The John Barilaro affair has taken the shine off NSW hardman premiership Dominic Perrottet

<span>Photo: Bianca de Marchi/AAP</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 2vUXGbv8__iTSo_Bmg–~B/aD02MDA7dz0xMDAwO2FwcGlkPXl0YWNoeW9u/″ data-src=” /YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/–~B/aD02MDA7dz0xMDAwO2FwcGlkPXl0YWNoeW9u/ ></div>
<p><figcaption class=Photo: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet looked stressed as he faced the media on Wednesday to announce that his deputy and Trade Minister Stuart Ayres had agreed to step down from the ministry.

The scandal surrounding the appointment of former Nationals leader John Barilaro to a $500,000-a-year trading job in New York (which he created before leaving parliament) has lasted six weeks and has taken the shine off a prime minister who has yet to celebrate 12 months in office.

The Prime Minister’s own trade mission to Asia was a disaster, overshadowed by daily questions about who knew what and when in the Barilaro affair.

Related: Stuart Ayres hinted John Barilaro ‘could be quite good’ in New York role, NSW inquiry told

Perrottet had promised orderly, proper government, run as he claimed he had run the NSW Treasury. The trickle of revelations about the Barilaro job raises questions about whether the processes to fill key positions are indeed politicized.

Perrottet is probably too new to risk being rolled over this case, but his handling of this rolling crisis has colleagues questioning whether he has the right stuff under pressure.

Before this and other crises, particularly the floods and the pandemic, Perrottet was the hard man of NSW politics: the man who could deflect a political attack and turn it back on his opponents with devastating ease.

On Wednesday, he just looked a little uncertain.

The crisis has also exposed the power dynamics within the NSW government. Ayres, a senior moderate, was critical of Perrottet, a right-winger, getting the top job, as was another moderate power broker, treasurer Matt Kean.

Liberal leaders in NSW over the past two decades have come from the dominant moderate faction, a recognition of the factional power they wield in the state, to the perpetual dismay of the conservative wing.

But Perrottet’s achievements as Gladys Berejiklian’s loyal sidekick and as treasurer meant he had a strong claim to the top job, despite coming from the minority faction.

It is now clear that it came with strings attached.

When it came down to it, the ambitious Ayres, who occupies one of the government’s most marginal seats in Penrith, was initially able to resist doing the obviously politically correct thing and stand down pending the outcome of an internal examination.

Instead, he dug in, at considerable cost to Perrottet and his government.

Ayres, who was trade minister at the time of Barilaro’s appointment, insists he has done nothing wrong. But he acknowledged on Wednesday that a pending report by bureaucrat Graeme Head had raised a potential breach of the ministerial code of conduct and that he would resign to defend himself.

The position will again see the dominant moderate faction in NSW come under pressure, with the new deputy in the box to succeed Perrottet as premier.

Kean, the other critical figure in Perrottet’s rise, who missed out on the deputy leader role last October, is the front-runner to fill the role this time.

Related: Stuart Ayres resigns as NSW minister after questions raised by John Barilaro trade role review

Most colleagues think he’ll get it if he wants it, although it’s strictly a party room decision next Tuesday.

Kean has been a strong performer as treasurer but is seen as controversial and outspoken, particularly on issues of climate change where he strongly criticized his federal colleagues.

NSW Treasurer Matt Kean.

NSW Treasurer Matt Kean is widely expected to fill that deputy leader role for the Liberal Party. Photo: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

On Tuesday, he was embroiled in a minor Twitter controversy when he retweeted a comment by journalist Nikki Gemmell highlighting the uneven treatment of Fair Trade Minister Eleni Petinos, was immediately dismissed over an alleged infraction, and Ayers, who was allowed to remain morning.

Kean later claimed that someone had “thick thumbs” in his office and disavowed the retweet.

He is playing a long game in politics, so the timing may not be right.

Other possibilities to replace Ayres are Attorney General Mark Speakman and Infrastructure and Cities Minister Rob Stokes.

Stokes is said to still lack the numbers in the moderate faction (he got just five or six votes in last year’s leadership vote) and colleagues believe he remains disillusioned with the government’s direction.

Speakman would be a safe choice but lacks the public profile of the other two ministers.

The Emergency Secretary, Natalie Ward, has also been mentioned, but she sits in the House of Lords, which will make it difficult for her to fill in for the Premier.

Transport Minister David Elliott has also expressed interest, but as a leading centre-right figure he may struggle to win support from the moderates, who will be reluctant to relinquish the role.

Ayres may well hope for political redemption as a result of the internal inquiry, but the decision of his partner, former foreign minister in the Morrison federal government, Marise Payne, to take a behind-the-scenes role in the opposition has raised questions about her long-term commitment to politics and the couple’s continued role as power brokers in NSW.

Until this scandal, the duo may have been eyeing government appointments as their next move. Now the private sector seems more likely.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *