An explosive submission details allegations of corruption against Stuart Robert, which the former minister strongly denies. By Karen Middleton.

Inside the Stuart Robert file

A middle-aged man sits in parliament with an open book raised in his hand.
Former Liberal MP Stuart Robert.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

Stuart Robert’s friend and former business associate, John Margerison, describes himself as a financial market consultant who has a Bond University commerce degree, a deep interest in wellness, a diploma in therapeutic massage and clinical hypnotherapy, and a background in the jewellery industry.

Margerison has been ordered to appear before a parliamentary inquiry on July 28 to further explain his association with Robert, after the inquiry received a submission containing specific allegations of what amounts to corruption against the former Liberal MP.

Stuart Robert rejects the allegations made against him as “wild” and “outrageous”. He condemns how they were delivered – in an affidavit-style submission to a parliamentary inquiry, which affords them the legal protection of parliamentary privilege and keeps their maker safe from a defamation action.

“This is an extraordinary abuse of privilege and extraordinary that a committee would release as such with zero evidence,” Robert’s statement says. “[It] is contrary to every bit of testimony they have heard to date.”

The parliamentary submission was made by Anthony Daly, a co-founder of Milo Consulting Pty Ltd, which trades as business and information technology consultancy Synergy 360. Signed by a witness whose name is redacted, it alleges Robert helped facilitate government contracts for Synergy 360 and other companies linked to it.

When journalists sought Robert’s response this week, he sent a statement by text message. He attacked Daly’s credibility, saying he does not believe he has ever met him.

“I reject completely all of his allegations in the strongest possible terms and I note that he had only made them under privilege where he is immune from legal consequence…” Robert’s statement says. “I reiterate what I have said numerous times. At no time have I ever been paid for any advice or guidance in any form. At no time did I lobby to assist any firm in such a manner. I also reiterate that Mr Margerison and Milo have both said publicly that no payments were ever made, nor sought in any form. Mr Daly’s submission with zero evidence and wild accusations is rejected in its entirety, simply not believable and is outrageous.”

Anthony Daly is the ex-husband of the company’s other co-founder, Khamphone “Kham” Xaysavanh. The couple divorced in mid-2021 and some of Xaysavanh’s evidence to the committee previously suggested she blamed the break-up for allegations now emerging.

Media reports began appearing in November last year about Robert’s alleged relationship with Synergy 360, prompting a review of contracts in the government agencies he had overseen as minister and then the parliamentary inquiry.

The committee had taken some evidence canvassing the issues at a public hearing in April, as part of a different inquiry examining Commonwealth government procurement more broadly. During those deliberations, the media reports linking Stuart Robert and Synergy 360 had begun appearing, prompting the establishment of a standalone inquiry.

Following recent confidential hearings in that second inquiry, and one public hearing late last week, the parliamentary joint committee of public accounts and audit (PJCPAA) published Daly’s statement as a submission on Wednesday, just as the campaign to replace Stuart Robert in the normally safe Liberal seat of Fadden, on Queensland’s Gold Coast, was entering its final fortnight.

On the eve of Daly’s statement being published, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese launched Labor’s campaign there, targeting Robert for his role in the robo-debt scheme and criticising Opposition Leader Peter Dutton for having returned him to the Coalition frontbench after last year’s federal election loss.

“Stuart Robert spent his time in parliament serving himself,” Albanese said.

The byelection on July 15 is the result of Robert quitting politics suddenly in May, a year after being re-elected and in his 16th year in office, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.

Two months earlier, the review commissioned by Government Services Minister Bill Shorten had found that two key agencies within Robert’s previous portfolio – Services Australia, which delivers government services and payments and operates Centrelink, and the National Disability Insurance Agency – had awarded 95 contracts to Synergy 360 and companies associated with it over the past eight years.

From September 2015 until February 2016, Stuart Robert served as minister in the umbrella Human Services portfolio, before then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull dropped him from the ministry. Robert was found to have breached ministerial standards after details emerged of a “private” 2014 trip he had made to China to oversee a mining deal, and what was revealed as an undisclosed indirect shareholding in the company involved. On replacing Turnbull as prime minister in August 2018, Scott Morrison returned Robert to the ministry as assistant treasurer. Robert is a close friend of Morrison’s.

Anthony Daly alleges Synergy 360’s contact with Robert continued, including through his subsequent move into the National Disability Insurance Scheme  portfolio and then to Government Services.

Daly’s submission lays out how and why he alleges Synergy 360 came to engage with Robert, explaining the company’s genesis as Milo Consulting.

Daly writes that when it was established, the company had just two shareholders – his wife, Kham Xaysavanh, and a man named David Milo. He says he and Xaysavanh jointly funded it and that Milo did not contribute to it financially during its first two formative years.

The public version of Daly’s submission, in which some details are redacted, does not reveal why he and Xaysavanh established a company that bore Milo’s name, nor why they took on what Daly says was the entire financial responsibility for it initially.

