As a parliamentary committee probes Stuart Robert’s links to consultancy firm Synergy 360, it can be revealed he travelled to the United States in 2015 with two future directors of the company. By Karen Middleton.

Exclusive: Robert took defence trip with Synergy 360 directors

A man carrying a leather bag walks across an airplane runway with men in military uniform and a plane behind him.
Stuart Robert arrives in Iraq in April 2015, en route to Washington, DC.
Credit: Ray Vance / Defence

The day after Anzac Day 2015, Stuart Robert arrived in Washington, DC. The then assistant Defence minister had gone via the United Arab Emirates, with a side trip to attend the dawn service alongside Australian forces in Iraq, before travelling on to meet with and lead an Australian business delegation on an 11-day, five-states American tour.

The trip had generated quiet concern within the Defence Department for the fact that the delegation to the United States was being led by an Australian portfolio minister but sponsored by a private organisation linked to a third country – Israel – something that was considered highly irregular.

As a result, the government did not pay the minister’s US travel and accommodation costs. According to Defence, they were covered by the organisers, the Australia–Israel Chamber of Commerce, along with the costs for his chief of staff. Defence also played no role in selecting participants. Officials exercised caution in their involvement.

Among the 14 non-government delegates on the lengthy trip were the owner of a Gold Coast company named DJ Capital and a Canberra-based partner from the defence and national security practice of consulting giant Deloitte. Attracting no special attention at the time, their names were John Margerison and David Milo.

The past business and personal links between Stuart Robert and the two British-born businessmen are currently under scrutiny by the parliamentary joint committee on public accounts and audit (JCPAA).

This week, John Margerison’s lawyer wrote to the committee refusing its request for more information about those ties and defying its demand that he appear before it at a hearing that had been scheduled for week’s end. Committee chairman and Labor MP Julian Hill revealed that a letter from Margerison’s lawyer said the businessman had “severed all ties” with Australia and moved overseas where, it asserted, he was outside the Australian parliament’s jurisdiction.

“It’s certainly a very strong claim for anyone to make that they have ‘severed all ties’ to the country of Australia and the committee may choose to make further inquiries as to what is actually meant by that,” Hill told The Saturday Paper.

Company searches suggest Margerison and his family retain business interests in Australia. The lawyer who wrote to the committee on his behalf did not respond to The Saturday Paper’s repeated attempts to contact him. Neither he nor his client responded to written questions before time of press.

John Margerison and Stuart Robert are close friends and political and business associates, who were co-directors of a property company for five months in 2018 while Robert was a backbench MP. David Milo also describes himself as a friend of the former minister. It was Margerison who introduced Robert and Milo about a decade ago, when Margerison was overseeing Robert’s political fundraising vehicle, the Fadden Forum, in his Gold Coast electorate.

Focused on Robert’s connection to the pair and their formerly co-owned consulting company Synergy 360, the JCPAA has aired allegations, made under parliamentary privilege, that amount to corruption. Government Services Minister Bill Shorten has also led parliamentary attacks on Robert over his Synergy 360 connections. Robert told parliament he rejected outright the “accusations and innuendo”.

He has since called the allegations “wild” and “outrageous”. Milo and Margerison have denied any wrongdoing.

In his response to The Saturday Paper’s questions this week, Robert condemned the JPCAA for “massively abusing privilege”.

“This has destroyed lives and businesses, all for a political vendetta,” Robert said. He said it was “worse than disgusting” that the committee had published a “rambling document with zero facts” making allegations against him but was refusing to publish his response, or submissions from others.

The Saturday Paper understands the committee has received a range of submissions from individuals seeking to respond to allegations made against them under parliamentary privilege, including from Margerison and Milo and their former business partner Khamphone Xaysavanh. The committee is not meeting to consider whether to publish them – and therefore offer them the same protection – for another week.

The JCPAA is examining Robert’s interactions with the two businessmen from Synergy 360’s formation in 2017. Details from the unusual 2015 US business delegation confirm the trio were linked professionally at least two years before that.

