Emails revealing Stuart Robert’s connection to a consultancy firm lobbying for contracts in his portfolio also reveal the staggering inadequacies of the lobbyists register. By Mike Seccombe.
Stuart Robert and the lobby register sham
A senior minister in the Morrison government secretly advises two close friends on how their consultancy firm might help clients win lucrative government contracts.
Said minister subsequently announces one of his friend’s clients has been awarded a government contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Later, details leak of how the consultancy company traded on its high connections to tout for business.
These are the broad strokes of the latest controversy enveloping Stuart Robert. They promise the most engrossing insight into the interactions of government, lobbyists and private sector contractors in years.
The Nine newspapers broke the story almost two weeks ago, after coming into possession of a cache of emails relating to the activities of the “consultancy” firm Synergy 360, owned Robert’s former business partner John Margerison and friend David Milo.
They alluded, among other things, to Synergy 360’s work between 2018 and 2020 for the Indian-based IT company Infosys, which had agreed to pay Synergy 360 a $15,000 monthly retainer and at least a 1 per cent cut of every government contract it won.
There is no suggestion Robert himself ever received any money.
The leaked emails revealed a detailed time line of contacts between Robert, his friends at Synergy 360 and Infosys. They also showed Robert had dissuaded Synergy 360 from donating to another senior Liberal, Angus Taylor, warning them: “It will be declared and it will hurt you.”
The consultancy firm represented other companies bidding for government contracts, but the big one was the Infosys deal. In November 2019, Robert announced the company had won the tender for a Centrelink tool referred to as the entitlement calculation engine (ECE). The deal was worth millions.
As the current minister for Government Services and the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Bill Shorten, summarised the situation in parliament last week: “I have ascertained the following: four contracts were issued to Infosys to a total value of $274 million to upgrade payments software in human services, called the ECE project. It’s still going.”
Shorten announced a joint review by Services Australia and the National Disability Insurance Agency into what he called the “Synergy 360 lobbying scandal”. It has yet to be announced who will head the review or what its terms of reference will be.
Robert rejected the “implied imputation” that he had influenced the awarding of the contracts and insisted the process was conducted with the “highest levels of probity”.
We will see what the investigation finds, but it is not the first time Robert has been accused of inappropriately mixing personal and party business with his official ministerial duties.
In August 2014, Robert, then assistant minister for Defence, embarked on a trip to China in support of a business venture of a mining company, Nimrod Resources. Nimrod’s executive chairman, Paul Marks, was a close associate and a major Liberal Party donor and Robert had investments both in Nimrod and another Marks company.
During this purportedly “private” trip, Robert met with a Chinese vice-minister and attended a signing ceremony for the agreement between Nimrod and the Chinese company Minmetals. In a statement, Minmetals said Robert congratulated the company on the deal on behalf of the Defence Department.
After details became public, the opposition, led by Bill Shorten, demanded an investigation. Then treasurer Scott Morrison vigorously defended Robert, his closest friend in parliament and fellow Pentecostal Christian, with whom he regularly prayed.
But the then prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, ordered an investigation by the head of his department. In February 2016, it found that Robert had “acted inconsistently” with ministerial standards of behaviour. Turnbull forced his resignation.
“Mr Robert,” Turnbull said in a statement, “recognised that this connection would create the impression that at the time he went to Beijing he had something personally to gain from the Nimrod Resources project.”
Robert was soon back on the Coalition frontbench, however. He and Alex Hawke, who were in the same parliamentary prayer group as Morrison, were deeply involved in plotting the August 2018 coup that saw Turnbull replaced as prime minister. Morrison, who referred to Robert as “Brother Stewie”, promptly appointed his friend assistant treasurer.
Within months, however, Robert was again mired in controversy, this time over revelations he was racking up enormous bills for internet at his Gold Coast home. In May alone, his bill was almost $3000. The Department of Finance, which was picking up the tab, had repeatedly written to Robert about his excessive internet usage.
The publicity forced an investigation overseen by Hawke, and Robert paid back almost $38,000. Hawke offered the excuse that Robert’s excess data costs were due to the limited broadband at his home, and said he was moving to a new plan. Robert holds a master’s degree in information technology.
The cache of emails recently leaked to the Nine newspapers refer to Synergy 360 dismissing concerns from one client’s lawyer that it should be on the government register of lobbyists, and “telling people ‘NOT to use the L word!!’ ”
Since the controversy came to light, the company has forcefully denied it was acting as a lobbyist.
The problem is that while the government maintains a register of lobbyists, there is no clear definition of what one is, says Geoffrey Watson, SC, former police integrity commissioner and counsel assisting the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption.
“There’s a lot of grey areas about who is and who is not a lobbyist. And experience teaches us … it’s a pretty shady area. It always has been,” says Watson, who is now a board member at The Centre for Public Integrity.
“If you don’t register as a lobbyist, then I don’t know what the sanction is. I mean, you could just say, ‘Well, I’m not a lobbyist.’ ”
When The Saturday Paper asked the Attorney-General’s Department what sanctions apply to those who act as lobbyists, but are not registered as such, its reply suggested none.
