02 Mar Automatic Mutual Recognition
A proposed national scheme for automatic mutual recognition (AMR) of occupational registrations was agreed to by federal and state and territory governments in August 2020. The agreement was endorsed at the National Cabinet in December 2020 with all jurisdictions signing an Intergovernmental Agreement.
Draft legislation was released by the Commonwealth in December 2020. Key elements of the Bill include:
- Introduce a concept of home state, taken to be a person’s primary place of residence or their primary place of work.
- Create a new Part 3A to establish a second mutual recognition principle to allow persons registered for an occupation in their home state to carry out those authorised activities in a second state using their home state registration without notification or payment of fees.
- Require information sharing arrangements between states and territories about registered persons and prepare and publish guidance.
- Ministers in a second state or territory will be given the discretion to require a practitioner to notify the regulator in the second state of their intention to work.
- Ministers in a second state or territory can declare registered occupations exempt from AMR.
The Board endorses the concept of standardised regulation across professional occupation groups, such as professional engineers, but only in circumstances where there is consistency in the approach to eligibility requirements (e.g. education, experience and competence).
As it stands there are several impediments to a standardised regulatory framework for engineers across jurisdictions and therefore the effective operation of any AMR scheme:
- Queensland is the only state or territory with a comprehensive and mandatory system of registration for engineers which requires engineers to meet ongoing registration requirements and complete continuing professional development.
- While the titles ‘Registered Professional Engineer of Queensland’ and ‘RPEQ’ and derivatives are protected by law the term ‘engineer’ is not.
- Engineering is a diverse collection of disciplines and given this and the lack of protection regarding the title of engineer, consumers are not well-placed to judge the quality or appropriateness of services available.
- There are different categories of engineer based on qualification – professional engineer, engineering technologist and engineering associate.
Registration upholds standards in the profession and protects the public by mandating minimum standards and having a ready process to investigate and act against people who break the law or demonstrate unsatisfactory professional conduct. Registration also acts as a risk mitigation tool. A series of high-profile building failures in New South Wales and Victoria, resulting in significant media attention, has shown the pitfalls of not mandating minimum standards of education and competency and registering engineers. Those states are now moving toward a Queensland-style regulation that takes proper account of the public interest, albeit mainly for engineers working in building and construction related activities. In Queensland, the Board plays a valuable role of providing reassurance to the public that registered professional engineers meet minimum standards of conduct and competence.
AMR may undo the effectiveness of Queensland’s nation leading scheme – in operation since 1930 – by allowing any registered person from another state, regardless of education and competency, to work in Queensland. This creates potential risks to the public and reputationally to the profession.
‘AMR may undo the effectiveness of Queensland’s nation leading scheme – in operation since 1930…’
The register of Registered Professional Engineers of Queensland is a critical document for both the public, the profession and associated industries (e.g. construction firms and builders). The register shows a registrant’s area of engineering, business contact details, registration conditions and disciplinary history. Put simply, it is a one-stop source of information to help someone engaging an engineer to determine if the engineer is suitable for the task. A practitioner from interstate working in Queensland will not be required to provide any notice to BPEQ, placing the responsibility upon consumers to undertake relevant checks of engineers across jurisdictions.
Interstate practitioners will only be required to comply with their home state registration or licencing requirements and as such will be able to avoid continuing professional development (CPD) obligations set by BPEQ. They will also not be required to disclose to BPEQ any fitness to practice issues (criminal conviction, bankruptcy history) upon applying. The result will be a reduction in the standards required to enter profession. Coupled with no obligation to maintain skills and knowledge through CPD or BPEQ having a record of a practitioner’s fitness to practice, we will likely see a reduction in the quality of engineering work. Lesser quality engineering work will ultimately result in an increase in complaints to BPEQ regarding professional engineering services undertaken.
Under AMR a registrant will only need to pay fees in their home jurisdiction. This makes financial sense for individuals working across borders. However, at a macro level, fewer registrants and less revenue reduces BPEQ’s ability to fund investigations and disciplinary action and act in the public and professional interest. Where revenue decreases significantly, registration fees will need to increase, or the Queensland Government will need to provide recurrent funding to BPEQ. Ultimately it will be Queensland registrants or taxpayers that will be responsible for the financial burden with respect to all disciplinary and prosecutorial functions of BPEQ.
The process of mutual recognition has been established since 1992 and engineers from elsewhere in Australia and from New Zealand have been able to obtain registration as a RPEQ through the existing process. There are challenges with the existing process which would only be exacerbated by AMR. For instance, the Board knows from current and previous Administrative Appeals Tribunal applications that engineers are not necessarily equipped to conduct a legal analysis of a comparison of authorised activities under various registrations. In the Board’s experience, applicants have assumed they can conduct a wider range of activities than their specific registration authorises.
AMR is a sound proposal in theory but first requires a standardised regulatory framework for engineers across jurisdictions. The proposed AMR scheme may undermine the effectiveness of Queensland’s registration scheme and pose risks to the public and profession. The Board has made a submission to the Commonwealth stating its concerns about the implications of AMR.