Robert told The Saturday Paper there was nothing new about the US visit.

“The chamber organised all participants and the agenda,” Robert said in response to written questions. “I had no visibility of participants. I had a range of events and meetings organised by the department and the embassy to attend, so would depart the delegation to conduct those ministerial meetings.”

The privately funded Australia–Israel Chamber of Commerce has organised dozens of trade missions abroad for its member companies over the past decade, sometimes involving ministers. Corporate representatives generally fund their own participation, with the chamber organising the itinerary and liaising with government. When the visits are deemed official, the government pays for ministers’ travel.

“This delegation was undertaken in accordance with our normal processes applied to all trade missions around leadership and delegates,” the chamber’s Queensland director, Simon White, told The Saturday Paper. “We facilitate between 40 or 60 delegations per year nationally across our Australian offices.”

White, who was on the Washington visit, said his organisation had taken groups to countries across Asia, the Pacific, Africa and the Middle East over the past decade, as well as to the US and Israel. Stuart Robert said he had taken two delegations overseas with the chamber, and that Bill Shorten had led another.

This week, the Defence Department confirmed Robert led an official chamber-organised delegation to Israel in April 2014 and that a senior Defence official had accompanied him at the minister’s request. The department covered the official’s travel and costs and The Saturday Paper understands the minister’s travel was funded through the Department of Finance. Defence was unable to provide a list of participants.

Shorten led one similar mission in 2012 as then minister for Financial Services and Superannuation. As an official visit, it was also government-funded, involving only the two countries – Australia and Israel – with the organisers associated with both.

The Washington trip contrasts with both of these because it involved a third-country destination and the travel was not government-funded. Defence was concerned enough about its unclear status that the government refused to pay.

The Washington trip occurred eight months after a now infamous trip to China, in which Robert oversaw the signing of a mining deal between China Minmetals Corporation and Australian company Nimrod Resources, owned by Liberal Party donor Paul Marks. Robert had an indirect interest in Nimrod Resources, which was not disclosed, and which led to then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull sacking him from the frontbench.

Four days after Robert’s demotion was announced, a senate estimates committee was grilling Defence officials about his participation in other delegations. Then Labor senator Stephen Conroy raised Washington and the UAE and asked if Paul Marks had been involved. Then defence secretary Dennis Richardson undertook to find out.

In September 2016, Defence provided its written response, including a list of participants it said was supplied by the Australia–Israel Chamber of Commerce. It did not include Paul Marks. But it shows John Margerison listed third, after Robert and his office assistant – whom Defence specified was “not part of the official program” – and before his chief of staff and aide-de-camp. The latter two officials had also accompanied Robert through the Middle East. The government covered the cost of all three in the Middle East, and of the aide-de-camp – a military officer – in the US.

But in the US, Defence emphasised that the chamber had paid for the other two. It also noted that the office assistant, who joined the group in Washington, was “self-funded”.

David Milo was among three Deloitte representatives listed as attending. Last week, Nine newspapers reported that leaked Synergy 360 emails showed Milo had used and shared Defence documents he had accessed while working for Deloitte. This week, Milo told The Saturday Paper he shared two draft documents that included track-change edits with two Synergy 360 colleagues, as “examples of what a Phase Zero proposal and report should look like”.

He said: “I had a major role in drafting both documents originally, hence mine and others’ tracked changes. Reports that the documents were confidential or classified by Defence are false.”

Milo told The Saturday Paper he joined the US delegation in his capacity as lead partner for Deloitte’s defence and national security practice. He said Deloitte had covered his travel expenses. Asked about outcomes, Milo said he had gained “significant insight” and some new relationships on the trip.

“Stuart Robert and I had met on several occasions before the trip but our personal friendship developed on that trip,” Milo said. “John Margerison and I had been friends for a couple of years at that point as well as being colleagues at Deloitte. I still count both John Margerison and Stuart Robert as friends but have no business relationship.”

