Gladys Berejiklian’s former chief of staff has told a corruption inquiry she was forced to intervene after former MP Daryl Maguire threatened to gatecrash a minister’s first visit to China, but couldn’t recall if she told the NSW Premier about the incident.
Sarah Cruickshank, the former chief of staff to Ms Berejiklian, told the Independent Commission Against Corruption she was alerted in 2017 to a “threat” by former Liberal MP Daryl Maguire to travel to China where his presence risked interrupting a NSW Government visit that was in the works.
The inquiry heard Ms Cruickshank was alerted to the issue by a policy adviser of then-NSW trade Minister Niall Blair, who had seen a draft letter by Mr Maguire to the chairman of a Chinese investment company that owned a controlling stake in a hay export business in Leeton, NSW.
Mr Maguire claimed the Chinese company, Bright Foods, had agreed but ultimately failed to divest its 51 per cent stake in the export firm, United World Enterprise, to “another preferred shareholder”.
“I seek an appointment with you in Shanghai on Thursday 7th September, 2017, to discuss the serious implications for UWE and the State of NSW,” Mr Maguire wrote in the August 2017 letter.
“The delay is causing issues for the operators, farmers and loss of face by my political leaders who have supported this joint venture.”
The trade minister’s policy adviser, Charles Cull, was forwarded the letter by an electorate officer for Mr Maguire in Wagga Wagga.
Mr Cull told ICAC on Friday the letter worried him, because Mr Maguire’s visit to China would have occurred at the same time as a visit by the Trade Minister, his first overseas trip in that capacity.
“I was having limited experience with Mr Maguire, and his behaviour, which I had judged to be intense and erratic. I think I worried what would happen if he was in China at the same time as the Minister,” Mr Cull told ICAC.
So Mr Cull got the Premier’s office involved.
As Ms Cruickshank recalled: “One evening, I was in our office at 52 Martin Place, and our trade advisor came to me and said, ‘I think I need your help with something. I’ve just been talking with Minister Blair’s office. Daryl is threatening to go to China.’”
The trade advisor and Ms Cruickshank got Mr Cull on speakerphone, and the three of them gamed out how to respond to the perceived threat from Mr Maguire.
Ms Cruickshank said she told Mr Cull to tell the MP the Premier’s office was saying no to his proposed trip.
In Ms Cruickshank’s view, Mr Maguire was a “random MP” for whom it was inappropriate to get involved in a matter of trade with a foreign company in this way.
The commission heard Mr Maguire’s claims in the letter were perceived by Ms Cruickshank as akin to speaking on behalf of the state government.
“In practice, it’s well known that unless you’re the portfolio holder, of a particular portfolio, in this case trade, you don’t go around expressing opinions on behalf of the government on that particular portfolio issue,” Ms Cruickshank told the commission.
However, despite her concern and after-hours intervention into the matter on behalf of the Premier’s office, Ms Cruickshank said she didn’t recall telling her boss about what had occurred.
She explained to the commission Mr Maguire backed down within a day of her getting involved, and that she saw the matter as resolved.
“Because I heard so quickly he wasn’t going anymore, I didn’t need to escalate it and tell the Premier. So, no, I’m not sure I told her. If I did, I might have done something like, ‘Just a heads-up, Daryl is being annoying,’ or something like that. And that would have been it.”
Ms Berejiklian is expected to face the commission on Monday as a witness as the inquiry continues.