How minister’s sacking led to building commissioner’s resignation reversal
A 10-step “departure plan” to replace the NSW building commissioner was never triggered because the government held such high hopes they could convince him to stay after Eleni Petinos was sacked as fair trading minister.
The plan was created after David Chandler resigned abruptly last month over serious concerns about the portfolio under the junior minister, warning that her office had become a roadblock to critical legislation.
But Petinos’ sacking last month over bullying allegations, which she denies, cleared the way for her successor Victor Dominello to woo the building commissioner into staying, which was announced on Friday.
In Chandler’s first public remarks addressing his U-turn in the role, he said his decision followed almost four weeks of “Victor’s arm-twisting”.
Addressing industry leaders on Friday, he gave a succinct explanation of why he felt the need to extract himself from the role of overseeing the state’s beleaguered construction industry.
“Frankly, the situation is that I’m not an elected member of parliament,” Chandler told the Master Builders Association NSW event.
“And when a bureaucrat feels as though the work that you’re trying to do is probably tougher than it needs to be, then a bureaucrat has got to make the decision as to whether that place suits them or not. That’s the only decision that’s happened here.”
Chandler joked that he was headed for the physio after Dominello twisted his arm into staying until August 2023.
When the 50-year industry veteran suddenly resigned last month, he penned a damning resignation letter to department secretary Emma Hogan raising issues that had emerged since Petinos took over the fair trading portfolio from now-Hospitality Minister Kevin Anderson.
In contrast to the former minister, his relationship with Petinos’ office was “problematic”.
The letter described “important pieces of previously canvassed legislation [that] have now run into serious disruption” in Petinos’ office, and expressed concern about her relationship with the developer that hired former deputy premier John Barilaro.
On July 31, more than three weeks after Chandler sent the letter, Petinos was sacked over workplace bullying allegations. Hogan sent the letter to the corruption watchdog “out of an abundance of caution” the next day.
Premier Dominic Perrottet has insisted the issues raised by Chandler were “peripheral” and had no bearing on his decision to remove Petinos from his cabinet.
A growing cache of documents released to parliament has continued to shed light on the sequence of events triggered by Chandler’s shock resignation, with his “departure plan” the latest to be revealed in government papers.
Among the steps outlined in the plan was appointing a recruitment firm to start advertising for Chandler’s successor on August 1. Senior bureaucrats planned to secure a candidate shortlist by September 19, with interviews to start later that month. However, the plan was never launched.
A Department of Customer Services spokesman on Friday confirmed the recruitment process never began following his resignation on July 7.
“As discussions between the commissioner [Chandler] and the secretary [Hogan] were ongoing, no recruitment agencies were engaged, and the role was not advertised.”
Dominello also attended Friday’s industry lunch, where he said he spoke highly of Chandler’s record and vowed that the government was “backing him 100 per cent”.
Chandler was appointed in 2019 by former premier Gladys Berejiklian, tasked with lifting standards following a string of building failures, including cracking damage to the Opal Tower and Mascot Towers buildings.
The building commissioner will continue focusing on key projects, including the removal of dangerous flammable cladding from high-rise buildings and working with the strata community to rectify serious building defects.
Chandler will work closely with the recently reinstated Property Services Commissioner John Minns, who is set to return to that role four weeks after it was terminated by Petinos due to a restructure.
Other internal government documents reveal Minns also raised concerns about the direction of the portfolio under Petinos in early July, following his termination after only eight months in the role.
In a letter to Hogan, Minns said it was “unfortunate there has been a lack of political leadership, will, or capacity to engage with Property Services at anything beyond a superficial level since after my first week in this role.”
NSW Labor leader Chris Minns commended the government on securing Chandler in the role until next year, but said questions remained over Petinos’ sacking.
“We’re expected to believe that … the firing of the minister had absolutely nothing to do with the Chandler resignation, and in fact had something to do with her personal behaviour. I think it stretches credulity,” he said.Opposition spokeswoman for better regulation Courtney Houssos said the people of NSW “almost lost two well-regarded commissioners”, adding that Labor looked forward to asking Chandler about his resignation when he appears at budget estimates next week.