the country, overcome with almost religious zeal, began their push to herd as many of us as possible into dense, inner-city apartment living.

But since that crusade began – inspired by predictions of massive population increases for our major cities that will probably not be met now because of the coronavirus – we have seen a steadily growing wave of building defects.

An audit two years ago in Victoria found 1400 residential and public buildings that required the removal of flammable cladding.

While the state government agreed to establish a levy to foot the bill for many repairs, countless owners have been left with enormous expenses and the threat of convictions if they fail to meet council deadlines to mend the problem.

And still, the biggest question remains unanswered: how, with all the knowledge and scientific expertise we have at our disposal, was such obviously flammable material allowed to be used in the first place?

In the past year, residents of several Sydney buildings have been evacuated because of structural cracking, while thousands of others have been left with enormous legal costs as they try to claw back compensation for a litany of problems.

According to a study by Deakin and Griffith universities, more than two out of three buildings built in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne since 2003 had at least one defect ranging from poor or no waterproofing to wiring and other fire safety issues.

It’s an astonishing state of affairs where overseeing the quality of construction projects has largely been handed off to the private sector and some building sub-contractors can sign their own certificates of compliance without being independently assessed.

Once or twice a year politicians will mumble empty pledges about reforming the industry and tightening certification processes.

But any improvements are little more than window dressing that never touch on the real issue – that disturbing relationship between politicians and developers.

Owners have previously complained the Victorian Government’s cladding response has been disjointed, disorganised and confused, despite the example of the Grenfell tragedy in the UK.

We know why they find themselves irresistibly drawn to one another – Michael Pascoe has forensically pulled it apart in several columns on this site – including this piece last week on the honeypot of land rezoning laws.

It’s a grubby world where wannabes like the former local member for Wagga Wagga, Daryl Maguire, operate in the backrooms as middlemen seeking lucrative fees for their role in complex land developments.

And let’s not kid ourselves that Australia’s property obsession – and the unhealthy relationship between our politicians and those looking to get rich with development projects – is ever going to change.

In the late 1880s, Melbourne was to Australia what Sydney is now – the premier place for hustlers and swindlers.

Exaggerated forecasts predicting Melbourne would become the biggest metropolis in the southern hemisphere helped trigger a land and property boom the like of which the colonies had never previously experienced.

But by late 1891 the market had collapsed. Fortunes were lost, banks began to close and a recession began that would ensure Melbourne would play second fiddle to Sydney for the next century.

One politician particularly stung by the downturn was Alfred Deakin, who lost 300 pounds of family savings on a failed land speculation venture.

He was also the chairman of a  building society deep in the red and about to plunge into insolvency.

On the night before he addressed an angry meeting of investors he wrote in his diary: ‘Disaster has overtaken me at last O God! And upon me lies in some degree the responsibility for disaster to many others’.

Deakin survived, of course, and went on to become Australia’s second prime minister.

He might well have been our last politician to accept part of the blame for a building boom gone wrong.

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Walkley Award winner Garry Linnell is one of Australia’s most experienced and respected journalists and editors. In addition to editing stints at The Bulletin and The Daily Telegraph, Garry has served as editorial director of Fairfax and head of news and current affairs at the Nine Network. He now writes non-fiction books. His next – ‘Buckley’s Chance’ – will be published by Penguin Random House in October.

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First published at The New Daily – Wednesday 21 October 2020. See; https://thenewdaily.com.au/news/national/2020/10/21/garry-linnell-property-developers/

One Comment

  1. Richard McDermott

    There is a combined smell of politicians and developers and smell is greatest at the local government level and it this level is getting the least attention from our regulators.

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