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How to pass a buck: the politics of unpaid subbies

Geoff Helisma |

On Monday May 21, the Independent contacted Opposition leader Luke Foley’s office – after he had facilitated a May 20 meeting with unpaid subcontractors working on the new Pacific Highway – and put it to his media advisor that it seemed like the NSW Supreme Court’s judgement in a dispute between the insolvent contractor Ostwald Bros (the company that engaged the subcontractors) and principal contractor Seymour White had been overlooked.

On the previous Thursday May 17, Mr Foley asked the Premier in the Legislative Assembly: “Given that the government engaged Pacific Complete as delivery partner on the Wave 5 section of the Pacific Highway upgrade, and given that the government’s delivery partner promised that all subcontractors would be paid for works performed, why has the government allowed 23 subcontractors to be left unpaid to the tune of $7.3 million?”

Part of Justice James Stevenson’s ruling centred on a technical case about when payments were due; he acknowledged that Seymour White had not paid Ostwald Bros, despite having been paid by the NSW Government through Pacific Complete for the work.

The plight of the unpaid contractors was subsequently twice raised in the NSW Parliament on Tuesday May 22.
Mr Foley asked Premier Gladys Berejiklian: “Why has the Government failed to implement the recommendations of the Collins inquiry into construction industry insolvencies in New South Wales, which, if implemented, would have saved the 23 north coast small businesses that have been so seriously impacted by the Ostwald Bros collapse?”

Premier Berejiklian responded, in part: “The government is working hard to support those small businesses that have had the wrong thing done to them by the contractor. We have paid the contractor.

“Within 100 days of coming to office, we reformed the law to make it more difficult for contractors to do the wrong thing by their subcontractors.
“…I ask the Leader of the Opposition—the hypocrite that he is—why it was when those opposite were in government they ignored recommendations made by auditor general after auditor general?”

At this point the house descended into chaos and not much more was said by the Premier.

Later that day, shadow minister for business Jenny Aitchison moved a ‘Motion Accorded Priority’.
She was arguing that her motion deserved priority over Deputy Premier John Barilaro’s motion to discuss the Kosciuszko National Park Wild Horse Management Plan.

“My motion deserves priority because the Pacific Highway upgrade along the mid north coast undertaken by this government will be remembered as the road to ruin for so many families and small businesses,” Ms Aitchison said, in part.