The political career of Stuart Ayres was dealt a hammer blow in a small radio studio in Pyrmont on Tuesday morning.
Ayres, the deputy leader of the NSW Liberal Party and one of the most senior ministers in Prime Minister Dominic Perrottet’s government, had sat down with Ben Fordham, host of 2GB, to take a defiant stance against calls for his resignation over John Barilaro’s trading post affair. It didn’t go according to plan.
Instead, Fordham jabbed Ayres through this question with brutal precision: “Let me recap. John Barilaro created the track in New York. It was presented to Jenny West and then taken away. John Barilaro brought a proposal to the cabinet that would allow ministers to appoint the trade commissioners. He retired from politics a few weeks later. You text him with the vacancy. An independent trial decides he is not the best candidate. He gets the job anyway. Dan mysteriously changes his position as a candidate to make him the best person for the job. You told parliament that Jenny West was never a successful candidate. Then documents appear that seem to prove the contrary. And you expect everyone to believe that you have done nothing wrong?”
I listened to the interview and thought Ayres wouldn’t be able to recover from it. He resigned the following day, but only after a meeting with Perrottet in which the prime minister presented him with the draft report of an independent inquiry that shattered the minister’s repeated insistence that the recruiting process be conducted “from a distance” of politicians.
It never hurts to praise a competitor and, in this case, a colleague too (2GB is owned by Nine, who also owns The Sydney Morning Herald). Fordham’s question was a killer and an excellent summary of two months of damaging revelations about what went on behind the scenes.
Much of this work has been done by Herald reporters Alexandra Smith, Lucy Cormack, Tom Rabe, Natassia Chrysanthos, Michaela Whitbourn, Harriet Alexander and Deborah Snow. I am very proud of the way the Herald identified this as a serious story from the start and refused to drop it.
But as Alexandra Smith wrote this week, Ayres’ resignation will not end the scandal.
“Liberal colleagues are concerned. They say Ayres made it clear that if this saga caused his downfall, he would not go down alone. The prime minister would join him. Hell knows no fury like a scorned minister,” she wrote.
Ayres’s apparent threats may be no more than harsh words from a minister fighting for his survival. But if not, it could spell even more disaster for Perrottet.