Daly alleges that John Margerison became involved five months after Milo Consulting was set up in 2017, as the result of a share-transfer “arrangement” within the company, which trades as Synergy 360. That arrangement brought in another shareholder company, United Marketing, controlled by Margerison. Daly’s evidence is that he and Xaysavanh did not know Margerison until then.

Published profiles of Margerison describe him as a “financial market consultant” who has also worked in real estate and is a “philanthropist and humanitarian at heart” with a passion for “personal and professional growth”.

Anthony Daly says David Milo proposed the share arrangement, which involved Xaysavanh relinquishing 21 per cent of her 50 per cent share in Synergy 360. He says Milo proposed transferring 1 per cent of that to himself, upping his 50 per cent stake to majority ownership, and for the other 20 per cent to go to Margerison, via United Marketing.

Asked during a committee hearing in April why he wanted Margerison involved, Milo said it was “for his business acumen – his knowledge around business”.

“He was the best businessman I knew,” he said.

Daly’s statement says Xaysavanh “verbally consented” to the share transfer proposal “but was not compensated for the transfer of her shares”.

“Ultimately, this arrangement was designed to facilitate the flow of funds through United Marketing and onward to Stuart Robert,” Daly says in his statement. “The main objective of this arrangement was to secure Stuart Robert’s involvement and support in acquiring federal government contracts. Stuart Robert’s political influence and connections within the government sector were deemed crucial in ensuring favourable outcomes.”

In September 2017, when Daly says the transfer occurred, Robert was a government member but not a minister. Daly does not allege that any money was transferred. Robert rejects Daly’s allegations outright.

John Margerison, David Milo and Kham Xaysavanh all gave evidence at the April 14 hearing, when the original procurement inquiry turned its attention to the matters around Synergy 360 and Stuart Robert. They brought legal representatives. An angry outburst from Xaysavanh as she began< her evidence has been expunged from the hearing record because of its personal nature.

That hearing followed the publication of two reports from the independent review that Shorten commissioned in December last year, into contracts awarded to Synergy 360 and its associates between 2015 and 2023.

Produced by a former head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Ian Watt, the review found there had been 84 contracts with Services Australia and 11 with the National Disability Insurance Agency, totalling $618 million. Of those, Watt found 19 contracts worth $374 million required further investigation for possible breaches of procurement rules, “some unusual characteristics” such as potential conflicts of interest, and incomplete information.

Watt reported that the review taskforce “did not identify any examples of misconduct” in awarding any of the 95 contracts but found conduct that was “not good practice”.

Addressing the April 14 hearing, Watt emphasised he had not examined the conduct of ministers because “procurements are done by officials and are supposed to be done by officials”.

Labor MP and committee chair Julian Hill asked Watt if he had examined the conduct of one former official, Damien West, and queried what role West may have had in one of the contracts that was flagged for further review.

“I don’t have any comment to make on individuals,” Watt said. “I must say that name is familiar to me from some procurements, but many names are familiar too and I can’t comment any further.”

Services Australia chief executive Rebecca Skinner told the hearing later that day that, in light of media reports suggesting an alleged undisclosed relationship between West and Synergy 360, she was “undertaking further investigation”.

Xaysavanh told the committee that West was her “best friend’s brother”.

In his statement this week, her ex-husband Anthony Daly describes West visiting their family home frequently during 2018 and 2019, where he would meet with Xaysavanh and Milo in the lounge room. Daly alleges that Xaysavanh had told him they were “collaborating” with West on projects and that “Stuart Robert played a role in assisting Damien West securing a new position within the government”.

West has previously denied any wrongdoing.

At the April hearing, Julian Hill quoted from leaked emails between, variously, Stuart Robert, Margerison, Milo, Xaysavanh, Synergy 360, and some of its client companies, purporting to detail arrangements for meetings and discussions about contracts. Deputy chair and Liberal frontbencher Senator Linda Reynolds accused Hill of being on “a fishing expedition” during the hearing and of asking questions that were “very prejudicial” based on emails he had not shared with either the committee or the witnesses he was interrogating, who had allegedly written or received them.

Milo alleged during the April hearing that Daly had stolen the emails from his computer. He said he had reported the matter to ACT Policing and alleged that at least one email he had seen reproduced in the media appeared to be fraudulent. It was unclear whether any investigation was ongoing.

In his statement, Daly strongly denied Milo’s allegations. He said during the period when he was responsible for overseeing Synergy 360’s IT systems, Milo and Xaysavanh had asked him to change the company’s web-hosting providers using his personal home computer. “As a result,” he said, “numerous emails were captured on my personal HP hard drive home backup.”

Milo had alleged during the April committee hearing that the emails were the subject of proceedings in the Family Court, warning he would notify the court that Julian Hill was using them to ask questions under parliamentary privilege. “You’re waving around stolen data,” Milo said at the time.

The emails were subsequently tabled in the committee, affording them parliamentary privilege.

