Footy, horses and the whiff of an affair: the Barilaro scandal is a NSW saga par excellence

Footy, horses and the whiff of an affair: the Barilaro scandal is a NSW saga par excellence

More and more inconsistencies are emerging in Stuart Ayres' version of events, and it looks increasingly likely to end in the resignation of the deputy Liberal leader.

It’s now 40 days and counting since John Barilaro’s moment of glory turned toxic for the Perrottet government. The former NSW deputy premier’s get-the-fuck-out-of-here dream job has become a daily waking nightmare for the government and is leading — inexorably, one suspects — to the resignation of at least one senior government figure: Deputy Liberal Leader Stuart Ayres, who has certainly misled Parliament.

Perversely, Ayres is pinning his salvation on all of us accepting that words such as “successful applicant” for a job don’t really mean what they say, as he has argued in the case of senior NSW bureaucrat Jenny West, who was awarded the post of New York trade commissioner. West clearly had no idea as she excitedly told her family about their new future that Barilaro might have designs on the $500,000-per-annum gig himself, and was quietly using his ministerial role to change the rules on how appointments are made. A deputy premier is paid the comparatively paltry sum of around $340,000.

More inconsistencies in Ayres’ story emerged yesterday with the release of emails showing he had suggested a name for the shortlist of candidates, contradicting his earlier claims of an independent, arm’s-length process.

We are also coming to understand what the ingredients for real success are in NSW politics (Jenny West’s impeccable qualifications be damned). Partly it comes down to the feel of things. And what could rival the magic connection of putative trade commissioner Barilaro and portfolio minister Stuart Ayres? The two have sat together in Coalition party meetings for a good 10 years.

There are also the shared passions. Ayres and Barilaro are both racehorse owners and have been regulars at the races (often, it must be said, at the invitation of sponsors). And then there’s the rugby league. Back in 2016 Barilaro scored three tickets to State of Origin game three (won by NSW) directly from rugby league enthusiast Ayres as a freebie, according to Barilaro’s pecuniary interests declaration. (Let’s resist the observation that Ayres appears to be the gift that keeps on giving, which would echo Jenny West’s line to a parliamentary inquiry that the New York job was, she was told, a “present” for someone.)

It’s easy to see why Barilaro might have looked like a great fit for the job, compared to West. Sure, she has won a Westpac’s Women of Influence award and, sure, she was NSW governor for AmCham, the American chamber of commerce. But what’s that got to do with US business links with Australia? Oh, hang on.

While the Barilaro saga has shed light on a certain cosiness, it has, equally, shone a new light on old tensions at the top of the NSW government.

It used to be that if a minister misled Parliament, they had to quit. Stuart Ayres misled the NSW Parliament. No ifs, no buts.

Barilaro scandal snags Ayres in a government adrift and maladroit

There is background noise to the inquiries underway into the Barilaro appointment, which is who knew what and when about the then deputy premier’s relationship with his media adviser at the time, Jennifer Lugsdin. As we reported this week, Lugsdin moved from her role in Barilaro’s office to a senior job at Investment NSW around the time the agency’s head, Amy Brown, told Jenny West she had the New York posting. That was August last year. Investment NSW told Crikey that Lugsdin was appointed via an arm’s-length process. By October Barilaro had left his marriage and also left politics. By December it was reported that he and Lugsdin were together.

Perhaps Barilaro and Lugsdin were doing their best to manage an awkward situation. But the timing matters.

Under the NSW government’s ministerial code of conduct, a minister needs to inform the premier of any “intimate relationship” that might give rise to a conflict of interest in the exercise of the minister’s job. Theoretically, swinging a job for Lugsdin at Investment NSW, an agency at the time under Barilaro’s control, might fall into that category — depending on timing and how the job came to be.

The chain of events, though, now sheds new light on an extraordinary episode at the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption in October last year when Barilaro faced what appeared to be an obtuse line of questioning while appearing as a witness in ICAC’s investigation of former premier Gladys Berejiklian.

Berejiklian was facing questions over her secret relationship with Daryl Maguire, the disgraced former member of NSW Parliament. However, the former premier’s counsel, Sophie Callan SC, had questions of her own for Barilaro.

“Over your time in Parliament, did you disclose to the premier all intimate personal relationships that you had?” Callan asked.

“I would have, yes,” Barilaro answered.

“When you say you would have, did you do so?” Callan pressed.

“Well, I suppose on our pecuniary interests forms we have got to disclose assets or income or connections to trusts that include family members, like my wife or my kids or other family members. Those disclosures are done in accordance to the ministerial code,” Barilaro said.

“What about any other personal intimate relationships, Mr Barilaro?” Callan continued to a now clearly disconcerted Barilaro.

“I don’t think that is a normal… that’s a hard question because my relationship was with my family, so that’s a hard one to disclose,” Barilaro answered, correcting his words midstream.

t was a remarkable moment. Only three weeks before, Berejiklian had been premier of the state, with Barilaro as her deputy. Both had since resigned. Now her lawyer was pinning Barilaro to the wall with a relentless focus on his private life.

Apart from the slightly gobsmacking revelation that Berejiklian and Barilaro may both have been involved in secret intimate relationships while occupying the highest public offices of the state, what does it mean?

At its worst it means that Barilaro was not candid with ICAC and also that he may have breached the ministerial code of conduct.

Despite the appearance of things, there is no proof Crikey is aware of that either of those things happened.

But there must surely be questions that the two inquiries into Barilaro’s appointment would want to answer. And they appear to fall squarely into the NSW upper house inquiry’s terms of reference, which include “the probity and integrity measures that were undertaken” as part of the appointment.

Or is it simply enough that there’s a good vibe between Barilaro and the responsible minister, Stuart Ayres? Whatever the case, Ayres is doggedly standing by Barilaro.

Crikey asked Barilaro for his comments but we haven’t heard back. In the meantime, the circus is set to roll on, with Barilaro set to appear before the NSW upper house inquiry on August 8.

David Hardaker writes in Crikey. This article was originally published in Crikey

David has an extensive career as a journalist and broadcaster, primarily at the ABC where he worked on flagship programs such as Four Corners, 7.30, Foreign Correspondent, AM and PM. He spent eight years reporting in the Middle East and can speak Arabic.

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