UPDATED: NSW building commissioner David Chandler OAM has shocked the building and construction industry by tendering his resignation on Monday, after an internal investigation cleared him of false claims that he’d misled parliament.
Mr Chandler, a highly respected figure within the industry, had been the subject of an internal investigation following allegations in The Australian that he had misled state parliament.
That investigation has now concluded. The Department of Customer Service has confirmed to The Fifth Estate that it found those claims to be unsubstantiated, and that reports of tensions with Department of Customer Service staff are also false.
Mr Chandler advised Department of Customer Service secretary Emma Hogan of his decision to resign on Monday, after the investigation was completed.
The Fifth Estate understands Mr Chandler will remain in the role until November, and will focus his work on building reforms and the Project Remediate cladding removal program.
Parliamentary and industry sources told The Fifth Estate they had been surprised by sudden news of the resignation.
In just the past few weeks, he had briefed a number of NSW MPs about his upcoming work on cladding remediation, and attendees said he seemed enthusiastic about his role.
A video is mysteriously leaked
The catalyst for the sudden decision to stand aside appears to stem from an article that was published in The Australian on 24 June.
The newspaper published a leaked video, which it claimed showed Mr Chandler at a building site telling construction workers he has presented the banks with an informal list of certifiers that he “wouldn’t be bloody having on a job”.
The article claimed the video was recorded in August of last year, but it does not reveal either who created the mysterious clip, who leaked it to the paper, or why.
The problem, Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party MP Mark Banasiak told The Fifth Estate, was that video appeared to contradict comments Mr Chandler made to parliament that his role does not include recommending specific certifiers.
Following the article’s publication, NSW Small Business Minister Eleni Petinos launched an internal investigation, which has been led by Department of Customer Service secretary Emma Hogan.
That investigation has cleared Mr Chandler of those claims.
“An internal investigation into allegations of misleading parliament were found to be unsubstantiated. Reports of fractious relationships with Departmental staff are also false,” a spokesperson for the Department of Customer Service told The Fifth Estate
“Mr Chandler will continue his work with industry and the Department in coming months with a continued focus on building reforms and the cladding remediation program.
“Recruitment for a replacement will take place in due course.”
Unusually, for the resignation of a respected senior public servant, Mr Chandler’s resignation was leaked on Monday to the Margin Call gossip column in The Australian.
The Fifth Estate understands the full findings of that investigation are likely to be published sometime early next week.
Given the investigation’s findings are yet to be released, Mr Chandler is unable to provide any public comment on the matter.
Claims about a dysfunctional ministerial office
Several state parliamentary sources, from different parties, pointed out the “clear cultural issues” and high staff turnover in Ms Petinos’ office. Some had suggested this could have been a contributing factor in the resignation.
State MPs report getting so frustrated at the lack of response from Ms Petinos’ office that they have resorted to going to the premier’s office to resolve basic constituent inquiries.
The high staff turnover in the minister’s office led to an absurd exchange during a recent parliamentary committee session on 11 March, when the minister was being questioned about why there wasn’t more timely contact from her office to residents of the Opal Tower in Mascot.
During that session, Ms Petinos was asked directly how many staff she had in her office at that time. The minister just couldn’t give a straight answer.
“You would appreciate that as a new office people have only been onboarding over the last few weeks, and not all positions are filled at this point in time,” Ms Peinos said.
When pressed on the precise number of staff in her office, Ms Petinos responded: “I believe five. I could stand corrected on that… I am sure the materiality of one person would not change the answer.”
The Fifth Estate reached out to the minister’s office about these claims, but did not receive a response prior to publication.
A legacy of bouquets and brickbats
Mr Chandler was originally appointed as NSW’s first building commissioner on 14 August 2019 by former state premier Gladys Berejiklian, following public outcry over serious construction defects at Sydney’s Mascot and Opal Towers.
Before taking on the role, Mr Chandler had been a regular high profile contributor to The Fifth Estate. He has more than 40 years experience as a construction industry practitioner and was awarded an Order of Australia medal in 1989 for his services.
He was tasked with investigating misconduct within the building industry, overseeing disciplinary action, managing licensing and auditing, and strengthening the state’s building laws. A year into his role, he gained the power to enter and inspect building sites.
Initially appointed for a two-year term, in April of this year Mr Chandler agreed to a one-year extension to his term that would have seen him stay on in the role until September 2023.
Among his many achievements were the introduction of “anytime anywhere” inspections, the creation of the iCIRT star-rating program for developer quality, and the creation of the Office of the Building Commissioner.
He also oversaw the introduction of the Residential Apartment Buildings Bill and Design and Building Practitioners Bill, which require all key consultants to insured, and holds people involved in the construction process accountable for the buildings they construct.
However, Mr Chandler’s work in cleaning up the industry led to what he described as “bouquets and brickbats” in an interview with The Fifth Estate last year.
His work has earned high praise in some quarters, with many people in the built environment sector wishing they “had their own David Chandler”.
At the same time, he’s been threatened with defamation, and accused of being connected to a “shakedown” by some more questionable figures in the industry.
One developer, whose project was found wanting, reportedly went so far as to refer Mr Chandler to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
High praise and calls for an explanation from the minister
Urban Taskforce Australia chief executive Tom Forrest said while his organisation has not agreed with everything Mr Chandler has done, he was always willing to take the call, engage in debate, and take seriously any issue raised.
“David Chandler has won the respect of the property construction and development sector and this has been key to his success. He has also drawn praise from owners’ corporations and political leaders, ranging from Gladys Berejiklian to David Shoebridge (and everyone in between),” Mr Forrest said.
“Mr Chandler has completely reversed the focus of the inspectorate of the Department of Fair Trading. Rather than focusing 90 per cent of their time trying to fix problems after they have been occupied, David Chandler has overseen a transformation which now sees 90 per cent of the inspection effort focused on major defects prior to the occupation of the building.”
The NSW property development and construction sector, along with buyers of newly built apartments, are better off for Mr Chandler’s work and dedication, he said.
Association of Australian Certifiers chief executive Jill Brookfield said: “David was committed to lifting standards across the industry. While we didn’t always agree with everything, and he sometimes had unorthodox ways of doing things, overall he delivered the change that the industry needed.”
Shadow minister for better regulation and innovation Courtney Houssos called on the minister to provide a full explanation of the reasons behind the “dramatic and premature” departure of the building commissioner.
“It’s really important that the minister explains who will be responsible for spearheading the government’s regulation of the building industry, which is a really important part of our state economy, but also most families’ most major financial investment,” Ms Houssos told The Fifth Estate.
“The community also needs the minister to explain the time frame and the process for replacing the building commissioner. And it’s vital that this is open and transparent.”
Know more? Email Andrew@TheFifthEstate.com.au.