New South who? Where is Team Australia?

James Riley
Editorial Director

It might be hoped that the candidate selection process to fill a plush role as NSW Senior Trade Commissioner in New York is as grubby as things get in the state’s politics, but that’s probably too optimistic.

The process that led to the appointment of colourful former deputy premier John Barilaro to the role was outrageous to many, if only because Mr Barilaro effectively created the position while a minister. But the treatment of the original preferred candidate for the role, former Investment NSW deputy secretary Jenny West, is even more shocking.

The sorry details that have emerged this week through an upper house inquiry into the fiasco are an embarrassment to everyone involved, and that includes millions of NSW taxpayers who pay for puffed-up trade positions.

It is precisely this kind of behaviour – gormless, entitled, and unthinking – that signals when a government is cooked. It’s a shame.

NSW Parliament
NSW Parliament: Hmmm

But while we are asking the questions about how the just-resigned former Trade minister John Barilaro came to be appointed to a highly paid and highly prized post in New York, we should also ask why the position exists in the first place.

These state government trade positions are a bit of an embarrassment and make a joke of the dubious notion of a Team Australia.

Under the structure of these state trade missions, Australia presents itself to the world not so much as a nation, but as a series of loosely connected, tin-pot city-states.

A former colleague, who spent years watching this behaviour from a posting in China, described this behaviour as like a noisy pack of seagulls fighting over a potato chip at Bondi: It’s lot less glamourous than it looks.

If Australia is to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities on offer right now, it can’t afford that kind of mindlessness. Not if the nation is to succeed in building new capabilities at scale, and creating new industries.

In trade, Australia must surely present our credentials to the world as one. Of course, the states have a role to play in putting a best foot forward – but it surely must be in a role subservient to the Commonwealth.

The same is true on Industry policy, where the states must follow – broadly at least – the lead of the Commonwealth. We don’t have the resources to waste in this country duplicating redundant state-funded capability across multiple locations.

NSW has made great strides in building digital service infrastructure, leading the way in Australia. Where other governments have struggled badly, NSW has been an exemplar.

In digital government, the work and ongoing support of Premier Dom Perrottet ever since he was Finance minister, in partnership with Australia’s most effective digital champion Victor Dominello, has been outstanding.

What a shame that the ugliness of the Barilaro appointment now threatens that digital government leadership.

For those outside of NSW, here’s a quick recap of how John Barilaro came to be appointed to the $500,000-a-year New York trade post here.

And how Investment NSW deputy secretary Jenny West had earlier been appointed to the role – complete with a signed note from then-premier Gladys Berejiklian – only to have the appointment rescinded, with a new process put in place that led to her former minister John Barilaro being given the job.

It would be a giant leap to suggest that anything good could come of this embarrassing process. But maybe if it puts a spotlight on the way the state governments approach the world, that would not be a bad thing.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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