The dark side of lighting

By Richard Mulcahy, CEO, Lighting Council Australia
Tuesday, 02 October, 2018

The dark side of lighting

The process for the development of the National Construction Code is woefully inadequate and veiled in an unnecessary level of secrecy, explains Lighting Council Australia CEO Richard Mulcahy.

The National Construction Code, which is updated every three years, is due for enactment in 2019. These regulations will provide the rule book for new builds and redevelopments across Australia, affecting many billions of dollars’ worth of industry.

At the eleventh hour of the multi-year consultation process, bureaucrats in the Australian Building Codes Board Office put to the Australian lighting industry a highly damaging proposal relating to decorative lighting. In recent months, Lighting Council Australia has dedicated significant resources in resisting the imposition of yet another set of short-sighted and ill-considered regulatory measures that reduce consumer choice and undermine the long-term future for manufacturing in Australia.

The expression ‘decorative’ is unhelpful because it conveys the sense that the category is frivolous or unnecessary. The better understanding of decorative is as non-general lighting or architectural lighting. The concept refers to the design and deployment of lighting to enhance aesthetic aspects of the built environment. The lighting equipment captured within the definition of decorative lighting (such as indirect lighting, wall washers and in-floor uplights) is lighting that increases the visual interest, comfort, wellbeing and perceived value of buildings.

The Australian Building Codes Board Office replied to the concerns of industry suggesting that it was too late for anything to be done, and that the proposal had found its way into the draft National Construction Code to be considered by the influential advisory body, the Building Codes Committee. The lighting industry is not represented on the Building Codes Committee and it is understood that the group endorsed a proposal in relation to decorative lighting at an important meeting in early August.

Building Ministers play a fundamental role in ensuring that the legislation is enacted and passes into law. As a consequence of Australia’s federated approach, the Commonwealth Government cannot unilaterally regulate building and construction rules; rather, mirroring legislation is passed through each state and territory parliament separately. As a compromise to dealing with this coordination problem and in an attempt to harmonise rules to reduce costs for market participants, a COAG-style approach is used and states and territory governments work with the Commonwealth to develop standardised approaches. The Building Ministers’ Forum is one such body and was created to oversee the work of the Australian Building Codes Board and set its strategic direction. The practical reality of most COAG arrangements is that the Commonwealth has deeper pockets than state and territory governments and indeed the Commonwealth has taken a leadership role in recent decades in promoting nationwide economic reforms for which the buy-in and acquiescence of the states and territories is required.

Because state and territory Building Ministers are required to shepherd the legislation through their own parliaments, one would be forgiven for assuming that these Ministers are in the driver’s seat in relation to developing policy, especially with regard to the impact of any policy on their individual jurisdictions. In practice, however, the process for the development of the National Construction Code elevates unelected bureaucrats to a similar level of authority as Cabinet Ministers.

When questioned by Building Ministers about the impact of provisions of the code on the lighting industry later in August, government officials provided confident assertions that the concerns of industry had been considered and reflected in a revised final version.

Neither Ministers nor the lighting industry, however, were in a position to see the revised proposal. While some level of confidentiality in the development of commercially sensitive policy is justified, the reliance on secrecy provisions by the Australian Building Codes Board and Office verges on the absurd. In order for a Building Minister to obtain a copy of a proposal, industry understands that the Minister is obliged to put a motion to the Building Ministers’ Forum, requiring the agreement of a majority of Ministers. Those same Ministers have employees that report to them through their own public service agencies that routinely handle National Construction Code drafts and indeed represent them on the board and the committee. In other words: public servants can easily obtain documents that their Ministerial bosses cannot. This represents a very poor governance arrangement and undermines the principles of political accountability of elected officials to their constituents.

The lighting industry provides 5000 manufacturing jobs in Australia and many thousands more in related downstream roles. There are 1000 lighting designers and engineers who will have their livelihoods affected by this change, not to mention the more than 100,000 electrical contractors who might install decorative lighting equipment. Despite the offer from the industry to make undertakings in relation to confidentiality on equivalent terms of other industry representatives who can access the documents, the industry has been denied the opportunity to see the relevant provisions.

The Australian Building Codes Board has already taken significant risks in relation to public safety in recent years by approving the use of glow-in-the-dark (or photoluminescent) emergency and exit systems. These systems provide critical guidance to building occupants in the case of emergencies. Disregarding 40 years of academic literature and international consensus on the safe level of lighting required to safely evacuate buildings, particularly in cases of fire or reduced visibility, the Australian Building Codes Board endorsed the use of photoluminescent equipment under the ‘Deemed to satisfy’ provisions of the National Construction Code. Under the regulations, photoluminescent signs need only provide 0.03 Cd/m2, which is 250 times less than the required light output of a conventional emergency and exit lighting system.

The work of industry bodies like Lighting Council Australia is to represent the interests of members, working to enhance the public good by ensuring that consumers have access to safe, reliable and affordable industrial outputs. The Council is a long-standing participant in the development of standards and an authority on technical matters affecting the lighting industry and related sectors, especially in relation to safety.  The Council will continue to work with regulators at the state and territory and federal levels on a range of policy areas.

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