The Politics    Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The tool of the trade

By Rachel Withers

Image of then NSW deputy premier John Barilaro and then treasurer Dominic Perrottet enjoy a Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2021. Image © Dean Lewins / AAP Images

Then NSW deputy premier John Barilaro and then treasurer Dominic Perrottet enjoy a Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2021. Image © Dean Lewins / AAP Images

What made John Barilaro and the NSW Coalition think they could get away with such blatant nepotism?

It’s not looking good for former NSW deputy premier and trade minister John Barilaro, following a parliamentary hearing into how he was offered a $500,000-a-year US trade commissioner job that he created while in government. But nor is it looking good for Premier Dominic Perrottet, or the trade minister, Stuart Ayres, or for anyone involved in this whole sordid saga. (Admittedly, it never looked good to begin with, with incriminating details being uncovered by the day.) Giving testimony today, Investment NSW chief executive Amy Brown, who was responsible for the process, confirmed that she had “verbally offered” the role to preferred candidate Jenny West in August last year – contradicting Perrottet, who has previously said no suitable candidate was found. But the offer was rescinded in October, Brown said, after she was instructed by Barilaro’s office to “unwind” it, because of a “government decision” to instead make such roles ministerial appointments. This came, it turns out, not long after his office had sought her advice on “the various mechanisms” by which such jobs could be appointed, including whether it could be a ministerial appointment, in a request that was clear came from the deputy premier himself. What on earth made Barilaro think he could get away with nobody noticing this paper trail?

There had been something fishy about Barilaro’s lucrative appointment from the moment it was announced – and not just because this is the politician who happily adopted the moniker John “Pork Barrel-aro”. (Perhaps it might now be “jobs for the Barilaros”.) It quickly became known that Barilaro got the job after it had already been offered to West, with that offer rescinded just days before the former Nats leader announced his resignation from parliament. Then there was the fact that Brown had told the external recruitment firm that the appointment would be henceforth handled as an “internal matter” the day before Barilaro announced his resignation, despite Perrottet and Ayres saying this week that the process was handled by the recruiting firm. Today’s inquiry also revealed that Brown got a “heads up” from new trade minister Ayres that Barilaro was going to apply (she didn’t get a “heads up” on any other candidate), and that she later informed Ayers that his former cabinet colleague had been shortlisted.

No wonder a senior bureaucrat feared that ministers would meddle with trade appointments, with emails obtained by Nine showing public servants were being urged to finalise recruitment reports before politicians could intervene. The former trade minister overturned a recruitment process on his way out the door only to miraculously end up with the job himself. (As one of the upper-house MPs asked Brown today, and I’m only slightly paraphrasing, “Can you give us reason why we shouldn’t find this all extremely suss?”) The entire thing stinks. Even if Barilaro really was the best possible person for this role, the process was corrupted, with Barilaro appearing to have used his outgoing position to ensure he was awarded another. The saga has been a terrible look for Perrottet, try as he might to distance himself from it. His deflections have repeatedly been contradicted, while the fact that he learnt of Barilaro’s interest in the role in a “social setting” isn’t the defence he seems to think it is.

It’s also not hard to see why Barilaro thought he might get away with this. As the AFR’s Tom Burton writes, “Along with pork-barrelling, ‘jobs for the boys’ has been one of the ugly stalwarts of modern public-sector life”, with public boards often filled with “friends” of the government of the day. And some jobs are simply described as “political appointments” (the previous federal government made more than 30 such appointments on its way out the door). This kind of corruption has become painfully normalised. But in this case, Barilaro has steamrolled someone else – an “excellent candidate”, according to Brown – who is now being painted as some kind of jilted lover, with Brown implying that the frustrated candidate refused to reapply. (It’s not clear whether West knew something we didn’t back in October last year, but honestly, can you blame her?) It was shameless of Barilaro to pull this one, thinking he could simply take a role that has already been assigned. But it was equally foolish of Perrottet to allow it to happen. People are paying attention, it seems, and there’s no doubt that ICAC is watching too.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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