When the bells rang for a senate vote just after 1pm on a parliamentary sitting Tuesday in mid-October 2017, Bridget McKenzie excused herself and headed for the chamber.
The joint parliamentary committee on ACLEI – the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity – had just begun a brief lunchtime meeting and the Nationals senator was its chair. McKenzie was only just through the apologies and correspondence before the division was called, and, with her Labor deputy, Senator Catryna Bilyk, on medical leave, she needed someone to stand in while she went to vote. Only three other members were present – Labor’s Justine Elliot and Liberal National colleagues Scott Buchholz and Stuart Robert.
Having already placed an item on the agenda that he wanted discussed, Robert obliged. In the 10 minutes the meeting lasted, and while Hansard shows McKenzie was in the chamber voting, the acting chair had his item dealt with expeditiously, securing the committee’s support to invite a corporation with business links to one of his friends to give it a private briefing on border security technology.
In May, six years later, the 2023 incarnation of the same committee took the highly unusual step of re-examining those events and publishing confidential material from its private meetings, after concerns were raised that Robert may have had a conflict of interest. The committee found he never declared one in relation to that meeting or another that followed on November 30, where the special briefing was delivered.
When Nine newspapers reported on May 8 that the committee had begun examining the 2017 events, Robert’s spokesman told them he rejected “any imputation or allegation of improper conduct”. He also implied he had not arranged the briefing.
“As you would be aware, only the chair of a committee can organise a briefing,” Robert was quoted as saying through the spokesman. “Mr Robert was not chair of the committee.”
This week, The Saturday Paper sent questions to Robert, including one asking him to explain that statement in light of evidence he had been acting chair at the time. He did not respond.
The committee’s findings were tabled in parliament on May 31 this year. A draft of its report went to its members on May 10 and there was internal discussion before that, including with the committee secretariat on what their inquiries had found.
On Saturday, May 6, Stuart Robert announced without warning he was resigning from parliament after 16 years in office. He skipped budget week, beginning May 9, and wrote to speaker Milton Dick on Thursday, May 18, to make his resignation effective. Shunning the traditional valedictory speech of a departing MP, Robert never returned to the house of representatives after it rose on March 30 for its April break.
As Gold Coast voters in his former seat of Fadden prepare to elect his successor on July 15, the one-week-old National Anti-Corruption Commission is now being asked to examine the relationship Robert had with business contacts while he held influential parliamentary positions, along with any possible undeclared conflicts of interest or undisclosed private benefits.
Controversy has surrounded the intersection between Robert’s political career and his business ties for a number of years. Questions emerged early last year about his friendship with businessmen John Margerison, part-owner of consultancy company Synergy 360, and David Milo, its majority shareholder. Robert was briefly co-director of another company with Margerison in 2018.
Robert has denied any impropriety in the relationships and rejected “in the strongest possible terms” imputations contained in a statement lodged with a parliamentary committee last week.
The signed statement by Anthony Daly, the ex-husband of third Synergy 360 shareholder Khamphone Xaysavanh, alleged Robert had stood to benefit by helping facilitate access to government contracts for Synergy 360 and its clients. Daly alleged the share structure within Synergy 360 was designed to “facilitate the flow of funds” through one of Margerison’s companies “and onward to Stuart Robert”. Robert “completely” rejected the allegation he received any payment.
“I reiterate what I have said numerous times,” Robert said in a statement last week. “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.”
A month ago, what the joint committee on ACLEI uncovered raised further issues. Questions The Saturday Paper sent to Robert this week about the ACLEI committee’s findings did not elicit any response.
Chaired in the current parliament by Labor’s Susan Templeman, with the Liberals’ Gavin Pearce as deputy, the committee studied the minutes of two meetings from the 45th parliament – the one on October 17, 2017, which sanctioned Robert’s proposal for the briefing invitation, and another that followed on November 30 at which the briefing was given. Robert had been acting chair both times.
The invitation he facilitated was for United States tech company Unisys to brief the committee on its work with the US government on border protection. The committee was examining the integrity of Australia’s border arrangements at the time and had just made site visits in relation to the inquiry. It emerged that Unisys was trying to pitch a border-security analytics software package, LineSight, to the Department of Home Affairs.
