Stuart Ayres, the now former-NSW minister, was not at “arm’s length” during the appointment of former deputy premier John Barilaro to senior trade and investment commissioner (STIC) to the Americas, said Investment NSW CEO Amy Brown during her second appearance at the upper house inquiry into the appointment.
During a long day of hearing on Wednesday, numerous revelations were made, including Brown saying she had wanted to “check in” with minister Ayres over Barilaro’s appointment.
“I felt the need that I had to keep checking partly because of this grey area we were in about public service or ministerial but broadly speaking I wanted to make sure he was comfortable,” the secretary said.
There was much discussion during the inquiry about the appointment process, yet again, with Brown saying from conversations she had with Ayres that she anticipated the role would be eventually made into a ministerial appointment.
Brown agreed the confusion over the appointment process made things difficult for both Brown and her department.
“It was even a struggle for me to get straight in my head.”
The appointments remained public service appointments and were never changed to ministerial — although Brown maintained she was under the impression the appointment process could change seemingly at any moment, emphasising she made the decision not wishing to waste tax-payer money.
Brown disagreed with former public servant Jenny West’s previous comments that Brown had described the role as a “present” for someone, which was widely reported on.
“I think it is fair to say that me [sic] and my colleagues were quite disillusioned by the conversation to ministerial appointments,” Brown said, adding she thought she only expressed that disillusionment to West in the conversation.
The secretary revealed West — who applied for the role and was ultimately unsuccessful — wrote the description for the STIC Americas role and was the one who employed NGS Global as the recruitment firm for the appointment.
Brown expressed dissatisfaction with the recruitment firm’s report, saying she felt it was not accurate on the various candidate’s viability for the role.
West was able to submit a late application for the role owing to Brown’s discretion, according to the secretary.
The secretary added she was nervous about Barilaro’s appointment “because he had some history with NSW government that may make it difficult to take up the role without media and public controversy”.
The media release announcing Barilaro’s appointment — who has since withdrawn from contention — was released on a Friday afternoon.
Owing to her nervousness on Barilaro’s appointment, Brown said she “sense-checked” with Ayres as well as NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Michael Coutts-Trotter.
“Leave it with me,” or words to that effect, was what Brown said Couts-Trotter told her.
Following the comment, the secretary added Coutts-Trotter seemed resigned to the appointment and gave Brown no reason to not go ahead with Barilaro’s appointment.
Brown did acknowledge concerns about the gender imbalance of the SITC roles, with the prior appointments all being male.
“I am worried about how this process looks more broadly in terms of the amount of inaccuracies and oversight that occurred in the recruitment process,” Brown said.
“And I am concerned that — combined with this amount of public scrutiny — this will deter high-performing talent, including women, in the public sector to apply for public servant roles.”
The secretary noted one of the appointments to a STIC role — that to Greater China — was filled by Helen Sawczak, thus easing some of her concerns about the lack of gender diversity within the STIC roles.
“It’s tough to be a public servant at the best of times,” Brown commented at one point during the inquiry.