In Washington, then ambassador Kim Beazley hosted a welcome reception and accompanied Robert to a meeting with the US assistant secretary of defence research and engineering. The party visited several defence research agencies, toured the Capitol Building with embassy staff, and laid a wreath at Arlington Cemetery, before travelling to Florida to visit US Special Operations Command. It visited Sikorsky helicopters and Lockheed Martin in Texas and Australian military trainers expert in uncrewed aerial vehicles at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.

As assistant Defence minister, Robert’s portfolio responsibilities were mostly around defence personnel. While they involved defence science and technology policy, including external engagement, they did not include defence industry.

The arrangements for the 2015 Washington trade delegation fall outside the terms of reference of the JCPAA inquiry, which is examining procurement at Services Australia and the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) and particularly Robert’s interaction with Synergy 360 and its owners and clients.

Earlier this month, the JCPAA published an affidavit-style statement from Anthony Daly, the ex-husband of a former third Synergy 360 co-owner, businesswoman Khamphone Xaysavanh, in which Daly outlined how and when the company was established. Daly alleged the two men had planned to pay Robert kickbacks in return for him facilitating access to government contracts. Robert has denied being paid “for any advice or guidance in any form” and Margerison and Milo have denied making any such payments or that any were sought.

In his statement, Daly said he and his then wife had established the company Milo Consulting, trading as Synergy 360, on April 1, 2017, on Milo’s behalf. A company search of Milo Consulting’s history shows Xaysavanh was the founding director and secretary and a 50-50 shareholder with Milo.

The committee’s scrutiny of Robert’s relationship with Synergy 360 began after The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald published a series of reports, starting in November last year, that were based on a cache of leaked company emails. The firm helped companies access senior politicians and government contracts and the reports alleged Robert had secretly provided advice. In comments published in the Nine newspapers at the time, Robert said ministers played no role in their departments’ procurement decisions, due to the probity rules that ensured separation.

“I’m not part of this,” Robert told them. “I don’t have any ownership of this. I don’t have any involvement in this.”

The allegations that arose from the leaked emails prompted Bill Shorten to commission an investigation of all contracts involving Synergy 360 and associated companies, issued by Services Australia and the NDIA between 2015 and 2023. Returned to the frontbench when Scott Morrison became prime minister, Robert was the minister responsible for both between May 2019 and March 2021.

Before the committee published Daly’s statement, its chairman, Julian Hill, received what appeared to be the same emails.

He used them to question Margerison, Milo and Xaysavanh at a committee hearing in April this year. At the time, the committee’s deputy chair, Liberal senator Linda Reynolds, accused him of being unfair by questioning witnesses on emails they had not been shown and which had not been tabled by the committee.

Milo told the committee the emails had been stolen from his computer. The committee tabled the emails in May, covering them with parliamentary privilege, and published Daly’s statement last month. In it, he denied stealing emails, saying he had acquired material when Milo asked him to copy and store it while upgrading his computer.

Daly’s statement outlined how his ex-wife had surrendered 1 per cent of her shareholding to give Milo control of the business she had registered in his name. He brought Margerison in and persuaded her to surrender a further 20 per cent to him for no payment. Milo argued that involving Margerison would boost the company’s overall worth.

“I did want John involved for his business acumen – his knowledge around business,” Milo told the committee in April. “He was the best businessman I knew.”

Margerison told the hearing he had not been involved in the day-to-day operations of Synergy 360’s parent company, Milo Consulting.

“I have, from time to time, given Mr Milo ad hoc advice if he asked me,” he said. “I helped Mr Milo when he wanted to start a business.”

Milo had given him the 20 per cent share through what Margerison called his “family trust”, a company named United Marketing. Margerison said he didn’t do much in return. “I therefore was really just a friend who ended up with some shares.”

Margerison said no dividends were paid. Records for Milo Consulting show United Marketing divested its shares in December last year – a week after the Nine newspapers published their first story. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 29, 2023 as "Exclusive: Robert took Defence trip with Synergy 360 directors".

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