The appointment of John Barilaro as New South Wales trade commissioner to the US has undoubtably aroused political controversy and public discussion. However, it also raises integrity issues of substantial importance.
The basic facts are well known. Barilaro, as trade minister, announced the creation of five trade commissioners in November 2020. The stated intention was to provide significant resources, approximately $112m, for the appointment of commissioners in five cities including New York. There could be little doubt that the decision was a beneficial one for NSW and indeed for Australia’s economic interests.
By May 2021, at least four candidates had been identified for the US-based trade position. By July, interviews with the applicants had commenced. At about the same time, Barilaro had announced the name of the successful candidate in Tokyo. The London appointment was confirmed in October 2021.
Barilaro announced his resignation from parliament in October and resigned formally on 30 December 2021. By that time, an advertisement had appeared in the Australian Financial Review for a state trade and investment commissioner for the US position. Barilaro applied for the position, presumedly after his resignation, and later emerged on a shortlist of preferred candidates. His appointment as trade commissioner in New York was confirmed a week ago.
It appears that the appointment did not go before cabinet for approval. Rather, it was approved and signed off, after a supposedly independent review, by senior public servant Amy Brown.
At an earlier time she had reported to Barilaro, when he was deputy premier and minister in charge of the Department of Investment and Trade. Brown’s agency has denied there was any conflict of interest.
Apart from these basic facts, there has been a swirl of rumours surrounding the appointment. One significant assertion, denied by some but confirmed by others, is that in 2021, one of the four original candidates, Jenny West, then a highly qualified senior member of Investment New South Wales, was offered the position, only to see it rescinded later in the year.
The political fallout has been significant. The premier, Dominic Perrottet, has been put on the back foot and forced to deny strenuously that the appointment was a “captain’s pick”. The upper house has secured a temporary stall on the appointment pending further inquiry. The premier has, quite properly, requested that the secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet conduct a review of the appointment. There has been something of a public outcry.
While there can be no serious argument other than that Barilaro is a well-qualified and experienced candidate for the New York job, there are important integrity questions that will need to be answered, either through the parliamentary process or from the premier’s requested review.
First, the public perception that this is an example of “jobs for the boys” needs to be answered in an open and transparent fashion. It is sadly true that whenever a retired politician is given a plum overseas posting, especially soon after retirement, a perception of favourable treatment often arises. Hence the need for openness and transparency at the highest level.
Secondly, the reasons behind the “overturning” of West’s selection, if it happened, need to be publicly examined and explained. The continuing assertions and denials in this area are creating a perception of secrecy and hidden dealings. Was West “shunted aside” in order to make room for Barilaro? This perception needs to be dispelled promptly, if it is in fact untrue.
Thirdly, Brown‘s role in the appointment needs to be carefully scrutinised. Her previous subordinate relationship with the former deputy premier tends perhaps unfairly to give a perception of possible favourable treatment or undue influence.
In this context, was it wise for the cabinet to step back from the process? Would the appearance of the process have been improved if, in accordance with usual practice, Brown’s preferred candidate had the affirmation and confirmation of cabinet? In any event, ought there be a bar on individual ministers seeking post-resignation positions linked to their former portfolio – particularly when the appointment occurs so soon after resignation?
In the end, all these questions may be answered in favour of the Barilaro appointment. However from the integrity perspective, they need to be addressed and answered with the utmost openness clarity and transparency.