At the April 14 hearing, Julian Hill also asked Milo why he routinely emailed Stuart Robert using “a curious Gmail account” comprised of numbers instead of his first or last name.

“I can’t answer that question,” Milo replied. “I don’t know. It’s the email address that comes up when I type in ‘Stuart Robert’.”

Milo pushed back at Hill for intimating he was using the address to be clandestine. “I spent most of my life as a military officer,” Milo said. “If I wanted to hide communications, I would do it a lot more effectively than writing an email and then leaving it in my sent file.”

Hill pressed further. “Why were you emailing Mr Robert at an anonymous Gmail address with a six-digit number instead of one linked to his name?” he asked.

“… I use an email that Stuart Robert gave me for Stuart Robert,” Milo replied. “I mean, I don’t disguise it. I don’t use a codename when I’m speaking to him.”

In written answers provided to the committee later, Milo put on the record a statement about Synergy 360’s relationship with Robert.

“Mr Robert did not assist Synergy 360 or any of its clients to successfully procure government services as far as I am aware,” Milo said.

Xaysavanh, Margerison and Robert have also denied Robert helped Synergy 360 win contracts or that he stood to benefit if it did.

Shorten says he is considering whether Daly’s allegations should be referred to the new National Anti-Corruption Commission, established as of July 1.

“Ultimately, it is up to the commissioner what they investigate,” he said, calling Daly’s allegations “very disturbing”.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said he would not stand in the way. “I think there’ll be a number of matters that get referred to the corruption commission, and I think that’s appropriate – if there’s evidence people believe they have, it should be referred for independent investigation,” he said. “We would support that process.”

Stuart Robert’s relationship with John Margerison has been the subject of media attention for several years. The two were co-directors briefly in another company, JM National Property Pty Ltd, in 2018, but Robert gave up his directorship after Morrison returned him to the ministry, to comply with the ministerial code of conduct.

At the April hearing, Julian Hill described an email from Margerison to his accountant, Sean Beasley, advising him that in future, when any earnings came in from Synergy 360 he would be transferring the equivalent out to another business he owned, called Australian Property Trust. The email was sent at 8.56am on September 13, 2017 – the day his Synergy 360 shareholding was finalised. Anthony Daly’s statement says Xaysavanh emailed him at 9.17am that morning, seeking his help to facilitate the share transfer with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.

Asked at the hearing to explain the property trust, Margerison said: “It’s a trust which I control. I’ve got a number of companies so I believe it’s JM National Property as trustee for the Australian Property Trust.”

He said Synergy 360 had not transferred any money to the trust.

The then Labor opposition began raising questions in February last year about Stuart Robert and another of Margerison’s businesses, NDIS contractor United Disability Care Pty Ltd. The questions arose from a series of reports published by Crikey in late 2021, which canvassed Robert’s business ties, including with Margerison. Amid controversy surrounding his business investments, Robert had announced that he had placed them in a blind trust.

In a senate estimates committee hearing on February 17 last year, Labor senator Murray Watt raised questions around the links between Robert and Margerison.

“Minister Robert and Mr Margerison have a very longstanding relationship…” Watt told officials at the hearing. “The Robert Margerison company was registered at the same address as Mr Margerison’s NDIS-linked companies. The address is that of Sean Beasley, a Gold Coast accountant. It appears that Mr Margerison has been deeply involved in Minister Robert’s fundraising activities.”

Watt quoted media reports that said Margerison was chair of Robert’s Fadden Forum, a political fundraising vehicle. He grilled NDIA representatives at the hearing on how United Disability Care came to receive $29 million in government funding, according to what he said were company documents, while Robert was minister.

Margerison has previously denied any wrongdoing and The Saturday Paper does not suggest any.

In his statement, Anthony Daly described what he said was a Synergy 360 Christmas party at his family home in 2018, which he says Stuart Robert attended. Daly wrongly says Robert was Human Services minister at the time – he was assistant treasurer from August that year. He says David Milo recounted conversations there between Robert, Milo and Margerison.

“David Milo told me that Stuart Robert directed Centrelink leases towards properties owned by one of Margerison’s companies, resulting in favourable terms such as high rents and long lease durations,” he says. “This arrangement also extended to Margerison’s health companies in relation to the [NDIS].”

Again, Margerison and Robert have both previously denied any wrongdoing.

In light of Daly’s statement, the PJCPAA wants John Margerison in particular to reappear before it. Committee chair Julian Hill revealed that Margerison had attended a private hearing on April 26.

“The joint committee of public accounts and audit has now resolved to order Mr John Margerison to produce all documents requested as relevant to the inquiry and to answer the questions issued to him on 26 April,” Hill said on Wednesday. “We’ve been somewhat frustrated that despite repeated requests, those answers and documents have not yet been provided.”

He said the committee had “ordered” Margerison to reappear on July 28.

The committee was also writing to everyone named in Daly’s statement who “might be the subject of adverse reflections”. They will have until midday on July 24 to respond.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 1, 2023 as "Inside the Stuart Robert file".

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