Wednesday, September 13, 2023

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Tom McIlroy
Tom McIlroyPolitical correspondent

An inquiry probing links between former cabinet minister Stuart Robert, key Liberal Party fundraisers and consulting firm Synergy 360 has asked the National Anti-Corruption Commission to take over investigating possible conflicts of interest in government contract decisions.

Warning it lacks sufficient powers to investigate “serious and systemic” allegations related to the former Queensland MP and procurement and lease deals at the National Disability Insurance Agency and Services Australia, federal parliament’s Joint Public Accounts and Audit committee said the newly founded NACC should take over.

Former MP Stuart Robert has denied helping Synergy 360 and its clients win government work. Alex Ellinghausen

Key to the referral – announced by committee chairman and Labor MP Julian Hill on Wednesday – is compulsory questioning and document gathering powers held by the NACC, but not parliamentary committees.

Mr Hill used an interim report to say his inquiry lacked some powers and resources, including forensic accounting expertise. Labor MPs control the committee, which also has Liberal and Greens members.

“A referral to the National Anti-Corruption Commission by a parliamentary committee should never be made lightly and certainly is not done so here,” Mr Hill said.

“In these circumstances, however, there appears no other appropriate course of action.”

“Concerning evidence has been received raising serious allegations and questions about financial impropriety, improper relationships and undisclosed conflicts of interest with parties receiving contracts from the Commonwealth. Some matters raised in the allegations were established in public hearings and corroborated by other evidence though many remain unresolved.”

Labor has sought to highlight allegations surrounding Mr Robert, who quit parliament in May, including allegations he assisted the lobbying firm Synergy 360 to navigate the federal public service and meet key decision-makers including now Opposition Leader Peter Dutton.

Mr Robert denies any wrongdoing. On Wednesday, he accused the committee, which is controlled by Labor, of “using parliamentary privilege and process to even up political scores and using the NACC as a political weapon.”

“A committee that has received zero evidence, used stolen emails and relied on a rambling incoherent testimony that is refuted, in writing, by every other witness, by every document and by every date that he got wrong.

“A testimony motivated by a desire to extract a payment from a company during divorce proceedings on the same grounds, a claim dismissed by the Chief Justice of the Families Court as a delusional fantasy.

A committee that has the extensive and detailed Watt review in front of them that says there is zero misconduct.

“What an obviously transparent political payback,” he said.

Lucrative contracts

The committee has heard evidence Synergy 360 established a firm to funnel money to Mr Robert in return for him using his position as a minister in the Morrison government to help the consultancy and its clients win lucrative government services contracts.

Among the former owners of Synergy 360 are ex-military official David Milo, a friend of Mr Robert, and entrepreneur John Margerison, who was also Mr Robert’s key political fundraiser.

A review found in March that contracts linked to Synergy 360 and worth $374 million in taxpayer funds warranted further investigation.

Mr Margerison said he would not give evidence to the inquiry because he has “severed all ties” with Australia. He said he now lived overseas and considers himself outside parliament’s jurisdiction.

Mr Milo told the committee he refuted evidence to the committee that Synergy 360 had proposed a structure designed to allow Mr Robert to profit from government contracts “in their entirety”.

Mr Robert said he rejected allegations of wrongdoing “in the strongest possible terms”.

Infosys told the committee the company had no knowledge of any payments made by Synergy 360 to any government official, minister or any person or entity. It said Infosys did not engage with Synergy 360 with any expectation of payments and relied on contracts which would prohibit such conduct.

The new report says the inquiry found previously undisclosed meetings between Mr Robert, Synergy 360 and tech company Infosys, including during a tender process involving the players.

No records of access

There is no evidence of probity advisers or public servants being present at 11 meetings, no contemporaneous notes or records of what was discussed made available, and there were no apparent declaration of any conflicts of interest being made. There is also no evidence before the committee that other bidders or vendors unrelated to Synergy 360 were given similar treatment or access to Mr Robert.

“The committee has not been provided with direct evidence of financial liabilities owed or payments occurring from Synergy 360 to the Australian Property Trust or other entities to the benefit of Mr Robert,” the report said.

The NACC opened its doors on July 1 and has already attracted hundreds of complaints in its first months.

The report recommended the NACC examine all material gathered through the inquiry “to determine whether or not to conduct its own inquiry into procurements at Services Australia and the NDIA”.

The report said the committee “is not making any findings in relation to the conduct of any individuals” and said Mr Robert, Mr Milo, Mr Margerison and former company owner Khamphone Xaysavanh all denied improper conduct.

It also recommended Speaker Milton Dick commission legal advice related to powers in which a person claims to be an overseas resident.

Tom McIlroy is the Financial Review's political correspondent, reporting from the federal press gallery at Parliament House. Connect with Tom on Twitter.Email Tom at