Position ‘not tenable’: John Barilaro quits role as US trade commissioner

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Position ‘not tenable’: John Barilaro quits role as US trade commissioner

By Alexandra Smith and Lucy Cormack
Updated

Former deputy premier John Barilaro has quit his controversial role as newly appointed US trade commissioner, conceding his appointment was a “distraction” and untenable.

Barilaro’s decision follows almost two weeks of intense scrutiny of the NSW government’s handling of his appointment to the $500,000-a-year job, which has triggered two separate inquiries and backlash from his former colleagues.

Former NSW deputy premier John Barilaro has stepped down from the US appointment.

Former NSW deputy premier John Barilaro has stepped down from the US appointment. Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

In a statement late on Thursday Barilaro said he believed his appointment would continue to be a distraction “and not allow this important role to achieve what it was designed to do”.

“It is clear that my taking up this role is now not tenable with the amount of media attention this appointment has gained,” he said.

“I stress, that I have always maintained that I followed the process and look forward to the results of the review.”

Barilaro’s decision comes after fierce criticism from his former colleagues, including Transport Minister David Elliott, who on Thursday said Barilaro should do the “honourable” thing and not take up the position.

Two separate probes are examining how he secured the role he had created as trade minister and why a senior bureaucrat, Jenny West, was axed from the job after earlier receiving a verbal offer.

Investment NSW chief executive Amy Brown told a parliament inquiry on Wednesday that Barilaro would be entitled to one week’s severance payment in the first three months of employment if the position was terminated.

The government has consistently said Brown, who fronted the first hearing of the upper house inquiry, was the final decision-maker responsible for appointing Barilaro to the role, which did not go to cabinet.

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Brown issued a statement on Thursday night, saying that Barilaro had notified her of his decision to withdraw from the role, effective immediately.

"I request that his privacy be respected at this time," Brown said.

A spokesperson for the Premier said a separate review of Barilaro’s appointment as US trade commissioner by former NSW Public Service Commissioner Graeme Head would continue.

Premier Dominic Perrottet has said it would have been inappropriate for the role to be considered by cabinet because it was not a ministerial appointment.

Revelations over the past week have detailed the ad-hoc nature of the recruitment process that resulted in Barilaro’s candidacy for the US role.

While the government has maintained all trade commissioner roles are decisions of the public service, independent of government, questions have been raised about the probity of the process.

The inquiry on Wednesday heard Barilaro was appointed in a second recruitment round, after Brown was directed to rescind an offer made to West because cabinet had agreed to make the roles ministerial picks.

Then-newly minted Trade Minister Stuart Ayres rejected that cabinet decision, made days before former premier Gladys Berejiklian resigned in October, and instead proposed that the process stayed with the public service.

The Herald can confirm the subcommittee of cabinet, which includes senior ministers and Perrottet, endorsed his plan.

Ayres on Thursday stood by his decision to maintain a “hands-off process” in a bid to keep the roles at arm’s length from politicians.

The about-face highlights the imperfect nature of the appointment process for the overseas roles, which has been a distraction for the government trying to sell its final budget before the election.

“This is an invidious situation in many respects,” Ayres said. “We create a hands-off recruitment process where politicians don’t engage in the recruitment process, and [when] that process selects a former politician, it immediately creates questions.

“That’s a very difficult position for the public service to be in”.

Barilaro, who resigned as deputy premier on October 4, first sought information about the position in December before it was advertised.

Ayres said Barilaro sent him a text message indicating that he was interested in “the status of those roles. I informed him that they will be publicly advertised and he, like any other private citizen, will be able to apply for it.”

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Ayres insisted politicians played no role in the selection and recruiting process and defended having met candidates and received “standardised briefings” from Investment NSW about the recruitment.

He added: “I was always of the view and had some concerns that, if Mr Barilaro succeeded in this appointment, that it would create some political contention ... I’m hardly known as the flag bearer of the ‘John Barilaro fan club’, but he’s a private citizen.”

NSW Labor leader Chris Minns said evidence was mounting that there had been “a gross politicisation” of the trade commissioner appointment.

“Serious concerns remain about how he got the job and the parliamentary inquiry will continue to pursue those.”

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