A senior bureaucrat in the New South Wales government believed the former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire “had the ear” of Gladys Berejiklian, something he said led him to drawing the “inference” she was personally interested in a $5.5m grant to a shooting club in the electorate, the Independent Commission Against Corruption has heard.
On Wednesday the NSW anti-corruption watchdog heard evidence from Gary Barnes, the secretary of the Department of Regional NSW.
Barnes’ department was charged with overseeing the business case for the Australian Clay Target Association’s proposal for a multimillion dollar shooting range in 2017. The shooting range grant is one of two being reviewed by the Icac as part of its probe into whether Berejiklian breached the public’s trust by “exercising public functions” in a position of conflict because of her relationship with Maguire. She has denied any wrongdoing.
Barnes told Icac that during 2017 as his department worked on the project, he formed the opinion that Berejiklian had been personally interested in the grant.
He told Icac that he began to form the view after a conversation with a staffer in the then deputy premier John Barilaro’s office in early 2017 in which he said he was told Maguire was “well regarded by the premier”.
“I think they used the term that Mr Maguire had her ear,” he said.
“I’m pretty much sure I had formed the opinion the premier had high regard for Mr Maguire I think as there were only a small number of Liberal party regional members and that from time to time she took his counsel on regional matters.”
On Tuesday Icac heard evidence that Barnes sent an email to Berejiklian’s then chief of staff Sarah Cruickshank to update her on the project, as well as other staffers in the premier’s office.
Cruickshank previously told Icac she did not know why Barnes emailed her an update about the project in May 2017 and said her reply – “Hi Gary. Thanks for the updates on the [clay] pigeons (!)” – may well have been an expression of “surprise on my part that I was getting the email”.
Icac has previously heard that in late 2016 the government’s powerful expenditure review committee, which was headed by Berejiklian, the treasurer at the time, approved the $5.5m funding on the condition of an updated business case. Several public servants who examined the project have told Icac they believed the project was a “low priority” and “didn’t stack up”.
Barnes told Icac on Wednesday that the “unusual” decision by the ERC to approve an item of such low financial value gave him the impression the project had a particular “political imprimatur”.
He also said he had received regular requests for updates on the project by the office of both the premier and the deputy premier, something he described as “atypical”.
Asked by counsel assisting the commission, Scott Robertson, whether he also held the belief the project had the personal support of Berejiklian, he said it was something he inferred.
“Given I had assumed the local MP would have been hassling her as well as her staff, as well as the deputy premier’s staff, around the progress of this matter,” Barnes said.
“You gave this project a particular priority in your portfolio work because of your understanding of the political imprimatur sitting behind the project?” Robertson asked at one point
“I think we all did,” Barnes replied.
Barnes told Icac that in 2017 he formed the impression that Maguire appeared to be a “particularly pesky backbencher” who had a habit of “hassling” staff members in the office of both Berejiklian and Barilaro.
Under cross-examination from Berejiklian’s lawyer, Sophie Callan SC, Barnes agreed he had never spoken directly to the premier about the project.
Barnes was also asked about the second grant under review by the watchdog – $30m given to the Riverina Conservatorium of Music for a refurbished performance space as well as commercial spaces and a recital hall in Wagga Wagga.
Barnes told Icac he gave advice to the premier that he believed the first stage of the project was “worth looking at” but that at the time he did not believe the government should pay for the conservatorium’s recital hall or commercial space “at least initially”.
“I didn’t think that that would be in the public interest,” he said.
Icac has previously heard the full $30m including for the recital hall was later made as a promise during the Wagga Wagga byelection prompted by Maguire’s resignation.