Australian government rejects ban on imports of flammable cladding

Anne Davies
The debate in Australia over flammable cladding imports was prompted by London’s Grenfell Tower fire in June. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

The federal government has rejected a ban on imports of combustible aluminium composite cladding as well as the compromise put by several states for a moratorium on the importation of the most combustible kind – with a polyethylene core.

At least two state ministers are known to be deeply unhappy with the federal government’s refusal to use its import powers to deal with the issue.

State and federal ministers met in Brisbane on Friday to discuss common action over dangerous building products.

The New South Wales minister for better regulation, Matt Kean, said he would continue to work with his state and territory colleagues for stronger national action to keep residents as safe as possible in their homes.

“Yesterday’s forum saw all national ministers agree to stop the use of aluminium composite cladding on high-rise buildings while further measures for proper labelling and product testing are established,” he said.

“I was however disappointed we could not reach an agreement to push for greater action against importers and overseas manufacturers that would stop unsafe building products from reaching the Australian marketplace.”

The Queensland minister for housing, Mick De Brenni, who is facing a campaign against him by the building industry over the crackdown on shonky construction products, was also keen to see stronger action.

Before the meeting, the federal assistant industry minister, Craig Laundy, had accused the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, of scaremongering when he proposed a ban on the imports of the most flammable version with a polyethylene core.

The federal government has responsibility for imports, but the states are responsible for building standards and approvals.

They are also likely to have to pick up the tab for dealing with future problems that combustible cladding might pose, including extra responses by fire brigades.

The debate over what to do about combustible aluminium composite panels was prompted by London’s Grenfell Tower fire in June, which killed at least 80 people.

The fire raced up the facade of the building within minutes, fuelled by the polyethylene cored cladding. Polyethylene is a petroleum-based product and highly flammable.

It is probably illegal to be used on high-rise buildings in Australia under the national building code, which requires external walls to be non-combustible. But because the standard is performance-based, it has some wriggle-room and until at least 2013 it was widely used on the outside of high-rise buildings.

The PE product is legal when used in low-rise buildings and in signage, which is why the Coalition is reluctant to ban it.

But the cheaper polyethylene version looks identical to more fire-resistant versions when installed, which gives rise to fears that some unscrupulous developers are still cutting corners.

A Senate inquiry into dangerous building products has recommended an urgent ban on importing panels that have a polyethylene core between two sheets of aluminium.

The NSW government wants stronger action to stop the sale and import of unsafe building products.

“I acknowledge and appreciate how seriously this issue is being treated by the commonwealth and a number of my state and territory colleagues, but it’s clear more needs to be done, Kean said.

“We will continue to push for effective, nation-wide action to give Australians certainty and security when it comes to the buildings where they live, work and play.”