John Barilaro didn’t want to continue being “a distraction”.
In a statement released on Thursday evening announcing he had withdrawn from the $500,000 New York trade commissioner job that caused a firestorm of controversy for the New South Wales government over the past fortnight, Barilaro conceded his position was “not tenable” because of “the amount of media attention this appointment has gained”.
His apparent surprise at the interest is, well, surprising.
From the moment it was announced late on a Friday afternoon a fortnight ago the appointment created a perception that this may have been, as Anthony Whealy QC wrote last week, a case of “jobs for the boys”.
The entire process may well have been above board, but the perception of a minister creating a lucrative taxpayer-funded role only to end up in the job months later did not, to use the cliche, pass the pub test.
The deputy Liberal party leader, Stuart Ayres, who succeeded Barilaro as NSW’s investment and trade minister, said as much himself on Thursday. He said he had given Amy Brown, the chief executive of Investment NSW and the public servant responsible for selecting the successful candidate, the “heads up” that Barilaro may apply because he “had some concerns” that it would create “political contention”. Brown told an upper house inquiry into the appointment this week that Ayres had given her a heads up, but had not expressed any opinion on Barilaro’s suitability. She said that Barilaro had emerged as the best candidate and was confident the process had been conducted properly.
“I do live in the real world [and] I recognise, particularly, there’s going to be media interest around the appointments of former politicians,” Ayres said.
And remember, that’s before the drip-feed of revelations raising questions about the appointment which have engulfed the Perrottet government over the past fortnight.
The job had been offered, verbally, to another highly qualified candidate – Jenny West, a respected businesswoman and former public servant – months before it went to Barilaro.
The upper house inquiry heard this week that offer was rescinded after a committee of cabinet apparently decided it wanted the job to be a ministerial appointment. Brown told the inquiry that in September a policy advisor in Barilaro’s office asked her for advice on “the various mechanisms” by which the jobs could be appointed, including whether it could be a “ministerial appointment”. On Thursday, Ayres said Barilaro had sent him a text asking about “the status” of the New York job prior to it being readvertised in December. Ayers said he “informed Barilaro that the the “position would be publicly advertised and he, like any other private citizen, will be able to apply.”
And, despite the government’s insistence that the entire process was handled by the public service without any ministerial intervention, emails from November last year suggest officials inside Investment NSW believed they needed the “approval” of Ayres and the premier, Dominic Perrottet, before signing off on another trade commissioner job.
Which is where this saga goes now. Barilaro’s decision to stand aside may stop the bleeding for the Perrottet government for now, but questions remain. And Labor, helpfully, is delighted to keep asking them. That will resume next week, when West will probably give evidence to the upper house inquiry.
By Thursday, it was clear the government had had enough. The transport minister, David Elliott, weighed in to say Barilaro should do the “honourable thing” and quit saying that “quite clearly when you become the story over an appointment, well, then the appointment might not be in the best interests of the people of NSW”. Ayres noted, with considerable restraint, that Barilaro quitting was “an option”.
In his statement, Barilaro said he “maintained that I followed the process and look forward to the results of the review” into the appointment.
That may, of course, be entirely true. But, to use another cliche: perception is everything in politics.
In any case, much of the damage has already been done. Does anyone remember the NSW government releasing its ambitious, reform-minded, big-spending pre-election budget less than a fortnight ago?
It was, at its heart, an attempt to convince voters in electorates which abandoned the Coalition for the “teal” independents at the federal election in May that NSW was not the same beast, focusing on female voters and advancing the government’s ambitions on climate change.
There was, of course, a third plank to the teal campaigns though: integrity. And the trick with integrity is that perception is everything.