The John Barilaro affair took the shine off NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet

The John Barilaro affair took the shine off NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet

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<p><figcaption class=Director of photography: Bianca de Marchi / AAP

New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet looked stressed as he led the media Wednesday to announce that his Liberal deputy leader and trade minister, Stuart Ayres, had agreed to step down from the ministry.

The scandal over the appointment of former Nationals leader, John Barilaro, to a $ 500,000-a-year commercial job in New York (which he created before leaving parliament) lasted six weeks and took the shine off a premier who he has yet to celebrate 12 months in office.

The premier’s own trade mission to Asia was a disaster, overshadowed by daily questions about who knew what and when in the Barilaro affair.

Related: Stuart Ayres suggested that John Barilaro “might be good enough” in the role of New York, NSW investigation said.

Perrottet had promised an orderly and fair government, run as he claimed to have headed the NSW Treasury. The trickle of revelations about Barilaro’s job raises questions as to whether processes to fill key posts are effectively politicized.

Perrottet is probably too new to run the risk of being overturned on this issue, but his handling of this ongoing crisis has colleagues wondering if he has the right things under pressure.

Before this and other crises, notably floods and the pandemic, Perrottet was the hard man of NSW politics: the man who could deflect a political attack and turn it back on his opponents with devastating ease.

Wednesday just seemed a little iffy.

The crisis also revealed the dynamics of power within the NSW government. Ayres, a senior moderate, was pivotal to Perrottet, a right winger, who landed the top job, as was fellow power moderator, Treasurer Matt Kean.

Liberal leaders in NSW over the past two decades have gone from the ruling moderate faction, a recognition of the factional power they wield in the state, to the perennial dismay of the conservative wing.

But Perrottet’s performance as Gladys Berejiklian’s loyal sidekick and treasurer meant he had a strong claim to the highest job, despite being from the minority faction.

Now it is clear that it arrived with the strings attached.

When it came to falling on his sword, the ambitious Ayres, who occupies one of the most marginal seats in Penrith’s government, was initially able to resist doing the obviously right political thing and retire pending the outcome of an internal investigation.

Instead he dug, at a considerable cost to Perrottet and his government.

Ayres, who was Minister of Commerce at the time of Barilaro’s appointment, insists he has done nothing wrong. But on Wednesday he acknowledged that a pending report from bureaucrat Graeme Head raised a potential violation of the ministerial code of conduct and that he would resign to defend himself.

The vacancy will once again lead to shoving within the dominant moderate faction in NSW, with the new deputy in the seat to succeed Perrottet as premier.

Kean, the other pivotal figure in Perrottet’s rise, who lost his deputy role last October, is the favorite to fill the role this time around.

Related: Stuart Ayres steps down as NSW minister after questions raised by John Barilaro’s trade role review

Most colleagues believe they’ll get it if they want it, although strictly speaking it’s a party room decision next Tuesday.

Kean has been a fine performer as a treasurer, but is considered controversial and outspoken, particularly on climate change policy issues where he has heavily criticized his federal colleagues.

NSW Treasurer Matt Kean.

NSW Treasurer Matt Kean is expected to fill the role of Deputy Liberal Leader. Director of photography: Bianca de Marchi / AAP

He was embroiled in a small Twitter controversy on Tuesday, when he retweeted a comment from journalist Nikki Gemmell highlighting the uneven treatment of Fair Trade Minister Eleni Petinos, he was immediately discharged for an alleged transgression and Ayers, who was allowed to stay until this morning.

Kean later claimed that someone had “big thumbs” in his office and disavowed the retweet.

He’s been playing politics for a long time, so the timing may not be right.

Other possibilities to replace Ayres are the Attorney General, Mark Speakman, and the Minister of Infrastructure and Cities, Rob Stokes.

Stokes is said to still lack numbers in the moderate faction (he received only five or six votes in last year’s leadership ballot) and colleagues believe he remains disillusioned with the leadership of the government.

Speakman would be a safe choice but it lacks the public profile of the other two ministers.

The emergency minister, Natalie Ward, was also mentioned, but she is in the upper house, which would make it difficult for her to replace the premier.

Transport Minister David Elliott has also expressed interest, but as a leading center-right figure he may find it difficult to enlist the support of the moderates, who will be reluctant to step down.

Ayres may well be hoping for political redemption following the internal investigation, but the decision by her partner, former Morrison Federal Foreign Minister Marise Payne, to take a behind-the-scenes role in the opposition, has raised questions about his long-term commitment to politics and the couple’s continued role as power brokers in NSW.

Until this scandal, the two could have looked at government appointments as their next move. Now the private sector looks more likely.

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