It collapsed at 1251 hours 22 February 2011 in a cloud of dust and smoke. Well over 100 people were trapped in the rubble of the Canterbury Television building when it collapsed. 115 of the people trapped never saw the light of day again. The collapse of the C.T.V. building also marked the beginning collapse of an immense fabrication of lies told by a former C.T.V. construction site supervisor to hide a dark and disturbing past. The unravelling of Gerald Shirtcliff has raised questions both in New Zealand and Australia about the immunity of the construction industry from corruption. But what can we learn from the case of Shirtcliff?
To be totally honest, Gerald Shirtcliff is a fraud. For nearly 40 years, he lived a professional life of lies and deception that spanned both New Zealand and Australia. He had none of the qualifications that he claimed to have. To cover his tracks he took the name of a qualified English engineer that he worked with, named Will Fisher and gained a Masters degree in highway engineering from the University of New South Wales in 1974. Mr Shirtcliff has since been found to have had no undergraduate qualification to allow him access to the Masters programme.
In the 25 years since leaving New Zealand, Mr Shirtcliff worked in nearly every Australian state. He was a supervisor at work sites that included 33 story hotels in Sydney. They included reputable firms WorleyParsons and Sedgman. He also became a registered member of Engineers Australia, which oversees the registration of Australian engineers. The E.A. cancelled his membership upon learning of the New Zealand investigations into his past.
Following the 22 February 2011, the Government ordered an inquiry into the C.T.V. collapse, which called many witnesses. Reluctant to come, but requested by the Crown, Gerald Shirtcliff testified in July. What he said was enough to start raising suspicions about his past. His admission that he only occasionally visited the construction site to check on progress.
In September 2012, The Press newspaper announced the findings of an investigation into Shirtcliff. Following the release of its findings, the Australian construction companies Sedgman and WorleyParsons began investigating his record with them. The University of New South Wales has indicated that it will cancel his degree if allegations are true.
The construction industry is an economic sector where there are temptations – however wrong – to take short cuts in implementing the design or during the construction phase. The rationale for the short cuts is often simple things such as keeping the costs to the builder and to the client down. Perhaps getting resource consent is costing too much, or the client wants the building finished in an unrealistic time frame. There is also the risk of characters such as Mr Shirtcliff getting into the profession with no intention of discharging their duties in a responsible manner.
The consequences of corruption in this industry, constructing buildings whose failure may threaten both peoples lives and neighbouring buildings, can be as lethal as it can be damaging to the sectors reputation. One would therefore think that extensives checks would be in place to detect corruption and stamp it out from the outset. Why did the University of New South Wales not follow up on the absence of an undergraduate degree?
Did anyone who came into professional contact with Shirtcliff during his career detect corrupt or legal/ethically questionable practises on his part – if they did, what did they do?
Let us hope that there are no more C.T.V. style construction failures waiting to be uncovered. Let us hope for the sake of the 115 people whose lives were lost in the C.T.V. building that lessons are learnt about the causes of the catastrophic failure. Above all, let us hope that no more morally bankrupt characters like Gerard Shirtcliff are in the construction industry, and that if there are, they be quickly shown the door.