Gladys Berejiklian should have disclosed her relationship with former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest when deciding on giving a multi-million dollar grant to a shooting club project that he had lobbied for, the deputy leader of the New South Wales Liberal party has told a corruption inquiry.
On Friday, the party’s new deputy, Stuart Ayres, who in 2017 was the minister for sport during the push for a controversial $5.5m grant to the Australian Clay Target Association now at the centre of the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s probe into Berejiklian’s conduct, joined other witnesses in saying he had no idea she had been in a secret relationship with Maguire.
Ayres told the inquiry he believed Berejiklian should have disclosed the relationship when a proposal to fund the association’s shooting range and conference centre went before a powerful cabinet committee she chaired as the then-treasurer in 2017.
“I would have been concerned that a conflict needed to be managed,” Ayres told the inquiry.
While Ayres said that “even on reflection” he did not believe Berejiklian could have derived “any private benefit” from the grant, he said the “prudent course of action” would have been to declare the relationship.
Ayres said that if he had known about the relationship he would have “asked her” if she had “any conflicts that needed to be managed”.
On Friday, Ayres contradicted concerns raised by numerous public servants during evidence to the Icac this week by saying he believed the grant “had a lot of merit”.
Public servants have previously told the inquiry they thought a business case for the project was “deficient”.
Ayres was the minister for sport in 2016 when the multimillion-dollar grant at the centre of the inquiry into Berejiklian’s conduct was considered. He told the hearing he was “quite predisposed” to the project.
The anti-corruption watchdog has heard former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire, who was in a secret relationship with Berejiklian, repeatedly lobbied for the grant project from as early as 2012.
Ayres, who is not accused of any wrongdoing, told the inquiry he was first approached by Maguire about the project shortly after becoming the NSW minister for sport in 2014, but that his requests for funding were initially knocked back.
But later in 2016 Ayres visited the Australian Clay Target Association site in Wagga Wagga with Maguire, and was convinced the project “had a lot of merit” in part due to an upcoming shooting world championship.
“I was quite predisposed particularly to the clubhouse concept,” he said.
Ayres’s office had previously given the organisation $40,000 to prepare a business case, which, when completed, convinced him the project was a “strong” candidate for government funding.
Despite thinking the benefits of the project in the business case were “optimistic”, the minister said it gave him “the validation I was looking for”, partly because the benefits to Wagga Wagga would have been significant.
Icac has previously heard that bureaucrats in the office of sport were asked to prepare an urgent submission to the government’s powerful expenditure review committee in November 2016, despite them having deemed the project a “low priority”.
Ayres told the inquiry that the “urgency” was due to the world championship shooting event that had been secured for 2018.
Bureaucrats within the department have previously told the inquiry the business case was “deficient” and elements of the plan “didn’t stack up”.
Ayres said he did not have “any recollection” of those concerns being raised with him.
Icac is investigating whether Berejiklian breached the public trust by “exercising public functions” in a position of conflict because of her relationship with Maguire. She has denied any wrongdoing.
The $5.5m given to the Australian Clay Target Association’s clubhouse and convention centre in 2017 is one of two grants at the centre of the probe, along with $30m given to the Riverina Conservatorium of Music in Wagga Wagga in 2018.
The commission has heard evidence that public servants and advisers within the office of the then-premier Mike Baird believed the project was being sped through the expenditure review committee because it had the support of Berejiklian.
In a briefing note to Baird in December 2016, one of his chief advisers, Nigel Blunden, told the premier both Berejiklian and Ayres “want” the project, and said: “No doubt they’ve done a sweetheart deal with Daryl.”
Ayres denied there had been any deal or that there were political implications to his support for the money, saying he “definitely” wasn’t concerned about, for example, trying to stem gains in the NSW regions by the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party.
He also said he had no recollection of speaking to Berejiklian about the project prior to it going before the expenditure review committee, although he conceded that it was possible “through the normal course of interactions with a minister and treasurer”.
The hearing continues.