Mascot Tower the tip of the iceberg

The crumbling of Mascot Tower apartments once again brings into sharp focus a major loophole that exists in New South Wales law. 

While the exact cause of the problem is yet to be determined, I would hazard a guess that when residents bought their homes, not one of them was aware that there was absolutely no requirement that the engineers responsible for overseeing the design and construction of the tower needed to be registered. 

In New South Wales, the unbelievable reality is that anyone can call themselves an engineer. Alarmingly, advice from an accredited professional is not required during the scoping, design and delivery of projects like these apartments. 

But the apartments are just the tip of the iceberg – I’ll come back to that. 

When you tell people that engineers are not required to be registered, their reaction is almost always one of disbelief. Electricians and plumbers have to be licensed to operate. Builders must be licensed. Architects must be registered with the Architects Registration Board, and obviously doctors and other medical professionals also need to be registered. 

But engineers, who arguably have more impact on public safety than any other profession, do not. The vast majority of professional engineers want a registration scheme so that dodgy, unqualified people can’t work in their industry. They want their profession recognised and protected. 

And they want the public protected. And while the issues we’ve seen at Mascot and with the Opal Tower debacle are scary enough, now consider this: in NSW we have no way of ensuring that every road and bridge you drive on has been designed and delivered by a qualified professional engineer. The same applies to our water and energy infrastructure as well as our community facilities and assets. 

Professional engineers have been warning the NSW Government for years that this exposure exists. Queensland has had an engineer registration system in place almost two decades and Victoria has just passed a system aligned with Queensland’s through the lower house of their Parliament. The ACT Government has also committed to introduce a scheme next year, which will leave New South Wales as the only eastern seaboard state or territory where this loophole exists. 

Unless we act now, New South Wales risks becoming a haven for every unqualified engineer who cannot legally practice in neighboring states, exposing the public to intolerable safety risk. 

New South Wales has an ambitious infrastructure program and is a net importer of engineers. This means that we don’t produce enough new engineers on an annual basis through our universities to meet our needs. As a result, we currently attract around 3000 overseas engineers to the state each year. A significant portion of these overseas workers are not presently required to have their qualifications checked before practicing as an engineer, leaving us further exposed. 

In the past week, the Government has again talked about introducing a registration scheme for all building practitioners, including engineers, as recommended by the Shergold and Weir report. That reform is necessary and welcome. But why limit it to buildings? Do we not care if roads and bridges crack and fail due to poor engineering? If an unqualified engineer walks off a building site and onto a major bridge project, are they suddenly capable? 

Clearly, we shouldn’t be reacting to failures in one sector alone. Instead, we should be doing what we can to protect the community from this threat before failures occur across the board. 

What we need is a registration scheme that covers all disciplines of engineering, consistent with the other states. Every major engineering body in the country supports such a scheme and, when polled late last year, 92 per cent of the New South Wales public agreed that engineers should be registered. 

Registration ensures that the engineer signing off on plans for major projects and community infrastructure is a properly qualified person with the right knowledge, professional development and qualifications. This will not only enhance safety; it will also help to protect the taxpayer from poor project scoping and waste. 

We’ve had huge cost blow outs on major projects like NorthConnex, Westconnex and the light rail. We ordered $2 billion in new trains which didn’t even fit through our tunnels.

Engineers occupy positions of trust in the community and they should be as well respected and recognised for their work as other professions that impact public safety. And that means not allowing non-engineers to do engineering work. 

People living, working and visiting New South Wales need to have confidence that the buildings, roads and infrastructure assets that they rely on were designed and delivered by a professionally accredited registered engineer. 

Until we adopt an engineer registration system, public safety will continue to be compromised. I only hope we don’t have to wait for a bridge to collapse or some other catastrophic event before comprehensive action is taken. 

Gordon Brock 
LGEA Director