Demolition job: the Liberal party war surrounding NSW

David Chandler, a tough-talking 40-year veteran of the New South Wales construction industry, had reached the end of his tether when he resigned abruptly as the state’s building commissioner in July.

The man responsible for getting developers to fix unsafe buildings felt he had endured attacks on his character, a smear campaign swirling through the corridors of state parliament, lobbying by former ministers and a deteriorating relationship with his own minister.

His resignation letter, tabled in parliament last week, pulled no punches, revealing that he felt “a functional and trusted relationship” with previous ministers and their offices fell apart once Eleni Petinos became the fair trading minister in December 2021.

He complained that his engagement with her office had been “problematic”, and not at the same level as with previous ministers.

Much of the attention has since focused on Chandler’s mention of his concerns about what he called “the advised relationship” between Petinos and Coronation Properties, a property developer that hired the former deputy premier John Barilaro after he left parliament.

Specifically, Chandler referred to calls he received both from Petinos’s office and from Barilaro shortly after he issued a draft stop-work order against the company earlier this year. (Barilaro said the stop-work order “concerned me” but his request for a meeting with Chandler was not in relation to the order.)

But Chandler had also found himself, through his focus on developments in the Hills district of north-west Sydney, in the middle of an ugly war between the Liberal party’s centre-right and right factions, which have been battling for nearly a decade over control of the Hills district branches of the party.

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Over the years there have been allegations of branch stacking by both factions. At least one episode is now the subject of a formal complaint to the NSW Liberal party.

The battle intensified when a redistribution of state seats in the area led to one seat held by the centre-right – that of the transport minister, David Elliott – being abolished.

How could that involve a building commissioner?

Because developers need to pass their projects through local councils, and councillors depend on factions for preselection, just as state MPs do.

Liberal MP points finger at developer

In the lead-up to the 2021 local government elections there was a fierce contest between the factions over who would be endorsed for the Hills shire council, a dispute that came to embroil Chandler through his scrutiny of Toplace, a property developer with significant interests in the Hills district.

The acrimony led to allegations in state parliament that the right faction used its numbers on the party’s state executive to oust six councillors, including the Hills shire mayor, Michelle Byrne, and endorse new ones, who were duly elected.

In June, the Castle Hill MP Ray Williams, who belongs to the centre-right, raised sensational allegations under parliamentary privilege about what was behind the dumping of the councillors.

“Allegations have been raised with me that senior people within the New South Wales Liberal party, a member of the Liberal party state executive and former Hills councillor, were supported financially at the time by a large developer by the name of Jean Nassif, who owns Toplace. Toplace has one of the worst records in the residential building industry,” Williams told parliament.

Williams also called for an investigation into the relationship between Toplace and a right faction organiser in the Hills, Christian Ellis.

Ellis declined to comment. Beckington, a lobbying firm in which he is a shareholder, was listed as lobbyist for Toplace, though the Guardian understands Ellis himself did not represent Toplace.

The allegations Williams raised were sent to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (Icac), but it declined to investigate.

This week Nassif wrote to the Speaker of the House asking for a citizen’s right of reply to the allegations made by Williams and inviting Williams to repeat them outside parliament so that Nassif could sue him for defamation.

In the letter Nassif pointed to the looming preselection problems faced by some MPs aligned with the centre-right as a result of the redistribution as a possible motive for the attacks on him.

In an earlier media statement in June, Nassif said he “had never met any of the newly elected councillors on Hills Shire Council or had any involvement with them whatsoever”.

Chandler had issued a number of rectification orders against major developments by Toplace in the Hills and other parts of Sydney after his inspections found building defects.

That appears to have galvanised the factionally aligned MPs in Macquarie Street into pro- and anti-Chandler forces.

In the resignation letter to his boss, Emma Hogan, the secretary of the Department of Customer Service, Chandler wrote: “You are aware of several attempts to attack my character during the challenging circumstances that were confronted by me in the early stages of my work.

“The low point of this were the assertions made by Toplace during the course of dealing with serious defects on the Skyview project at Castle Hill.

“I understand these assertions were widely circulated with media and politicians.”

A spokesperson for the developer said in a statement: “Toplace has no idea what David Chandler is referring to [in the letter].

“Mr Chandler has made these allegations previously publicly and privately and widely circulated them among the media and politicians.”

Chandler faces internal inquiry

As the letter shows, Chandler believed he had been the subject of a campaign to undermine him for some time.

In June he faced an internal departmental investigation after a video emerged in which he told builders he had provided banks with “an informal list of building certifiers” which would lead to “some finding they are unemployable”.

The inquiry cleared him of creating a secret list of developers that he supported and of an allegation he had misled parliament, though he was reprimanded for not acting “to the required standard expected of departmental officers”.

He wrote in his resignation letter: “I do not accept any inference that I have ever acted unethically in performing my role.”

Chandler’s reference in the letter to his “problematic” relationship with Petinos – a member of the right faction – raised eyebrows, since she had been sacked from her portfolio by the premier at the end of July, following allegations that she ran an unsafe office, which she denies.

The premier, Dominic Perrottet, has refused to say exactly why she was dismissed, but denied the decision to remove her from cabinet was related to Chandler’s allegations.

The premier has sent the contents of Chandler’s letter to Icac “out of an abundance of caution”.

Chandler declined to comment further on any of the matters raised by his letter. More light may be shed on the matter when he appears before a parliamentary committee later this year.

We do not know what Petinos said to him during her time as fair trading minister. Nor do we know whether her office queried the rectification orders made against Toplace.

Nor do we know how much Chandler knew about the Liberal factional war raging around him. But what is clear from Chandler’s letter is that he did not feel the minister had his back.

Petinos did not respond to requests for comment.