It’s been revealed John Barilaro contacted the New South Wales deputy Liberal party leader, Stuart Ayres, to inquire about “the status” of a $500,000 New York trade commissioner job prior to it being publicly advertised, as pressure grows on the former deputy premier to withdraw from the role.
On Thursday, the NSW transport minister, David Elliott, broke ranks and called for Barilaro to “do the honourable thing” and quit of his own accord.
“My very, very strong view is that he shouldn’t be going to New York and I’m pretty sure that that’s the view of the majority of people in this state,” Elliott said.
Shortly afterwards, Ayres, who took over as trade minister after Barilaro announced his resignation from parliament in October 2021, told media he “had some concerns” when the former deputy premier contacted him in December to ask about the trade job.
“He contacted me via text message late last year, indicating that he was interested in it,” Ayres said, in his first comments on the saga outside parliament since Barilaro was announced in the job a fortnight ago.
“I made it very clear to him that we were continuing with the existing process [and] I informed him that they would be publicly advertised and he, like any other private citizen, will be able to apply.”
Asked about Elliott’s comments, Ayres, who oversees the department that made the appointment, Investment NSW, gave the clearest signal yet that the saga had become an unwelcome headache for the government.
“That is an option for John Barilaro to consider,” he said. “Unfortunately, I do not have the capacity to direct [Investment NSW CEO] Amy Brown as the employer of this role on what to do.
“She has to come to that conclusion herself, or John can make the decision that he no longer wants to do the job that he’s been selected for.”
On Wednesday Brown told the first public hearing of an upper house inquiry into the appointment that Ayres had given her a “heads up” that the former deputy premier might apply for the job.
During the hearing Brown insisted Ayres had not indicated any opinion on Barilaro’s appointment. Asked why he had done that, Ayres said on Thursday that he was aware that it would create “political contention” if the former deputy premier got the job.
“There’s no doubt that I was always of the view and had some concerns that if Mr Barilaro succeeded in this appointment, it would create some political contention,” he said.
But, he said, it would have been inappropriate to intervene in the hiring process.
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“I think I can say to everyone here, I’m hardly known as the flag bearer of the John Barilaro fan club, but he’s a private citizen and we’ve got to be able to make sure that any private citizen who applies for a role gets a fair hearing,” he said.
“I didn’t conduct those processes [but] I do live in the real world [and] I recognise, particularly, there’s going to be media interest around the appointments of former politicians.
“This is an invidious position in many respects. We create a hands-off recruitment process where politicians don’t engage in the recruitment process, and that process selects a former politician, it immediately creates questions. That’s a very difficult position for the public service to be.”
On Wednesday Brown told the inquiry that another candidate – businesswoman and former public servant Jenny West – was offered the role in August, but that the offer was rescinded after she received instructions to make the trade commissioner jobs ministerial appointments.
She was informed of that “government decision” by Barilaro’s office. Only a few days later the former deputy premier announced his resignation and Ayres took over the portfolio.
Ayres then decided to keep the jobs “at arm’s length from politicians” by allowing for them to remain as public service appointments.
The inquiry on Wednesday heard that prior to the “government decision” to make the roles ministerial appointments, Brown had been asked by staff in Barilaro’s office for advice on how that could be done.
She was told during the same meeting that the deputy premier “wanted to know”.
Labor’s deputy leader, Prue Carr, said Elliott’s intervention showed that Barilaro “should not be getting on that plane”.
“This thing is very, very fishy,” she said.
“The people of NSW are not mugs, they know that something is up here, this timeline is absolutely off.”
Barilaro has been approached for a response.