A damning report has slammed the NSW government for the way it recruited John Barilaro to a New York trade position, and has accused a former senior minister of misleading the public.
The ex-deputy premier’s appointment as the state’s US trade envoy had “all the trademarks of a ‘jobs for the boys’ position”, an interim report into the hiring process has found.
A state Parliament committee looking into the appointment process said in the report, released on Monday morning, there had been a “pattern of ministerial interference and a lack of transparency”.
The report also accused ex-trade minister Stuart Ayres of misleading the public when answering questions about the job in Parliament.
“As a result of the committee’s pursuit of this issue, the inquiry uncovered how a preferred candidate was selected and offered the … position to only then be discarded in the guise of a nonsensical change of government policy,” committee chair and Greens MP Cate Faehrmann said in a foreword to the report.
“The inquiry also revealed the many ‘intersection points’ between a senior public servant and [Ayres] which were all highly inappropriate and unacceptable.”
The inquiry was launched in June last year after Barilaro’s appointment caused a media firestorm.
The state government quickly withdrew the job offer, but it did little to dampen the scandal.
The appointment gained attention partly because the ex-Nationals leader had helped create international trade commissioner roles during his time as trade minister.
Later, evidence from the inquiry revealed that Barilaro, shortly before he resigned from Parliament in December 2021, had tried to change the recruitment process for the trade roles so that ministers instead of the public service would appoint them.
A finding from the interim report said that the proposal had been “brought without a reasonable basis and … pursued with unnecessary haste”, and that it had caused confusion in the public service.
The report also said Ayres’ discussions with Barilaro about the job “showed poor judgment and was inappropriate”.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet maintained for months that the appointment process was done at “arm’s length” from the government. However, a separate review ordered by the premier has since contradicted this claim.
Monday’s interim report said both Perrottet and Ayres had argued in Parliament that no suitable candidate had been found prior to Barilaro’s appointment, a claim the committee “debunked”.
“Ayres misled the public,” the report said. “It is a matter for the Legislative Assembly as to whether [he] misled the Parliament.”
The Legislative Assembly is Parliament’s lower house, where Ayres sits, while the committee investigating the hiring process is based in the upper house.
Former public service commissioner Graeme Head, who Perrottet hired to review the appointment process at a cost to taxpayers of $80,000, found in August last year that Investment NSW boss Amy Brown had been influenced by Ayres when hiring for the New York job.
Interim findings from the Head report caused Ayres to resign from cabinet. Brown resigned from the public service as well.
When the Head report was released, Perrottet admitted “a number of … fundamental errors” had occurred during the hiring process.
The inquiry has previously revealed a deputy secretary at Investment NSW had been verbally offered the New York job during an initial hiring process.
That person, Jenny West, told the inquiry Brown had said the job would instead “be a present for someone”. Brown has denied saying that.
When a second recruitment process was launched, Barilaro quickly applied for the job.
Ayres told Brown that Barilaro would be suitable for the role, and Ayres was also involved in advising Brown on a shortlist of candidates.
He also discussed the position with Barilaro.
“It was improper for Mr Ayres to discuss the position with Mr Barilaro as it was also improper that he forwarded him a copy of the advertisement for the position,” Monday’s interim report said.
“The committee concludes that minister Ayres improperly influenced the recruitment outcomes.”
Barilaro got confirmation via text in May that the job was his, and signed a contract on June 9.
Two of the members on the hiring panel were not asked to sign off on Barilaro as the preferred candidate until six days after that.
When Barilaro appeared before the inquiry in August, he strongly denied any wrongdoing and said he had been deemed a “capable … credible” candidate.
“There’s no evidence in this hearing that points to me that I did seek, sought, pressured, public servants in any way. None. Zero,” he said.
He was due to give further evidence to the committee but pulled out of a hearing at the last minute for mental health reasons.
It’s understood committee members wish to question Barilaro further before issuing a final report. That report will also deal with the circumstances around the hiring of NSW’s trade envoy to the UK.
A dissenting statement from three Coalition MPs on the committee, which was attached at the bottom of the interim report, said the document was “nothing short of a politically motivated hit job in the lead-up to an election”.
“Everything contained within this report should be seen through that lens,” the statement said.
“This was not a ‘jobs for the boys’ appointment that has been alleged by this partisan report.”
Nationals MP Wes Fang also issued his own statement to the media slamming the report.
“The practice of ‘trial by press conference’, where ‘smoking gun’ evidence was tabled untested, or Labor members fronted press conferences with their discoveries, without providing any context, not only lacked procedural fairness, but highlighted the political motivation of this inquiry,” said Fang, who was a committee member.
“Much of that evidence ultimately proved worthless.”