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Scapegoat or yes woman? Three ways to look at the Amy Brown sacking saga

Former Investment NSW chief executive Amy Brown has been sacked as secretary of the Department of Enterprise, Investment and Trade after the John Barilaro trade appointment scandal. 

Her role is at the centre of the saga and although definitely at fault she’s surely not the only guilty party. But is she a victim of sexism, circumstance or godly abandonment?

Here are three ways to look at her sacking.

The ‘perfect public servant’ is problematic

Brown was the epitome of a modern public servant — trained to be hair-trigger “responsive” to the needs, demands and whims of her minister, to have her small-p political antennae permanently raised to detect the slightest possibility of discomfort for the politician she served. 

That drove her regular contact with Stuart Ayres on the selection process for the New York trade commissioner position. Not helping was that the appointment was in a kind of limbo between public service and ministerial appointment — meaning the relatively inexperienced Brown had to second-guess herself at every step to ensure whoever got the job met both political and public service requirements. This is exactly the kind of senior public servant ministers and staffers now expect to get — not the frank and fearless adviser of public service myth.

Brown’s political antennae were sufficiently attuned that she realised Barilaro’s appointment was going to be problematic politically — and she warned multiple parties about the potential for damage, including ministers and senior public servants. Either they lacked her capacity to see how stupid the whole thing was, or they didn’t want to intervene to derail what was clearly a train ride to political grief. 

But truth gets you nowhere. Brown not only warned multiple parties about the fallout but was upfront in giving evidence, appearing three times before an upper house probe — and faced the consequences for her candour.

Sexism reigns 

There are multiple men involved in the scandal, from Barilaro to Ayres — who requested that Barilaro be added to the candidate’s shortlist — to NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet who had been told about the controversy.

A majority of surveyed NSW voters viewed the appointment as an example as “jobs for boys”, criticising Perrottet’s handling of the appointment.

Although Ayres is on the backbench, he’s been cleared of wrongdoing and may soon return to cabinet. 

Of the women involved, each has missed out on or lost their jobs. There’s Jenny West, who had a verbal offer for the role rescinded and was made redundant from her role as deputy secretary at Investment NSW ahead of Barilaro’s appointment. There’s Kimberly Cole, who was recommended for the posting during the second round of recruitment. And there’s Brown, who first stepped away from her role at Investment NSW to focus on her role as a department secretary, only to be fired from that one yesterday. 

It reeks of misogyny. An inexperienced Brown was left holding the poisoned chalice despite her best efforts to warn of its toxic contents. 

Still, the leader who blithely told West that she not merely wasn’t going to get the New York job but had lost her existing job too isn’t in a strong position to garner sympathy.

There’s no divine intervention

Brown — like Perrottet — is profoundly religious. In an interview given in February last year with Eternity News, Brown said her management style was based on Jesus’ and while she used to be manipulative and aggressive in pursuing career opportunities, she had since learnt to let divine intervention reign. (The article has since been removed.)

“The way I maybe approached ambition early in my career was I’d always be trying to manipulate and engineer the situation … I’d be trying to form alliances or big-note myself, or even plant seeds of doubt in decision-makers’ minds about people who might also be being considered for the opportunity,” she said at the time. 

“Whereas I’ve realised that God’s plans are perfect. He has me exactly where he wants me and I don’t need to do anything to try and influence the situation … ‘What would Jesus do if he were me in these life circumstances, in this job, with this issue before me and serving the people that I lead?’”

What would Jesus have done when confronted with Barilaro’s application? Probably best to have let him take a little more control over the wheel — though a $400,000 payout is nothing to sneeze at. 

Have the women involved in this debacle been hung out to dry? Let us know your thoughts by writing to letters@crikey.com.au. Please include your full name to be considered for publicationWe reserve the right to edit for length and clarity.

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