A member of the selection panel that helped recruit John Barilaro to a plum New York trade role says she would not have signed off on the appointment had she known the level of ministerial involvement in the process.
NSW Public Service Commissioner Kathrina Lo appeared before a parliamentary committee inquiry on Friday, two days after the scandal claimed the scalp of former trade minister Stuart Ayres over his role in the appointment.
Ms Lo said she lost confidence in the hiring process following the inquiry’s revelations.
If there was more transparency over the recruitment process she would never have endorsed the former NSW deputy premier for the $500,000 a year job.
The level of Mr Ayres’ involvement, including shortlisting of candidates, the seeking of informal references, and engaging with the candidates, led her to her conclusion.
“Had I known on 15th June what I know now, I would not have endorsed the report,” Ms Lo told the inquiry.
She added she had never seen a draft version of the report which ranked Hong Kong-based executive Kimberley Cole above Mr Barilaro.
The report was later amended to nominate the former Nationals leader as the preferred candidate.
Mr Barilaro signed his contract a day after she signed the report.
Ms Lo expressed concern her role as public service commissioner could make her a target over the appointment.
“I’m a participant on the panel. I don’t have elevated status compared to any other panel member,” she said.
“I should not be viewed as cover for a recruitment process, or as a way for other panel members, or the high hiring agency, to avoid accountability.”
Earlier, Investment NSW managing director Kylie Bell told the inquiry she thought the recruitment firm involved had an “unconscious bias” against Mr Barilaro.
Ms Bell also sat on the selection panel, and said while the recruitment process was imperfect, she was never contacted by any government office seeking to appoint the ex-MP.
She endorsed his candidacy “based on his skills and experience with this very particular role”.
Documents revealed at the inquiry show a report from specialised recruitment firm NGS Global grading candidates was altered to give Mr Barilaro a higher rating.
Ms Bell said the firm revised the report as it did not reflect the views of the selection panel that had assessed candidates.
“I feel like there was a bit of an unconscious bias against (Mr Barilaro) if I’m honest,” Ms Bell told the hearing.
She said wording in the report was amended, expanding Mr Barilaro’s attributes, but denied Ms Cole was “downgraded”.
“All we did was include in the text why eventually she had not been selected on the comparison to Mr Barilaro,” Ms Bell said.
“The question became whether she was going to be great for this particular role, given most of her expertise was in Asia.”
She suggested Ms Cole was considered favourably by the recruiter because it knew Investment NSW had no women senior trade and investment commissioners.
Mr Barilaro’s former chief of staff Siobhan Hamblin told the hearing she could not recall any urgent requests to change the trade commissioner roles to ministerial rather than public service appointments.
Ms Hamblin said she had been pre-occupied with COVID-19 at the time, as NSW was in lockdown.
“Given that I can’t recall that, I suspect that whatever the answer was didn’t raise with me any particular red flags,” she said.
Labor committee member Daniel Mookhey suggested the urgency might be because Mr Barilaro had already started considering his resignation.
“That’s a question for Mr Barilaro,” Ms Hamblin said.
The former deputy premier’s much-anticipated appearance at the inquiry is scheduled for Monday.
Labor has pledged to abolish all senior trade and investment commissioner roles if it wins the March state election.
Mr Ayres resigned on Wednesday after a draft report from the Department of Premier and Cabinet indicated he was not at arm’s length from the hiring process and may have breached the ministerial code of conduct.