A lengthy emailed response said the department “encourages organisations and individuals to contact the Department to determine whether they should register as a lobbyist, and works with lobbyists to assist them with compliance”.
Where a registered lobbyist had failed to meet its obligations under the Lobbying Code of Conduct, it could be removed from the register, the department said. However, it did not address the issue of what happens when one does not register in the first place.
In relation to Synergy 360, the Attorney-General’s Department said it had written to the company on November 25 “in relation to its reported activities, requesting further information and inviting Synergy 360 to consider whether it may be required to register on the Australian Government Register of Lobbyists”.
Without indicating what action it might take, the department said it was “considering further information provided by Synergy 360 and any further steps required in this matter”.
The fact is, says Dr Catherine Williams, research director of the Centre for Public Integrity, the lobbyists code is toothless.
“While our code of conduct can be important, in crystallising the values to which we want people to aspire, if it is not enforceable, then is it anything other than rhetoric? I don’t think so. We need something more than a code of conduct to drive compliance.
“My view is we need, at a minimum, fines to be available, but criminal sanctions and more innovative penalties should be considered as well.”
As things stand, it appears that there is no sanction available for the unregistered lobbyist Synergy 360. That does not get Robert off the hook, however.
Quite the reverse, for as the department wrote: “The Code provides that Ministers, Assistant Ministers, their staff or any person employed in the Australian Public Service, must not knowingly be a party to lobbying activities by a lobbyist, unless the lobbyist is on the Register.”
The lobbyists code also provides that ministers should “report any instance of non-compliance with the requirements relating to lobbyists”.
These provisions also are picked up in the ministerial code of conduct, which says: “Ministers will be approached by individuals and organisations, acting on their own behalf or on behalf of others, whose purpose is to seek to influence (lobby) government on a variety of issues. Ministers should ensure that dealings with lobbyists are conducted consistently with the Lobbying Code of Conduct, so that they do not give rise to a conflict between public duty and private interest.”
The lobbyists code, says Darren Halpin, a professor of political science at the Australian National University, who has studied the regulatory regimes in Australia and internationally, “has a lot of really big deficiencies”.
For a start, he says, it only covers third-party lobbying activities. “So, anyone who isn’t a lobbyist for hire is not covered. If you work for a corporation, in-house, you aren’t required to put yourself on this register.”
Another shortcoming, more relevant to the Robert matter, is that so little is revealed about who is lobbying whom and about what. Some overseas jurisdictions, says Halpin, require lobbyists to report their activities, for example by submitting “a quarterly report-in that said, ‘On behalf of the following 10 clients, I was paid X amount of dollars, and I talked to the following 15 people…”
He notes that when similar ideas have been canvassed here, the strongest pushback has come not from the lobbyists but from the lobbied.
“It actually comes from the politicians themselves. I think there is a kind of concern about having that level of transparency. That can create some embarrassing moments…”
A former senior public servant, whose responsibilities included oversight of the register, argues it should be taken out of the hands of bureaucrats. He says there is “inevitably a danger of not wanting to embarrass the prime minister and his ministers – and, indeed, not push too hard on the lobbying issue, because, as you know, a lot of lobbying is accompanied by significant financial donations to political parties”.
There is seldom a direct quid pro quo, he says. “But I think there’d be plenty of people in politics who would say, ‘Well, if we build a relationship with somebody and help them out, in due course, we’d expect some help.’ ”
This former public servant is far from the only one suggesting that the behaviour of lobbyists and the politicians whom they target should be more strongly and independently regulated.
When a senate committee considered the matter of lobbying and ministerial standards a couple of years ago, the Greens member, Larissa Waters, called for the register to record “details of all meetings between Ministers and Assistant Ministers”, and an independent body to oversee and enforce ministerial standards.
When she made those suggestions, there was no federal anti-corruption agency. Now that there will be a national anti-corruption commission (NACC), the former senior public servant suggests it should be responsible for managing lobbyists.
Williams agrees, although she says it would likely require greater funding than has so far been provided.
The Greens’ David Shoebridge, who served 12 years in the NSW parliament before entering federal politics at the May election, suggests there might be lessons from the relationship between the NSW government and that state’s corruption commission.
“One of the roles that an integrity commission has is to have an iterative relationship with parliament about where they see gaps in the integrity framework,” he says.
“ICAC has repeatedly made recommendations that have closed gaps in the rules and limit the opportunities to improperly influence MPs.
“But members of parliament have a disturbing capacity to come up with new and novel ways to sell out the public interest for private benefits, or partisan benefit.”
Shoebridge says that regardless of the outcome of the inquiry into Stuart Robert and his mates at Synergy 360, the NACC should have a role in addressing the inadequacy of the rules around politicians’ interactions with influence pedlars.
Otherwise, he says, the latest Robert scandal will go down like “a fart in an elevator”. He explains the simile like this: “It’s deeply unpleasant, everybody’s surprised and then the doors open and everyone just walks away from it. We need a systemic fix.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 10, 2022 as "Stuart Robert and the lobby register sham ".
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