Australia’s key industry bodies discussed challenges and opportunities for the construction industry at the Procurement of Federally Funded Infrastructure Inquiry.

Participants appeared before the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities via video conference public hearings on 5 October, focusing on issues in the construction sector, including driving cultural change.

Committee Chair, John Alexander OAM MP, said, “While the major infrastructure projects in the pipeline will play an important part in Australia’s economic recovery, the committee recognises that it will also place considerable demands on the construction industry and may exacerbate challenges the industry is already facing, including productivity and skill shortages.

“The key focus of this inquiry is how to improve procurement practices for government-funded infrastructure.

“Through strategic, effective and efficient procurement practices, governments can: help ensure the delivery of quality projects and value for money; drive important industry changes; and maximise opportunities for Australian businesses.”

Australia’s peak voice for the civil construction industry, the Civil Contractors Federation National (CFF) provided evidence at the 5 October hearing. 

CCF National Chief Executive Officer, Christopher Melham, highlighted the need for greater collaboration between industry and government to achieve a more efficient, equitable, and competitive procurement framework and a more sustainable construction sector by providing greater opportunity for tier two, three and four head contractors. 

Mr Melham said it was critical that a formal consultative mechanism be established involving key civil industry representative bodies, federal and state government infrastructure and policy agencies, to progress much-needed procurement and policy reform. 

“There would be significant value in establishing a formal mechanism, such as a ‘Civil Infrastructure Consultative Forum’ to facilitate a two-way dialogue between industry and government on critical civil infrastructure matters such as investment, procurement and enhanced skills development and training,” Mr Melham said.

“Federal, state and territory governments and the private sector are collectively investing more than $60 billion per annum into civil infrastructure – a more coordinated effort between industry and government would maximize the return to the Australian economy of this significant capital investment program.

“The CCF is also advocating for a more balanced approach to project allocation to the respective tiers with a clear appreciation that tier ones are required for certain risk profile projects, and significant ‘balance-sheet’ projects. 

“But a more sustainable level of project allocation is required for tier two, three, four and below, which will result in additional benefits to the community including, higher local employment opportunities, increased and upskilled local workforce, higher economic growth in the local community, and improving Australia’s sovereign capability.”

Mr Melham said CCF National’s recent report Rebuilding Australia, A Plan for a Civil Infrastructure Led Recovery, identified procurement reform as a key priority for government and provides key recommendations. 

“I also highlighted today the importance of infrastructure investment running in parallel with training, education and up-skilling funding in the civil infrastructure sector,” Mr Melham said.

“This can be achieved in the very short term by reinstating civil occupations on the National Skills Needs List at a classification level that would ensure apprentices, employers and training providers become eligible for grants and funding under the Commonwealth Government’s flagship program, the Australian Apprenticeships Incentives Program.”

The National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) recommended the use of procurement processes as a means of securing more women on government-funded infrastructure projects through making the engagement of women a prerequisite to undertaking government contracts.

The submission also called for industry to contribute to the ongoing pipeline of women entering the sector through apprenticeships, cadetships and other learning opportunities.

NAWIC National Chair, Kristine Scheul, said, “The reform of procurement practices is one of the most significant ways in which the government can make impactful and sustainable change to both the industry and women’s economic security.

“It is why NAWIC has recommended that female participation levels be mandated on government-funded projects as a step towards bringing female participation towards equilibrium.

“By placing ‘gender on the tender’ the government would be setting the expectation that women should be able to contribute more to the creation of our built environment.”

At approximately 12 per cent, construction has the lowest female participation rate of any industry sector in Australia. Women represent two per cent of tradespeople and just 18 per cent of leadership or managerial roles.

Women in the construction industry earn 26 per cent less than their male counterparts – the second-highest pay gap out of any industry sector.

A second public hearing will take place on 14 October, 2021, and will focus on technology and digital delivery.

The terms of reference and submissions received are available on the committee’s website.

More to come.

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