Senior public servants thought John Barilaro’s New York trade job would need cabinet approval

Public servants inside Investment New South Wales believed that the New York City trade commissioner job to which former deputy premier John Barilaro was appointed needed to be approved by cabinet.

Ahead of today’s public inquiry into Barilaro’s appointment to the $500,000-a-year job that he created before leaving parliament last year, emails reveal that senior officials inside the department responsible for filling the position expected it to need cabinet signoff.

On 24 June last year, the agency’s senior HR officer wrote in an email that “all” of the six trade commissioner jobs created by the government would need cabinet approval.

“This was agreed when the global expansion strategy was first approved I believe,” the official wrote.

Contained in a tranche of documents obtained under parliamentary order, the missive is significant because the government has insisted that Barilaro’s appointment did not require cabinet approval.

While the premier, Dominic Perrottet, has previously conceded two of the six postings – to London and Tokyo – went to cabinet for approval, he has insisted that was an “error” and that the postings were decided by the public service.

But senior government ministers have expressed frustration at not being informed of Barilaro’s appointment before it was announced earlier this month, pointing out that much more junior government postings generally require cabinet signoff.

“If in doubt, send it to cabinet,” one minister previously told the Guardian.

Separate emails show that Barilaro had questioned whether the posts needed cabinet signoff. In August the chief executive of Investment NSW, Amy Brown, wrote in an email that the “DP” – deputy premier – had asked for “clarification” on the process.

“It was a fair question, because Treasury initially set up an erroneous process where they had to go to Cabinet, which is completely inappropriate,” she wrote.

The confusion surrounding the appointment will be central to a parliamentary inquiry due to begin on Wednesday. Brown, who premier Dominic Perrottet has insisted was the “final decision maker” on the appointment, is slated to give evidence.

Aside from the lack of cabinet approval, the committee’s questioning will focus on the fact the agency was requested to consider making the positions subject to ministerial approval.

The Guardian has previously reported that Brown told the recruitment company hired to find candidates for the New York position to stop the search because the job would be handled “as an internal matter” as a “ministerial appointment”. The decision was, Brown said at the time, “outside of our control”.

While the position was eventually not filled via a ministerial appointment, the trail of documents show Investment NSW’s general counsel did seek advice about legislation to allow the positions to be filled by the minister.

That advice, according to one email, came after the department had been “asked to consider … whether there is an option for ministerial appointments”.

The email was sent in September, and it’s understood the cabinet meeting in which businessman Stephen Cartwright was appointed to an identical job in London also took place in September. Nine News has previously reported that Barilaro, while not opposing Cartwright’s appointment, allegedly said during that cabinet meeting that the jobs “should be open to politicians”.

The Guardian revealed on Monday that Barilaro also personally approached former NSW Labor leader Jodi McKay about filling the trade commissioner role in India.

It comes after Perrottet said he had first been told that Barilaro was interested in the New York trade job in a “social setting”.

On Tuesday the premier confirmed for the first time that he was aware Barilaro had intended to apply for the job. While he said he could not recall when he found out, Perrottet said it was after Barilaro had quit parliament.

“I think in a social setting he may have said he was applying for a position, which was an independent process,” Perrottet said.

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