A blacked-out name on a secret document and a reference to a senior minister have worsened the NSW government’s headache over its decision to hand a lucrative trade post in New York to an ex-politician.
Pressure mounted on the government this week after several new developments happened at once in the public inquiry into the appointment of former deputy premier John Barilaro to the $500,000-a-year Manhattan job.
The developments included the release of hundreds of pages of sensitive documents, the news Mr Barilaro has been invited to testify before the committee, and the revelation the state’s corruption watchdog has been sent another letter about the matter.
One of the documents released on Thursday was an email sent a by senior public servant to a colleague on February 8 this year, saying the NSW Trade Minister had run through a list of candidates for the trade job.
“He‘d like to add (redacted) to the short list please,” Investment NSW boss Amy Brown wrote.
The redacted name was covered by a black square with “sensitive” written on it.
The email is important because it appears to show that Mr Ayres, contrary to his insistence otherwise, was personally involved in the recruitment process.
Even after the document was released, Mr Ayres continued to say he had no influence on the process that led Mr Barilaro to be appointed senior trade and investment commissioner.
“I have not under any circumstances influenced the decisions of Amy Brown in who she is selecting as senior executives of the public service,” Mr Ayres said during a trade visit to India, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.
He refused to reveal the name that was blacked out but said it wasn’t Mr Barilaro’s.
Other documents in the bundle revealed preparations were being made to allow ministers to appoint trade commissioners, instead of bureaucrats, on the same day Mr Barilaro quit parliament.
An October 3 email from Ms Brown shows her informing a woman working at an external recruitment firm that her services wouldn’t be needed anymore.
“I appreciate that you‘ll keep this confidential, but we’ve now had confirmed instructions to commence the preparation of legislation to convert the global Senior Trade & Investment Commissioners to statutory officers (ie Ministerial appointments),” Ms Brown wrote.
“This means that the recruitment process for the STIC positions in Singapore, India/Middle East and China will need to be ceased … We will be handling the STIC New York position as an internal matter.”
The documents also included “talking points” instructing Mr Ayres what to tell his cabinet colleagues during a meeting last month of the top decision-making council.
It shows Mr Ayres was told to tell the cabinet that Mr Barilaro “applied for the role just like any other candidate” and “it was not a political appointment”.
The documents also contradicted a claim by Mr Ayres that he never met with Mr Barilaro when the latter was a candidate.
A briefing for Ms Brown, which she signed off on last month, included the line: “Mr Barilaro has now met with the Minister for Enterprise, Trade & Investment, the Hon Stuart Ayres MP who has supported his appointment.”
Mr Ayres had earlier said there would have been no need to meet with Mr Barilaro because the former Nationals leader already had intimate knowledge of the state’s trade objectives.
Investment NSW has called that particular line in the briefing a “clerical error”.
This week it was also revealed that Mr Barilaro had been invited to take the witness stand at the inquiry. He is scheduled to give evidence on Monday, August 8.
The inquiry also revealed it had sent to the Independent Commission Against Corruption a letter that a former Barilaro staffer wrote, alleging Mr Barilaro said in 2019 he intended to create a job for himself in New York.
The committee also made public a letter from Premier Dominic Perrottet declining an invitation to appear.
“The Premier has asked me to inform the Committee that he shall not be accepting that invitation,” a staffer to Mr Perrottet wrote.
“Nevertheless, the Premier has confirmed that he will be attending Budget Estimates on 1 September 2022, where he will be happy to answer questions in relation to any aspect of the administration of the NSW Government.”
Mr Barilaro gave up the New York role last month, saying media scrutiny would distract from the job.