Dominic Perrottet’s chief of staff gave ‘strong opinion’ on salary for London trade role, inquiry told

·5 min read

Dominic Perrottet’s chief of staff Bran Black has been drawn into the ongoing saga over the appointment of overseas trade commissioners, disputing the evidence of a public servant that he expressed a “strong opinion” that an $800,000 salary package for a London role was “worth it”.

An explosive day in New South Wales politics began with John Barilaro telling a parliamentary inquiry that he informed Perrottet of his desire to apply for a lucrative New York trade job, and ended with Amy Brown, the head of Investment NSW, offering series of revelations about the equivalent London role.

Called before the inquiry probing the appointments for a third time on Monday, Brown said that, after taking over negotiations with the state’s senior trade commissioner for London, Stephen Cartwright, in mid 2021, he had been given what she described as “unrealistic” pay expectations amounting to an overall package of about $800,000.

She told the inquiry that during the negotiations she raised the pay issue with the offices of the then premier Gladys Berejiklian and the then treasurer, Perrottet.

While she said Berejiklian’s staff agreed with her assessment, she said Black told her “reasonably” emphatically she should consider the ask, allegedly saying it was “worth it”.

Related: Public service boss wouldn’t have signed off on John Barilaro NY trade job ‘if I had known’, inquiry hears

“I said I was in contract negotiations with the candidate for Agent General role [and] in my view it wasn’t going fantastically at that moment,” she said, describing her memory of a phone call with Black, who remains Perrottet’s chief of staff.

Brown said she was “nervous” Cartwright would pull out of the process, and that she suggested going back to a previous candidate identified for the role.

“[Black] said the opportunities between Australia and NSW and the UK were enormous [and] that it was very, very important to have someone high calibre in the role and we should probably rethink our approach to salaries and a high salary is certainly justified,” she said.

Brown told the inquiry that Black could not instruct her to offer more pay – a salary of that size, about double the premier’s, would have been outside her powers regardless – but, she said, he gave his “strong opinion”.

“I got the impression I should consider the candidate’s requests very seriously,” she said.

The evidence, which is likely to place even further pressure on Perrottet’s role in the unfolding controversy around the trade jobs, was disputed by Black, who denied that he told her to take the request “seriously” or to consider paying Cartwright a “private sector” wage.

In a lengthy statement he told the Guardian that he had a single phone call between 11 and 12 May last year in which he told her the $800,000 package was “unreasonable”.

“I indicated that the trade commissioner roles were very important and represented an excellent opportunity for the state,” he said.

“However, I was clear that $800,000 was an unreasonable request.”

Black said he told Brown she should “not take any decision that was inconsistent with ordinary public sector principles or practice”.

“I suggested that Ms Brown consider whether a performance-based package was an option, comprising a base salary of $400,000 and an incentive component of $200,000,” he said.

“I did not know whether this was permissible under public sector guidelines, but considered that it may be a useful approach.

“To the best of my recollection, I had no further engagement with Ms Brown or anyone else in relation to this matter. I did not raise this matter with the then-Treasurer.

Brown has previously told the inquiry Cartwright appeared to believe that he had an “elevated status” that saw him threaten to “go to” Perrottet during contract negotiations, although she said she was never contacted by Perrottet or his office.

Shadow treasurer Daniel Mookhey.
Shadow treasurer Daniel Mookhey. Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

Cartwright eventually settled for a lower pay package, but Brown said there had been a number of pay disputes since then.

Brown told the inquiry Cartwright had once messaged the now former trade minister, Stuart Ayres, directly to complain over dispute regarding cost of living allowance,

“The good thing about it was minister Ayres contacted me and said ‘look you can do what you like because Mr Cartwright is your employee I just want to give you a heads up I’ve got this message’,” she said.

Earlier on Monday, Barilaro told the inquiry he spoke to Perrottet about his plan to apply for the New York trade job a month after announcing his intention to leave parliament, and says the premier responded: “Great.”

Barilaro denyed “any suggestion” he sought out “special treatment” during his application for the role – to which he withdrew less than a fortnight after being appointed – and said it had been a traumatic experience.

Describing the past seven weeks as a “personal hell”, Barilaro said the process was a “shitshow”.

“I will say this, if I knew what I know now I wish I had never applied,” he said.

Related: The John Barilaro affair has stripped the shine off NSW’s hardman premier Dominic Perrottet | Anne Davies

“If I knew what I knew now I wouldn’t have walked into a shitshow. And I will use those terms because the trauma I have experienced in the past few weeks is significant.”

Barilaro has previously said that he “always maintained that I followed the process”.

During his appearance Barilaro described a series of conversations with ministers, including Perrottet, prior to applying for the role in which, he said, no one raised any concerns.

Barilaro told the inquiry that he also messaged the treasurer, Matt Kean, prior to applying for the role, to seek his counsel.

“No one ever raised with me anything that this would be politically sensitive,” Barilaro told the inquiry

Barilaro said he first flagged with Perrottet that he was considering applying for the role back in November last year.

He told the inquiry he had a number of conversations with the premier after announcing he was quitting parliament in October but prior to his formal resignation in December.

During one of those conversations he flagged his interest in the role, and says Perrottet told him: “Go for it.”