The New South Wales government offered a plum trade commissioner job to a senior public servant with a stellar résumé, only to rescind the offer and later appoint the former deputy premier John Barilaro after readvertising the $500,000-a-year role.
Barliaro’s New York appointment was not signed off by cabinet, even though it had overseen a series of identical appointments to other cities.
Documents provided from a call for papers by Labor show Investment NSW interviewed four people on a shortlist for the job of senior trade and investment commissioner for the Americas in July last year.
Two applicants exceeded three of the four criteria and met the fourth after interviews conducted on 6 July. Guardian Australia understands Jenny West was informed in August she had got the job by the then premier Gladys Berejiklian.
West’s credentials, still on the Treasury’s website as of Tuesday, noted she had joined the government through roles in Austrade that included being general manager for trade and investment and general manager for digital innovation and client services.
Her two decades in the commercial world included roles as Telstra’s NSW-ACT state director, running the telco’s retail stores and managing the NBN rollout. At Westpac, West “was one of the key emerging, global female leaders”, and in 2013 she won the bank’s Women of Influence award for business outcomes, the website noted.
However, by September, she was told the trade commissioner position had been rescinded before her appointment was made public.
Guardian Australia understands West secured a substantial settlement with the government and has since left the public service. Details of the paperwork are expected to surface in the next fortnight as part of the call for papers.
It was Barilaro who announced the creation of five trade commissioners and one agent general, based in London, in November 2020. The government said at the time that it would spend $112.4m appointing commissioners in Tokyo, New York, Mumbai, Singapore and Shanghai.
Barilaro resigned from politics on 4 October. The Americas position was readvertised, including in the Australian Financial Review, on 17 December. Barilaro’s appointment to the Americas role was announced on Friday.
In question time on Tuesday the premier, Dominic Perrottet, insisted Barilaro’s job was a “public service appointment”, but the Guardian understands the other trade commissioner appointments were given the rubber-stamp by cabinet.
Documents obtained through parliament reveal that an internal email sent last April outlined a “structured approval protocol” requiring preferred candidates for the jobs to meet the treasurer, deputy premier and premier.
Once the candidate was endorsed by those three people, the email stated, “a Cabinet appointment form is prepared and added to the Cabinet agenda item”.
“Once endorsed by Cabinet, a contract can be offered to the candidate for negotiation.”
The documents seen by the Guardian show that in May last year the government had prepared cabinet appointment forms for the Tokyo and London positions before a final meeting with Berejiklian for sign-off.
The Guardian understands those positions were presented to cabinet. It remains unclear why Barilaro’s appointment was not subject to the same scrutiny.
Opposition parties led by Labor and the Greens now want to hold an upper house inquiry into the appointment. On Wednesday the upper house will debate a motion put forward by the Labor MP Penny Sharpe to defer Barilaro’s commencement in the job until after the inquiry reports.
The motion will also seek to note that Barilaro’s appointment “was not approved by cabinet”, and that “taxpayer-funded government appointments must be undertaken with the utmost probity and integrity with all formal processes followed”.
Central to Labor’s questioning at the inquiry will be why the Americas job was filled, then rescinded, then left vacant for almost a year before Barilaro’s appointment.
It was “important to do Americas early on”, a Treasury official said in an email from May 2021, when the initial interviews were arranged.
They will also ask whether any of the public officials involved in Barilaro’s appointment declared conflicts of interest.
Among the list of public servants slated to conduct the 2021 interviews was Amy Brown, the chief executive officer of Investment NSW.
Barilaro was one of three ministers that she reported to in the role at the time.
On Tuesday Brown did not respond to questions about whether she recused herself or declared a conflict of interest when Barilaro was eventually considered for the role.
There is no suggestion Brown acted improperly.
Perrottet said on Tuesday he was not aware of any conflicts of interest being declared during the process.
“Not to my knowledge,” he said in answers to questions in parliament.
West could not be contacted for comment. Berejiklian declined to comment. Barilaro directed queries to Investment NSW. Perrottet directed questions to the trade and investment minister, Stuart Ayres.
Sharpe, Labor’s leader in the upper house, said Perrottet and Ayres “have to come clean on the appointment of John Barilaro as the New York trade commissioner”.
“How is it possible that a highly qualified woman was offered the job and then the offer was withdrawn?” she said.