Even MPs long accustomed to the debased standards of New South Wales politics watched and winced on Monday.
Jenny West testified her public service career had been destroyed after a promised plum job ended up going to her department’s former minister (and, basically, her boss) – one of the state’s most politically powerful men.
It’s not a crooked, $100 million coal deal. But rarely are political moralities drawn so starkly.
Voters appear furious and for now they are short on answers.
Could the widely underestimated John Barilaro end up imperilling a new premier seemingly just finding his stride, or perhaps the government as a whole?
Absolutely not, one Liberal MP said on Monday: voters of all stripes are praising Dominic Perrottet for his leadership during recent floods including a newly civil and productive relationship with the federal government.
Besides, he wasn’t even premier when gears started turning to rescind the job offer.
Only getting worse
Perhaps. But one thing was very clear from Monday’s hearing – the inquiry seems almost certain to have worse in store yet for Mr Perrottet, and until he stops avoiding the frank disclosure of his own role in this fiasco he will remain hostage to its findings.
The public seems to have been sceptical about what Mr Barilaro might have given the people of the state in return for a large salary and million-dollar midtown office.
As they should be: In 1992 former state leader John Fahey called the well-remunerated position of a state “agent general” in London a colonial throwback, and scrapped it.
No senior figure in the government has yet explained what they saw in Mr Barilaro’s plan to influence the globalised economy by employing an international cheerleader for subnational commerce.
The question of how involved Mr Perrottet was, as the then treasurer, in remaking the state’s overseas investment attraction strategy is unclear but also unaccounted for.
Until he spells it out entirely the Premier runs the risk of being punished for having had a senior role in a government increasingly linked in the public mind to cases where public funds have been spent with too little regard for public purpose.
No-one embodies that attitude more than the former deputy premier who embraced the nickname “pork Barilaro” and sought to bring more of the vast public grants he controlled beyond bureaucratic review.
He pushed back on criticism including after a state government program was found to have spent 95 per cent of its money in Coalition-held seats.
No one has had to yet wear any consequences for these events, except, seemingly, a woman competent enough to be promoted. At what point will voters punish the government in its entirety even if the particular decision to hire Mr Barilaro, was as the Premier maintains, wholly independent?
That possibility looms over him for so long as the Premier favours halting disclosures such as when he revealed Mr Barilaro gave him “heads up” about his intent to apply for the posting when both were at a social function, an account that proceeded no further.
One crucial text
One piece of evidence underplayed in many reports of Monday’s hearing suggests complete transparency might soon cease to be a choice for the Premier.
A little more than a month before she had it taken away, Ms West’s boss congratulated her on her new job by sending her a text message with a photo of a briefing about her appointment that had been signed by the former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian.
This is tough to square with what Mr Perrottet recently told Parliament – that the plum trade gig was readvertised because no “suitable candidate” could be found.
Ms Berejiklian signed a briefing minute that also plainly affirmed Ms West’s suitability.
Was she badly misled, or was the case for taking a trade commissioner’s job away from someone last employed as the federal government’s “head of trade and investment” in favour of a politician who previously produced home door frames not actually very compelling?
Mr Perrottet was one of only three senior members of the government briefed on Ms West’s initial appointment, raising only more questions about what he told Parliament.
As the inquiry wears on it is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which facts such as these begin to wear on a government.
State premiers sign dozens of things a day, one senior NSW Liberal said on Monday, dismissing these as minor quibbles about detail. Quite right.
Deduction suggests there may even be a document out there with Dominic Perrottet’s signature on it.
Perhaps an official briefing that resembles very closely the one that emerged at Monday’s hearings but which instead endorses John Barilaro’s suitability for a role many now view as tainted? Dated perhaps not much longer than a month ago?
That wouldn’t leave much room for anything but an explanation.