Stuart Robert-linked contracts to be scrutinised by powerful parliamentary committee

A federal inquiry will be launched into government contracts linked to a friend of former cabinet minister Stuart Robert in a move to scrutinise deals worth at least $374 million and tainted by concerns over conflicts of interest and poor value for money.

The inquiry will focus on contracts with companies that used Canberra consultant David Milo, a friend of Robert, to line up work with the federal government including large technology contracts, property deals and consulting projects.

Stuart Robert said the allegations were ridiculous.

Rhett Wyman

Days after a former public service chief called for further investigation into 19 contracts worth $374 million, the new move sets up a forum that will allow witnesses to testify under parliamentary privilege.

The inquiry by federal parliament’s joint committee of public accounts and audit will also be able to compel witnesses to appear and seek documents outside the scope of two government reviews revealed last Sunday.

Robert responded to the mounting questions over the deals by telling parliament on Thursday that the government’s own reports showed “zero, none, nil misconduct” in any way.

The two government reports into the contracts examined 95 contracts and highlighted 19 that were classified as “red” because they warranted further investigation.

The first report was compiled by senior officials at Services Australia and the National Disability Insurance Agency, the two agencies that awarded the contracts; the second was by Ian Watt, a former secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Five of the 19 contracts were subject to special concern in the reports including a property deal, a services agreement with one of Milo’s companies, Milo Consulting, and three contracts linked to a major project with Indian tech company Infosys.

The chair of the audit committee, Labor MP Julian Hill, suggested the inquiry on the grounds that the questions over Milo and his consulting firm, Synergy 360, had parallels with issues raised in the broader investigation into government procurement the committee began last October.

David Milo, CEO of Synergy 360.

“The Watt report is a devastating case study in what not to do in Commonwealth procurement,” he said.

“Serious questions must be asked to work out what went on and what lessons must be learnt, including in relation to value for money, conflicts of interest and non-competitive processes.

“The primary focus will be on the five contracts of concern identified in the report, and we will seek evidence from Dr Watt, Services Australia, the NDIA and the contractors.”

The decision by committee members on Thursday morning came after Government Services Minister Bill Shorten wrote to the committee saying the issues needed investigation because the Watt review only looked at the actions of public service officials.

Robert said last year that ministers did not decide contracts because their departments applied probity rules that took them out of the decision.

‘The Watt report is a devastating case study in what not to do in Commonwealth procurement.’

Julian Hill, Labor MP and chair of the audit committee

Asked last year if he helped Milo’s company and its clients get contracts from the federal government, Robert said: “Of course not. What a load of rubbish.”

On Monday, and revealed that a senior federal official oversaw a decision to award a contract to Milo’s firm in May 2019 despite a personal friendship with an owner of the firm. On Tuesday, it was revealed that tech company Unisys paid Milo’s firm and gained help from Robert in November 2017 to lobby MPs.

Leaked emails show that Unisys executive Tony Windever wrote to Milo in September 2017 to let him know he had written to Robert about gaining a meeting with the national security committee of federal cabinet.

Former head of the federal public service Ian Watt.

Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

“I sent Stuart an email yesterday to follow up our meeting and request contact details for the appropriate person to arrange a presentation to the committee,” Windever wrote on September 25.

“I also asked for his thoughts on delivering a similar presentation to the National Security Committee. Stuart hasn’t responded as yet.” There is no record that the presentation to NSC ever occurred.

Speaking in question time on Thursday, Shorten cited this email to express concern that Unisys had sought valuable access to government through Robert.

“How does a multinational company form the presumption that they can talk to the heart of our national security architecture in Australia?” Shorten asked.

Robert stood in parliament after question time to reject any suggestion he had done anything wrong and noted the events with Unisys took place when he was a backbencher.

Robert said the allegations by the minister regarded emails he was not included in and had no knowledge of.

“The idea that someone could present to NSC is ridiculous,” he said.

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