John Barilaro’s former media adviser — and now partner — was employed in a senior role at Investment NSW at the time the agency was processing the appointment of the apparently successful candidate Jenny West to the plum job of NSW trade commissioner based in New York.
The media adviser, Jennifer Lugsdin, took up the role of senior media adviser in August last year. It was later revealed that Lugsdin and Barilaro were in a relationship after leaving their spouses. Lugsdin arrived at Investment NSW the same month that West, a senior Investment NSW bureaucrat, was told she had the job following an independent selection process. The offer was later rescinded as part of a chain of events that saw Barilaro himself gain the New York posting.
The fact that Lugsdin was employed by Investment NSW has been known in media and political circles but has so far been unexplored in the NSW upper house inquiry into how Barilaro ended up being appointed to the role. The opposition-run inquiry received bombshell evidence last week from former Barilaro staffers that the then deputy premier had sought urgent advice on how to convert the role into a ministerial appointment — and that he had earlier wanted the trade posting “for when I get the fuck out of this place [NSW Parliament]”. This has been denied by Barilaro.
The appointment of Lugsdin raises obvious questions for any investigation into the Barilaro saga. As senior media adviser, how closely did she work with agency head Amy Brown? What did she know about the state of play with the New York job? It also raises larger questions about a political culture where public funds and taxpayer-funded jobs are used for political purposes.
In an emailed response to Crikey’s questions, Investment NSW defended the integrity of Lugsdin’s appointment.
“Investment NSW engaged the services of an external recruitment agency in late July 2021 to provide a contingent labour resource to support the media team in a newly created agency,” it said.
“The short-term engagement with the agency supplier, who was the employer of Ms Lugsdin, ended in December 2021.
“The agreement with Ms Lugsdin’s employer was in accordance with the NSW government Pre-qualification Contingent Workforce scheme, with Ms Lugsdin assessed as the most qualified and skilled candidate following the review of a number of applicants put forward by four pre-qualified suppliers.”
Crikey attempted to contact Jennifer Lugsdin at her new role as senior communications and media officer at the NSW Department of Communities and Justice but we received no response.
In terms of public perception, though, the appointment of Lugsdin risks being seen as symptomatic of a revolving-door culture where the government uses the public service for its own purpose.
This is the very culture that led to Barilaro using the public purse to fashion a benefit for himself via the New York trade job, if we are to believe evidence that last week emerged from former Barilaro staffers (disputed by Barilaro).
Barilaro had also employed 25-year-old Bridgette Joyce, daughter of then National Party leader Barnaby Joyce, as a senior adviser. The taxpayer foots the bill for these jobs, but because they are classed as political they are not subject to public service employment standards.
Turmoil surrounding Barilaro
The events that preceded Barilaro resigning from the NSW Parliament in October last year show the turmoil that had engulfed the then deputy premier and those around him.
In late 2020 Barilaro took a month’s mental health leave after he threatened to withdraw the National Party from the NSW Coalition over government policy on koalas.
In May 2021 he took legal action against YouTube comedian Jordan Shanks over corruption allegations made by Shanks. (Barilaro was ultimately awarded $715,000 in damages in an action against Google.)
By August several of his staff had moved on, including Lugsdin.
In early October Barilaro resigned from Parliament and also announced he had split from his wife Deanna after 26 years. The couple have three daughters. In the wake of his resignation, (unfounded) rumours surfaced that Barilaro had been having an affair with Bridgette Joyce. It later emerged that Barilaro was involved in a relationship with Lugsdin, who had also left her marriage.
Limits of NSW upper house inquiry
The NSW upper house inquiry, run by the public accountability committee, has produced a drip of damaging revelations on the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring that led to Barilaro’s appointment. Yet it has also been hampered by the government’s refusal, so far, to produce key documents requested by the committee. The opposition has flagged that it may recall the upper house for an urgent sitting this week if the government doesn’t play ball.
At the same time, there is a parallel review underway through the department of premier and cabinet, being run by former NSW public service commissioner Graeme Head.
However, neither review appears to have the scope to investigate the revolving-door culture at the heart — at least in terms of public perception — of the Barilaro saga. That may only be possible in a powerful inquiry fully independent of the government, one with the ability to compel evidence.