“The sentiment of it was John Barilaro would have had some attributes, positive attributes, that are relevant to the role,” Ms Brown said of a conversation in which Mr Ayres told her that the former MP would be applying for the position. “It carried some weight,” she said.
The senior public servant said Mr Ayres had not exercised “undue” influence over the role, but conceded there was never any question that Mr Barilaro – who had the job application texted to him by Mr Ayres – would not make the shortlist.
“It was never your view that John Barilaro was not getting on the shortlist?” opposition upper house leader Penny Sharpe asked.
“That’s fair,” Ms Brown responded.
The events of Wednesday morning and Mr Ayres’ abrupt departure came as Mr Perrottet sought to put an end to the jobs-for-mates crisis that has dogged his government for two months and tarnished its election hopes.
It also came just two days after the premier sacked Small Business Minister Eleni Petinos over claims she bullied and belittled staff.
Mr Perrottet had initially insisted on waiting for former public service boss Graeme Head to complete a review into the hiring process before he made any decisions. But his hand from him was forced on Monday night as questions over Mr Ayres’ involvement and frustration among his cabinet colleagues threatened to destabilize the leadership.
A draft of Mr Head’s review challenged claims by Mr Ayres that he maintained his distance from Investment NSW’s deliberations over hiring for the US trade post.
“Information that has come to light in the review clearly demonstrates that the process was not at arm’s length,” Mr Perrottet said. “While I’ve not received the full report, I have seen an excerpt of the draft report that pertains to Mr Ayres and made the appropriate decision.”
Mr Ayres rejected all claims of wrongdoing in a statement on Wednesday.
“In my view, no such breach has occurred,” he said. “I have always applied the highest levels of integrity in my conduct as a Minister.”
The Department of Premier and Cabinet will now conduct a review – the third sparked by Mr Barilaro’s appointment – into whether Mr Ayres breached the ministerial code of conduct during his interactions with Investment NSW on the senior trade and investment commissioner role.
Mr Barilaro withdrew from the position in late June amid intense criticism of jobs-for-mates, saying it had become “untenable” to take the role that had become a “distraction” for the government.
While Mr Ayres claims the department adhered to all usual protocols during recruitment, tranches of secret documents revealed a candidate report for Mr Barilaro was tweaked and his scores were upgraded. Another email showed Mr Ayres added a name to a “short” shortlist.
Members of the selection panel have told The Australian Financial Review they “felt used” by the process.
Meanwhile, the premier insists on a first round of recruitment for the role failed to deliver a “suitable candidate”, despite documents showing he was briefed when a former senior public servant, Jenny West, was handed the role in August last year. A month later, the offer was rescinded by Ms Brown, who allegedly told Ms West the job was a “present” for someone else.
Privately, Liberals are optimistic that Mr Ayres’ departure is enough to put an end to the debacle. But some cabinet colleagues are concerned there are more documents yet to come which could implicate the premier.
Others believe the long-running issue has irretrievably dashed the Coalition’s election hopes and put offside members who the party is relying on to form the backbone of its re-election efforts.
Mr Perrottet has not said what section of the ministerial code of conduct the alleged breach by Mr Ayres relates to, only that he regarded the level of interaction Mr Ayres had with the department over the hiring process.
He said Mr Ayres denied doing anything wrong or breaching any ministerial guidelines and intended to stay on as MP for Penrith.
“Mr Ayres denies any wrongdoing at all … he denies any wrongdoing. But the questions that have arisen that come through the report, make it very clear, in my view, and in Mr Ayres’ view, that there is a potential breach of the ministerial code of conduct.
“He denies any wrongdoing. I understand the point in respect of [his claims he kept an] arm’s length part of the process. He has a different view in relation to his engagement with the process.
In a fiery press conference, the premier defended his decision to stand by the senior MP while the debacle has dragged on for two months and derailed major announcements including Mr Perrottet’s first budget as premier and a high-profile trade mission across the region.
Mr Ayres’ portfolios would be reassigned and the election of a new deputy leader would take place at the next party room.