Barilaro’s trade office saga and NSW Corruption Inc

July 18, 2022
John Barilaro speaking at a start up conference in 2016. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CeBIT Australia

The case of former New South Wales deputy premier and Nationals leader John Barilaro being appointed to a $500,000-a-year state trade office job in New York shows NSW Corruption Inc still rules.

Jenny West, who was a deputy secretary of Investment NSW, applied for the state’s Trade Commissioner to the Americas job and told in August last year she had it. Two months later she was given a payout for being terminated with no cause.

Following widespread public outrage, Barilaro withdrew from the appointment in June.

A NSW Legislative Council inquiry referred the saga to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), after hearing from West that she was later told the trade job would be offered as “a present for someone”.

West told the inquiry that Investment NSW CEO Amy Brown told her she would not be getting the job, despite Brown texting her to congratulate her on winning the role.

West was also told she had been made redundant as deputy secretary. “In the space of four weeks, I went from being appointed to the role of the senior trade and investment commissioner for the Americas to potentially not having a job,” she said.

Just days after West’s job offer was officially rescinded on October 1, Barilaro announced his resignation from politics. In the second round of recruitment, he beat 12 other candidates.

It was revealed that Barilaro played a part in creating the job he would eventually accept.

As NSW trade minister in 2020, Barilaro announced that the government would spend $112.4 million to create six new trade ambassador positions, including the one in New York he would ultimately apply for.

ICAC is still investigating allegations that former Premier Gladys Berejiklian used her public office to help her secret ex-boyfriend Darryl Maguire, a former MP for Wagga Wagga.

She chaired a cabinet expenditure review committee in December 2016 that allocated $5.5 million to the Australian Clay Target Association to upgrade its headquarters in Maguire’s electorate. Berejiklian arranged for the proposal be prioritised, without declaring a personal interest.

When all this came to light in 2020 Berejiklian famously declared that pork barreling is not a crime.

Meanwhile, a new report by the Grattan Institute shows that political stacking is widespread. New politics: A better process for public appointments revealed that many federal and state government boards, tribunals and agencies “are stacked with people who have worked in politics — almost always for the party that was in government when they got the job”.

Authors Danielle Wood, Kate Griffiths and Anika Stobart said political appointees occupy 21% of federal government board positions that are “well-paid, powerful and/or prestigious”.

“Half of the Productivity Commission’s board members have a political connection to the Coalition,” the report noted.

“More than one in five members of federal government business boards have a political connection — including businesses such as Australia Post that employ thousands of people and manage income in the billions.

“In many states, it’s one in 10. By contrast, fewer than 2 per cent of ASX100 company board members — who exercise very similar responsibilities — have a political connection.”

Wood said the creeping politicisation of public bodies, set up to be independent of government, is a form of “grey corruption” that erodes public trust in institutions.

“People often think of corruption as bags of money, exchanging hands for favours. But in a way, this sort of grey corruption is more insidious,” Wood said. “It undermines institutions over time. It undermines democracy and therefore, I do think it is a corruption of our political process.”

The authors of the report recommend putting an end to jobs for mates. They argue that federal and state governments should establish a “transparent, merit-based selection process” for all public appointments, to be overseen by a new Public Appointments Commissioner. A shortlist of candidates would then be given to the minister to select.

“This is a big problem, but it has an easy fix,” they said, adding that ending the insidious jobs-for-mates culture would restore public confidence in government appointments.

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