NSW Trade and Industry Minister Stuart Ayres has been grilled about the infamous ‘WTF’ memo at the Independent Commission Against Corruption probe into former premier Gladys Berejiklian.
On Wednesday, the explosive December 2016 memo from an adviser to the then premier Mike Baird was tendered into evidence.
In it, Mr Baird’s director of strategy, Nigel Blunden, said there was ‘no doubt’ Mr Ayres and Ms Berejiklian had done a ‘sweatheart [sic] deal’ with then Liberal MP Daryl Maguire about funding for a Wagga Wagga gun club.
But Mr Ayres told ICAC on Friday that ‘I don’t recall having any interactions with her’, on the issue.
Sophie Callan, who is representing Gladys Berejiklian at the ICAC, asked Mr Ayres if the statement about a ‘sweetheart deal’ was speculative.
‘Fantasy would be a good word,’ Mr Ayres replied.
Mr Ayres was Sport Minister in 2016 when Mr Maguire was lobbying the state government for a $5.5 million grant for the Australian Clay Target Association (ACTA) in his electorate of Wagga Wagga.
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Ms Berejiklian, who was then the NSW Treasurer, was in an undisclosed relationship with Mr Maguire at the time.
Mr Ayres said he thought the controversial gun club project had ‘a lot of merit’.
The ACTA project is one of two ‘case studies’ at the centre of the inquiry.
Mr Ayres is not accused of any wrongdoing.
Former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian outside her Sydney office today
ICAC counsel asked Mr Ayres why he said in an internal email that the government-funded upgrade of the Wagga Wagga gun club was ‘legit’.
‘Project is legit,’ he said in a December 2016 email after the state government’s expenditure review committee approved a conditional $5.5 million grant to ACTA, contingent on it having a satisfactory business case.
The inquiry also heard that a public servant said someone needed to talk ‘Daryl’, the then NSW Liberal MP for Wagga Wagga Daryl Maguire, ‘off the ledge’.
Mr Ayres told Mr Maguire in March 2016 that he could not provide funding available for the project. Mr Maguire wrote again to the minister, seeking a meeting.
In mid-2016 Mr Ayres visited ACTA’s site in Wagga Wagga.
‘I thought the project had a lot of merit. They had a world championship (clay shooting) event coming up in 2018,’ Mr Ayres told ICAC counsel Scott Robertson.
He said he thought increased tourism to Wagga Wagga was a benefit of the proposal.
‘I was quite predisposed particularly to the clubhouse concept,’ he said.
Mr Ayres agreed with Mr Robertson that Mr Maguire had made representations to him multiple times about the funding.
Stuart Ayres and Daryl Maguire outside the Wagga Wagga gun club
ICAC is investigating whether Ms Berejiklian
1. Engaged in conduct between 2012 and 2018 that was ‘liable to allow or encourage the occurrence of corrupt conduct’ by former Liberal MP Daryl Maguire, with whom she was in a close personal relationship between 2015 and 2018
2. Exercised her official functions dishonestly or partially by refusing to exercise her duty to report any reasonable suspicions about Mr Maguire to the ICAC
3. Exercised any of her official functions partially in connection with two multimillion-dollar grants in Mr Maguire’s electorate, to the Australian Clay Target Association Inc and the Riverina Conservatorium of Music.
He said he was ‘almost certain’ those representations were made in person and not just in writing, but this was not unusual and many MPs were ‘assertive’ in making a case for projects in their regions.
Mr Ayres also said it was ‘pretty standard activity for local members’ to contact the treasurer as well as a particular minister about a project they were advocating for.
My Ayres was repeatedly pressed by Mr Robertson about ‘why Mr Maguire’s advocacy’ was relevant and was the first factor listed by Mr Ayres when asked why he regarded this as a strategic project.
The minister said Mr Robertson may have placed too much importance on the order in which Mr Ayres listed those factors.
Mr Robertson asked Mr Ayres why he agreed to pay $40,000 for the preparation of ACTA’s business case to help it make the case for millions of dollars in government funding.
‘Why didn’t you simply turn around … (and say) ‘you need to demonstrate to me that this is money worth spending?”
Mr Ayres said there was a ‘question mark’ over whether ACTA could afford to pay for its own business case. He said his department recommended the funding be granted, but agreed he ultimately made the decision in mid-2016.
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Mr Ayres said the initial business case in 2016 was ‘strong’ and ‘it was the validation that I was looking for’.
He said the business case by a consulting firm, attached to a letter dated September 12, 2016, had estimated a benefit to cost (BCR) ratio of 2.31, which was ‘a strong result in any BCR’.
A BCR of below 1 meant a project would not return to the state as much money as it cost to fund it.
Mr Ayres added that the stated BCR of 2.31 may have been ‘optimistic’.
He added that ‘I thought the business was solid even if the BCR was optimistic … I think after receiving this business case I was feeling that I had a strong business case to put forward.’
The Premier smiled and waved on Thursday – giggling upon seeing photographers waiting for her
Evidence given in a private hearing by a NSW bureaucrat was tendered by Mr Robertson.
Office of Sport director John Egan said a non-government organisation such as ACTA seeking funding from the NSW government was expected to prepare and pay for its own business case.
Mr Egan said the ‘stock standard answer’ in letters was the Office of Sport did not provide funding for the preparation of business cases.
Mr Ayres said the government would fund business cases or research ‘on a regular basis’, but he added that he would need to check how many of those were for non-government entities.
The Australian Clay Target Association is part of an ICAC inquiry into former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian
‘I don’t recall whether the Office of Sport communicated that expectation to organisations,’ the minister said.
Mr Ayres said that he didn’t ‘as a general rule’ have an expectation that organisations funded their own business cases when seeking government funds because a small sporting organisation would be different to, for example, the NRL.
‘It was all completely on a case by case basis?’ Mr Robertson, said.
‘Definitely more case by case,’ Mr Ayres said.
Mr Ayres was asked why it was urgent for the government to consider the ACTA proposal in late 2016.
He replied that the proposal was more urgent because of a world championship clay shooting event in 2018.
Gladys Berejiklian’s former secret boyfriend Daryl Maguire will give evidence to ICAC next week
The ICAC has previously heard evidence from other witnesses that this event did not require ACTA to upgrade its facilities.
Gary Barnes, secretary of the Department of Regional NSW, gave evidence after Mr Ayres finished.
He said the opinion of bureaucrats in his team was that the ACTA proposal ‘looked as though it could be a good regional project’ but ‘further work would need to be done on a business case’.
Mr Barnes said ‘This particular proposal was the subject of a lot of interest’ from both the premier’s office and the deputy premier’s office.
The premier at this time was Ms Berejiklian, who had taken over from Mike Baird, who resigned in January 2017. John Barilaro was the deputy premier at the time.
Mr Barilaro is set to give evidence to ICAC next week.
The revelation of former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian’s (pictured left) secret relationship with Daryl Maguire (right) left another former premier, Mike Baird ‘incredulous’
Gladys Berejiklian (pictured right) is under investigation by ICAC for her conduct while NSW premier in relation to her former boyfriend, ex-MP Daryl Maguire (pictured left)