The New South Wales agent general to the UK, Stephen Cartwright, has refuted claims that his appointment was a case of “jobs for mates”, after being encouraged to apply by the then deputy premier, John Barilaro.
Speaking from London before a long-running parliamentary probe into the appointment of senior trade positions, Cartwright said he had been approached by Barilaro about the job in February 2021 and encouraged to “throw [his] hat in the ring”.
At the time of that coffee meeting between the pair, another person – Paul Webster – had already been put forward as a strong candidate for the position and was in preliminary salary discussions with Investment NSW.
Cartwright told the inquiry on Wednesday that Barilaro had mentioned the position “out of left field” in a meeting about another matter.
“The deputy premier asked me if I might be interested in the UK agent general role,” he told the inquiry.
“I was taken by complete surprise by his question because I had not heard much about the role since it was announced.”
At the time, Cartwright was the head of the powerful NSW Business Chamber – a position in which he “regularly engaged with public servants, as well as with premiers, treasurers, ministers, shadow ministers”.
In the course of the discussion, Cartwright said he discussed his then salary of $800,000.
“He and I had a very open and frank discussion about my circumstances,” he told the inquiry.
“I have been on a package over $800,000 for some years and I’ve made financial commitments accordingly.”
In subsequent weeks, he formally applied for the position. He was interviewed by a panel and was put forward as the preferred candidate, before signing a contract appointing him as the agent general to the UK and the senior trade and investment commissioner for Europe and Israel.
He later negotiated a salary above those of other trade commissioner roles.
The inquiry was called to investigate the now abandoned appointment of Barilaro to a senior trade role in New York, but has shifted its focus to also examine Cartwright’s appointment.
After giving evidence that he had strong relationships with members of the government – including texting a birthday message to the then treasurer, Dominic Perrottet – Cartwright rejected the assertion that his appointment was a “classic example” of a “jobs for mates scenario”.
“My qualifications for this role are unable to be challenged,” he told the inquiry.
“I’m crystal clear that three highly impressive senior independent panel members decided that I was the most suitable person for this role based on merit and given my background.
“I don’t think there’s any way that my appointment can be categorised as jobs for mates because I don’t have any politicians that are mates. I’ve never been part of any political party.”
During a previous hearing, former Investment NSW secretary Amy Brown claimed Cartwright threatened to go above her to “the minister or premier” during salary negotiations as he sought about $800,000.
Cartwright denied the claims on Wednesday, and said he had never insisted the government match his previous salary, but had been given the impression from Barilaro that the package “could be moulded to suit my circumstances”.
Cartwright said he was offered a base salary and super package of $600,000, with additional benefits initially before it was revised down to $487,000 base and $113,000 allowance.
He said his pay slip showed he was $10,000 short each month – an issue he then raised with Brown who he claimed refused to move on the issue.
During a hearing on Monday, Webster, now employed in the more junior role of UK and Europe trade and investment commissioner position, was informed he ranked top as the candidate for the job.
Despite this, Webster said he “wasn’t shocked” to miss out.
Following Cartwright’s appearance, Labor confirmed it would call Perrottet to appear before the committee in November.
“We need to hear now directly from Perrottet about his involvement in the selection of Stephen Cartwright, as well as his knowledge about the appointment of John Barilaro to the New York position,” said the opposition’s treasury spokesperson, Daniel Mookhey.