On the last day Stuart Robert sat in parliament – March 30 – Government Services Minister Bill Shorten launched a broadside at him over the 2017 meetings. Shorten quoted private emails between Unisys executives and Synergy 360, including one he said was sent by Unisys’s vice-president to its head office in the US on October 16, 2017, the day before Robert subbed in for Bridget McKenzie and had the briefing invitation endorsed. The Unisys vice-president appeared to suggest he would send Robert information to help support the request.
“Thanks for putting this together,” Shorten quoted the vice-president as saying. “I told Stuart I’d get him something tonight. Tomorrow at the joint committee for the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity he’ll be proposing the committee formally meets with Unisys for a briefing on our work with the US government.”
Shorten quoted a second email, dated two weeks later, on October 31, between two Synergy 360 executives. Shorten said the executives were reflecting on their company having cleared $100,000 in its first four months of operations as a result of what he labelled a “secret, undisclosed trapdoor of influence” – “this undeclared special friendship with the Member for Fadden”.
Shorten said a third email, dated September 25, 2017, from Unisys to David Milo, suggested they might also deliver a briefing to the national security committee of cabinet (NSC).
“How does a multinational company form the presumption that they can talk to the heart of our national security architecture in Australia?” Shorten asked in parliament. “Whatever the opposition leader and I think of each other, I know the opposition leader, who served on the NSC, does not see the NSC as some sort of trailer boot market on a Sunday, where the security of the nation has to listen to a beauty parade of commercial vendors.”
Just over a month later, Robert announced his intention to resign, saying he intended to spend more time with his family.
In its report to parliament on the 2017 briefing, Susan Templeman’s committee said it had “not identified evidence that Mr Robert declared a conflict of interest in relation to the Unisys briefing” at either of the two meetings.
It found no evidence that the committee’s deliberations were unduly influenced by the specially arranged corporate briefing, but it was “not able to form a view” as to whether Robert had held a private interest “because it has not received evidence in relation to this question”.
The committee said it could not receive that evidence because Robert was no longer in parliament and because the committee itself was about to be replaced by a new entity focused on the National Anti-Corruption Commission.
Templeman wrote to the chair of the joint committee of public accounts and audit, fellow Labor MP Julian Hill, alerting him to her committee’s work. Hill’s committee is currently examining the letting of contracts to Synergy 360 and its client and associated companies by Services Australia and the National Disability Insurance Agency.
The joint parliamentary committee on ACLEI noted in its report there was a “prospect” Robert had a private interest in the 2017 briefings and that he had failed to disclose it. “Specifically, that the decision to hold the briefing, or potential recommendations the committee might make after the briefing, could accrue a business or financial benefit to a friend of Mr Robert (who worked for consulting firm Synergy 360), or possibly to Mr Robert himself.”
It said the “seriousness of the matter” prompted it to disclose information not normally published. “At some point during the meeting, in the absence of the Chair and Deputy Chair, Mr Robert was appointed Acting Chair,” it said. “Then, on the motion of Mr Robert, the committee agreed to hold a private briefing with Unisys.”
Emails three days later between the committee’s secretariat and Unisys revealed Robert had been speaking to both. The secretariat’s email asked Unisys to “provide a briefing for the committee to assist it in better understanding some issues in relation to putting border integrity policy into practice – for example in relation to intelligence sharing”. It cited Unisys’s strategic partnership with the US government and said the committee wanted to hear more about how the US was responding to the border protection challenge.
On November 30, 2017, the committee convened the briefing. Deputy chair Catryna Bilyk was again unable to be there, this time attending a condolence motion in the senate for her late Labor colleague Steve Hutchins, who had died. Senator McKenzie also stepped away again during the briefing – it is not clear why and she did not respond to requests for comment – and again appointed Robert in her place. Robert then moved a motion to accept a copy of a Unisys PowerPoint presentation as a tabled document of the committee. The document detailed its pitch to Home Affairs to provide the LineSight technology on a six-month free trial. There was no Hansard transcript taken of the discussion.
In its report, the committee emphasised it was common for parliamentary committees to receive private briefings and for an individual committee member to suggest them. Sometimes witness presentations were accepted as tabled documents. Sometimes no Hansard transcript was taken.
However, it said: “As a general principle, any committee member who has a private interest in the subject of a committee inquiry should, at a minimum, declare that interest.”
The committee noted Robert had rejected all allegations of improper conduct.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2023 as "Points of interest".
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