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Louise Stewart won a primary vote of 8 per cent in the seat of Curtin on Saturday.

Battle over future of Subbies WA

An emotional and complicated dispute has broken out among current and former committee members of Subcontractors WA, after former chairperson Louise Stewart resigned in February to contest the seat of Curtin at the recent federal election.

Business News has spoken to multiple members and former members of the organisation, some of whom claimed to have been threatened with defamation action after the enquiries by Business News.

The crux of the issue is between Ms Stewart and her apparent successor, Michelle Livesey-Giles.

Ms Livesey-Giles, and another committee member, Shane Brown, denied allegations by Ms Stewart that they were taking over the organisation to earn referrals for legal businesses.

Meanwhile, sources close to Subcontractors WA have expressed confusion and frustration that Ms Stewart has continued to be involved in the committee’s affairs since her resignation.

That includes, they allege, using the committee’s website and Facebook page, which has recently posted promotions of Ms Stewart’s election campaign.

Bringing extra heat into the issue, Ms Stewart said she would file an objection to the Australian Press Council for a recent story in The West Australian.

The West reported the committee had made a complaint about Ms Stewart to the state government’s Consumer Protection division, alleging she had not handed over documents and had represented the committee at important meetings after resigning

Ms Stewart claims she wasn’t contacted for that story and had not received notification of a consumer complaint.

Perth lawyer John Hammond will be representing Ms Stewart on this issue.

Ms Stewart is proud of her work to change conditions for subcontractors in Western Australia,” Mr Hammond said in a press release on Friday.

Ms Stewart is entitled to speak for change whether as a member of an association, an individual or, if elected, as a member of parliament.

Ms Stewart has not been advised of any investigation by the department, only the media have.

“Releasing this information on the eve of the election is premeditated and designed to inflict maximum damage.”

The Department of Consumer Protection said standard practice was that it would not disclose if a complaint was received or actioned.

“Generally speaking, when we receive a complaint we review and consider it but this does not necessarily mean we are formally investigating,” a spokesperson said.

Ms Stewart's campaign courted controversy earlier in the election race, with The West having published what turned out to be fake polling data, supplied by Ms Stewart’s camp, on its front page.

It has been a tough period for the construction industry. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Transition interruption

The controversy comes after Ms Stewart achieved considerable success leading Subcontractors WA.

The state government is planning to reform payments systems in the construction industry after years of pain, with smaller businesses often squeezed sometimes to the point of failure.

Terry Delane, who is now vice-chair, has been involved in the organisation from the start, lobbying for subcontractors’ rights for many years.

Mr Delane said that, after Ms Stewart’s departure, he and two other committee members had appointed Olistan Consulting owner Ms Livesey-Giles to take the helm as chair, in the hopes of keeping momentum behind payment reform.

He told Business News he had been keen to call a general meeting because one had become due.

That appears to have fed into the dispute around handover of documents and other material.

“It’s quite strange from our point of view,” Mr Delane said.

“(Ms Stewart) was a big supporter.

“I’ve worked side by side with her quite well for quite some time, I respect and admire her energy, she’s an intelligent woman.

“(But after she left,) we had to get on with stuff.”

Ms Livesey-Giles was selected as chair because she had strong experience in governance, particularly in non-profits, he said.

That includes chairing Parents of Prems and Tiny Sparks WA, according to her Linkedin account.

Change could soon be in sight for subcontractors. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Motivation

Ms Stewart said she was disappointed she had not been invited to the meeting where Ms Livesey-Giles was appointed, and claimed the move was invalid.

“I was not aware of it … I was (resigned) but I was still trying to facilitate a handover.

“The first I knew of it was some email from this woman I never met.”

Both Ms Stewart and Ms Livesey-Giles have business interests related to the industry.

Ms Stewart founded Project Pay, a startup which designed a payments system to ensure subcontractors are paid appropriately.

She said there had been no conflict of interest, and she had not spoken with any ministers about the state using Project Pay as a payment platform.

“At no point did I ever derive any financial benefit… through that association,” Ms Stewart said.

Ms Stewart said she had previously referred legal work through Subcontractors WA to Mr Brown, but switched earlier this year to Piara Waters-based McAulay Legal.

Mr Brown, who owns Lateral Legal, said picking up legal referrals had not been his motivation, and that he had wanted to ensure the association was active after Ms Stewart left.

He said most of the referral work he had engaged in was advice over the phone delivered pro bono.

Ms Livesey-Giles told Business News she consulted on construction contracts but was not a lawyer.

“I don’t own any legal business or law firm at all,” she said.

She said there had not been any intention for profit from her involvement.

Another notable issue remains unclear.

In emails sighted by Business News, Ms Stewart had contacted committee members to announce her intention to resign as chair as early as July 2018.

It seems there had been no-one lined up to take over the role when she eventually left in February 2019.

A resolution may be in sight, however.

Although Ms Stewart’s group is planning an annual general meeting at the end of this month, Ms Stewart said she had no intention of renominating for chair.

“Absolutely not,” she said.

“This association just became a field day for lawyers.

“I don’t want anything to do with this mess.”

Competing mandates

 Judith Whitehead resigned from Subcontractors WA via email to members on Tuesday, with her email identifying her as the association's secretary.

In the email, which has been seen by Business News, she claimed a majority of the management committee had left after Ms Livesy-Giles’ appointment.

Business News understands at least two resignations were not because of the appointment of Ms Livesy-Giles, however.

Ms Whitehead also claimed Ms Stewart had advanced $200,000 to the organisation.

Ms Stewart also said in a press release she had "invested $200,000".

She told Business News that had included running costs of the association, utility bills and her time over two years.

More than one source suggested that Ms Whitehead worked for Ms Stewart, a claim Ms Stewart denies.

Ms Whitehead had been the authorised officer of the association, according to Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety documents.

On that documentation, she listed her contact address as Unit 1, 84 Forsyth Street O’Connor, which is the address of three businesses - Performance Paving, Performance Contracting and The Revive Group.

Ms Stewart formerly owned Revive and is managing director of Performance Contracting.

In a follow up email to members on Tuesday, Mr Delane said that neither Ms Stewart nor Ms Whitehead were current members of the organisation.

“Any correspondence received from Ms Stewart, Ms Whitehead, distributed via email, the Facebook page or website does not come from Subcontractors WA and is to be ignored,” he wrote.

Subcontractors WA has been prevented from accessing our own website and social media by Ms Stewart and anything currently published by these means does not come from Subcontractors WA.

“Any purported cancellation of memberships are also to be ignored.”

Included in the following lists: