Australia: Review into John Barilaro's US trade job finds government did not stay at 'arm's length'

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The independent review that investigated former New South Wales deputy premier John Barilaro's appointment to a lucrative US trade role has found the recruitment process was not done at "arm's length" from the government.

That review — by former NSW public service commissioner Graeme Head — found that former trade minister Stuart Ayres had "close contact" with the chief executive of Investment NSW, who was responsible for hiring Mr Barilaro.

This was despite the fact the Americas' trade role was meant to follow an independent recruitment process without ministerial intervention.

Mr Head found Mr Ayres's engagement with Investment NSW chief executive Amy Brown — regarding a shortlist of candidates — was "highly irregular".

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"It is highly irregular for a party outside the selection panel — in this case a minister — to be consulted on the makeup of a shortlist," Mr Head wrote.

"It is even more problematic that the fact of it having occurred was not disclosed to the independent members of the panel by Ms Brown."

The review did not suggest "impropriety" on the part of Mr Ayres, but said the process could not be characterised as at "arm's length".

Mr Head said Mr Ayres had at least three "touchpoints" with the process:

  • When Investment NSW consulted with him on the approach to advertising the role
  • A discussion he had with Ms Brown relating to the candidate shortlist
  • When Ms Brown determined Mr Ayres should meet with one of the candidates, and that meeting took place

Mr Ayres resigned from cabinet last month after a draft version of the report raised questions about whether he breached the Ministerial Code of Ethics and Conduct by giving directions to Ms Brown.

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However, Mr Ayres maintains he did nothing wrong.

After the Head review, Premier Dominic Perrottet announced tighter rules about when former ministers could apply for public sector roles.

Mr Perrottet said the changes to the Ministerial Code of Ethics and Conduct meant ministers would be barred for 18 months after they left politics from accepting jobs in public sector agencies that reported to them during their final two years in office.

He said the Head review made it clear mistakes were made and the recruitment process was "flawed".

"The findings, and in my view the entire process, that has been undertaken has been incredibly disappointing," Mr Perrottet said.

"I acknowledge the distress this has caused many people."

The Head review also recommended several changes to the Government Sector Employment (GSE) Act to provide more transparency around appointments.

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While it did not recommend changes to the Ministerial Code of Ethics and Conduct, Mr Perrottet said the extra measures would "ensure robust recruitment processes in the future".

Other amendments will be made to the GSE Act, which means:

  • Ministers cannot direct secretaries of public agencies on recruitment matters
  • All future trade job selections must be on a merits basis
  • Senior public servants will need to seek ethics advice in relation to their future employment and such advice will be made public.

Mr Perrottet said the Head review did not find any wrongdoing on the part of Mr Barilaro, who last week said he wished he never went for the job.

Mr Barilaro withdrew from the trade commissioner role in June after significant media scrutiny.

The Premier said the selection process had faults "no one was aware of" and he wanted to reinstall confidence in the trade postings.

"These roles are fundamental. I've met so many people on my trade missions who will now invest in NSW who otherwise wouldn't have."

Mr Perrottet would not be drawn on whether Ms Brown would continue in her role.

"That's a matter for the Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet," he said.

"We will work through these matters."

He also said he was seeking advice on whether Mr Ayres's potential breach of the Code of Ethics and Conduct must be reported to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).

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