The New South Wales premier, Dominic Perrottet, looked stressed as he fronted the media on Wednesday to announce that his deputy Liberal leader and trade minister, Stuart Ayres had agreed to resign from the ministry.
The scandal over the appointment of the former Nationals leader, John Barilaro, to a $500,000-per-year trade job in New York (that he created before leaving parliament) has festered for six weeks and stripped the shine off a premier who is yet to celebrate 12 months in office.
The premier’s own trade mission to Asia was a disaster, overshadowed by daily questions over who knew what and when in the Barilaro affair.
Perrottet had promised orderly, proper government, run like he claimed he had run the NSW Treasury. The drip-feed of revelations about the Barilaro job raise questions about whether processes for filling key posts are in fact politicised.
Perrottet is probably too new to be at risk of being rolled over this matter, but his handling of this rolling crisis has colleagues questioning whether he has the right stuff under pressure.
Before this and other crises, notably floods and the pandemic, Perrottet was the hardman of NSW politics: the man who could deflect a political attack and turn it back on his opponents with devastating ease.
On Wednesday he just looked a little uncertain.
The crisis has also revealed the power dynamic within the NSW government. Ayres, a senior moderate, was critical to Perrottet, a rightwinger, getting the top job, as was fellow moderate powerbroker, treasurer Matt Kean.
Liberal leaders in NSW over the last two decades have come from the dominant moderate faction, a recognition of the factional power they wield in the state, to the perennial dismay of the conservative wing.
But Perrottet’s performance as Gladys Berejiklian’s loyal sidekick and as treasurer meant he had a strong claim on the top job, despite coming from the minority faction.
It’s now clear that came with strings attached.
When it came to falling on his sword, the ambitious Ayres, who occupies one of the government’s most marginal seats of Penrith, was initially able to resist doing the obviously right political thing and stand down pending the outcome of an internal inquiry.
Instead he dug in, with a considerable cost to Perrottet and his government.
Ayres, who was trade minister at the time of Barilaro’s appointment, insists he has done nothing wrong. But he acknowledged on Wednesday that a pending report by bureaucrat Graeme Head had raised a potential breach of the ministerial code of conduct and that he would step down in order to defend himself.
The vacancy will again lead to jostling within the dominant moderate faction in NSW, with the new deputy in the box seat to succeed Perrottet as premier.
Kean, the other critical figure in Perrottet’s rise, who missed out on the deputy role last October, is the front runner to fill the role this time around.
Most colleagues believe he will get it if he wants it, though strictly speaking it’s a party room decision next Tuesday.
Kean has been a strong performer as treasurer, but is regarded as controversial and outspoken, particularly on issues of climate change policy where he strongly criticised his federal colleagues.
On Tuesday he was involved in a minor Twitter controversy, when he retweeted a comment by journalist Nikki Gemmell highlighting the uneven treatment of fair trading minister Eleni Petinos, was immediately stood down over an alleged transgression, and Ayers, who was permitted to stay until this morning.
Kean subsequently claimed someone had “thick thumbs” in his office and disavowed the retweet.
He’s playing a long game in politics so the timing may not suit.
Other possibilities to replace Ayres are the attorney general, Mark Speakman, and the minister for infrastructure and cities, Rob Stokes.
Stokes is said to still lack the numbers in the moderate faction (he received just five or six votes in last year’s leadership ballot) and colleagues believe he remains disillusioned with the direction of government.
Speakman would be a safe choice but lacks the public profile of the other two ministers.
The emergency minister, Natalie Ward, has also been mentioned, but she is in the upper house, which would make it difficult for her to fill in for the premier.
Transport minister David Elliott has also expressed interest, but as a leading figure in the centre right figure he may struggle to get support from the moderates, who will be reluctant to relinquish the role.
Ayres may well be hoping for political redemption as a result of the internal inquiry, but the decision of his partner, the former foreign affairs minister in the Morrison federal government, Marise Payne, to take a behind-the-scenes role in opposition, has raised questions about her long-term commitment to politics and the couple’s continued role as powerbrokers in NSW.
Until this scandal, the duo might have been looking towards government appointments as their next move. Now the private sector seems more likely.