The federal government is not ruling out a decision to refer former cabinet minister Stuart Robert to the new anti-corruption watchdog when it starts operating within months, after federal officials confirmed they had no power to investigate his links to companies bidding for lucrative Commonwealth contracts.
Special Minister of State Don Farrell said the government was “deeply concerned” by the reports about the former minister when asked in a Senate estimates hearing about the next steps in examining the contracts.
The head of Services Australia, Rebecca Skinner, also revealed the peak federal agency was still examining two matters regarding Synergy 360, a consulting firm led by David Milo, who emailed Robert about federal contracts over several years.
When asked if the government intended to refer the concerns to the National Anti-Corruption Commission, Farrell indicated this was possible but that a decision had not been made. The NACC is due to start work in the second half of this year.
“As you’d expect, the government is deeply concerned with these reports and revelations that have come to the attention of the media and the parliament in relation to Mr Robert,” he said.
“But at this point in the process, I think it would be unhelpful and inappropriate for me to comment on the issue.”
Tasmanian Labor senator Anne Urquhart asked Farrell if he was ruling this out as an option.
“No, no, no, I’m certainly not ruling it out,” he replied.
Robert has denied helping Synergy 360 and its clients win government work and denied any conflict of interest while he was a minister. Further, this masthead is not suggesting that Robert was paid for his advice and assistance.
“I was not paid by any party for any activity, I never sought any payment, none has ever been offered,” he said last week.
“I have never assisted any companies to win any contracts. If my advice is sought I provide it freely.”
A cache of leaked emails showed Robert used his private gmail address to communicate with Milo about projects for clients including tech giants Infosys and Unisys as well as smaller contracts with the Gold Coast City Council.
Robert has resigned from parliament and his replacement is to be chosen at a byelection on July 15, but Government Services Minister Bill Shorten challenged the former MP to come to Canberra to explain his conduct.
“He’s enjoyed the privilege of being in parliament for 15 years and now he should answer questions for his electors and his colleagues,” Shorten said.
Skinner told the Senate estimates hearing that a review into the contracts linked to Synergy 360, estimated to be worth $374 million at Services Australia and the National Disability Insurance Agency, had not been able to consider the conduct of ministers.
“Services Australia will cooperate with any NACC investigation on any matter whatsoever,” Skinner said.
This masthead revealed on March 27 that a senior federal official, Damian West, oversaw a decision to award government contracts to Synergy 360 even though the consulting company was partly owned by one of his long-standing friends.
Skinner said the authority of the agency and government department chiefs was only to look into the conduct of public servants, but she noted that a separate parliamentary inquiry had recently uncovered additional material.
The material released by the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit, chaired by Labor MP Julian Hill, included emails between Milo and Robert regarding federal projects.
“I’ve got no authority or powers to look into anything other than the behaviour of and conduct of public servants,” Skinner said.
“We do have two continuing reviews into two of the matters that relate to a named individual who was named in the hearing [by the JCPAA] and into the range and collection of procurements around Infosys.”
Skinner confirmed that one of these internal investigations related to West, a former official at Services Australia.
“There are some materials that have been publicly posted that indicate some relationship between Mr West and one of the members of Synergy 360, but those are matters of fact and we need to look into whether those give rise to any problem,” she said.
On a separate matter relating to Robert, a parliamentary committee issued its findings on Wednesday after reviewing whether the former MP declared his friendship with Milo when he encouraged the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity to hear from Unisys executives at a private hearing in 2017.
“Based on the committee’s minutes, the committee has not identified evidence that Mr Robert declared a conflict of interest in relation to the Unisys briefing, either at the meeting on 17 October 2017, on 30 November 2017, or at another time,” the report said.
However, the committee added it was mindful that Robert had rejected any imputation or allegation of improper conduct.
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