How do you enter the corridors of power? Maybe go via the backbench

When a global tech company wanted to open doors in Parliament House, its advisers in Canberra knew exactly who to ask for help. The company, Unisys, was one of the clients paying a retainer to a firm with a direct connection to Stuart Robert, the Liberal MP whose career has been a tale of rapid rise, sudden falls and regular controversy over his business dealings.

Leaked emails show that Robert was offering advice and help to his friends at the Canberra firm Synergy 360, so it could try to put Unisys in a stronger position to bid for lucrative federal contracts.

Shadow Assistant Treasurer Stuart Robert during a division in the House of Representatives on Thursday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

In November 2017, for instance, Synergy 360 shareholders John Margerison and David Milo arranged a meeting at Margerison’s home on the Gold Coast with executives from Unisys to talk about future business. And they wanted Robert to be there.

The emails show Robert was happy to help. Synergy 360 billed Unisys for meetings arranged for its global chief executive, Peter Altabeff, during a visit to Canberra. One meeting was with Peter Dutton on November 29 that year, a crucial point in the overhaul that led to the creation of the Department of Home Affairs.

The emails also reveal a “closed-door committee briefing” on November 30. They show that Milo arranged a “meet with Stuart Robert” to thank him for his “support and align on Dutton meeting”. Around this time, Milo and Unisys also set up a “lunch with Minister Stuart Robert, Parliament House Dining Room”.

It is not hard to see what was happening. Robert, who in fact was not a minister but a backbencher at the time, was seen to be offering help others could not match. He had been a minister in portfolios such as defence, veteran’s affairs and human services before a sudden fall from grace in early 2016. He was one of the closest friends to Scott Morrison, the treasurer at the time of the Unisys meetings. He knew Dutton, a fellow Queensland Liberal. He knew the workings of the federal government.

Robert had inside information of real value to outsiders like Unisys and other companies that did not know the ways of Parliament House.

But there were no rules to govern how Robert worked with Margerison and Milo. Given he was a backbencher at the time of the Unisys meeting on the Gold Coast, he was not bound by the ministerial code of conduct. As a minister, he had been obliged to avoid conflicts of interest. As a backbencher, he had no part in executive government at all.

This gave him immense freedom to help Margerison and Milo. Robert knew Margerison so closely they once shared ownership of an investment company, JM National Pty Ltd, which had a portfolio of properties and investments. He knew Milo from their time in the Australian Defence Force. (Robert was an army officer from 1988 to 1999.)

Some Liberals regard Robert as a political liability. He lost his job as a minister in February 2016 after revelations he flew to Beijing, while a minister, to help a mining company in which he held an indirect stake. In one example of the concerns about his financial interests, online news site Crikey reported last November on Margerison’s ownership of disability services companies at the same time Robert was minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Robert says he no longer has a stake in JM National Property and denies helping Margerison and Synergy 360 or receiving any financial gain from the company’s work.

“I’m not part of this,” he told me on Wednesday. “I don’t have any ownership of this. I don’t have any involvement in this.”

Robert denies any breach of the ministerial code of conduct. Asked if he helped Synergy 360 and its clients get contracts in the federal government, he said: “Of course not. What a load of rubbish.” Asked if he was helping companies like Unisys, he said: “Of course not. Why would I care about them?”

The emails show Milo asking Robert for advice in late 2017 on how Unisys should “position themselves” on government work. They also show Robert meeting the company’s executives.

Did Unisys benefit? It is likely the meetings in Canberra helped in some way – after all, Dutton became minister for home affairs in December 2017. There is no suggestion Dutton did anything wrong. The point is that the company might have gained some insight into his thinking.

Unisys has many contracts in Canberra, especially in defence, but one is worth noting because it came soon after Synergy 360 was helping the company. In February 2018, the Department of Home Affairs signed a contract with Unisys to buy biometric identification services. The value of the contract changed over time but it was worth tens of millions of dollars.

There are systemic questions here. The disclosures are likely to add weight to calls for a code of conduct for backbenchers, something debated for years. They also highlight the chronic inadequacies of the code of conduct for lobbyists. Synergy 360 did not even register as a lobbyist when it was clearly attempting to influence ministers and departments.

The emails lift the lid on the contact between Robert and Synergy 360 and its clients. They offer the uncut version of what most Australians know is going on: meetings, lunches and advice on how to get closer to people in government who decide big contracts.

The emails provide a raw insight into the networking and dealmaking in Parliament House. This does not mean Robert was an employee of Synergy 360, was in a position of conflict of interest or was paid for his advice and assistance, but he still has questions to answer.

Was Robert in parliament to work for his constituents or work for his friends? How much of his time was spent dealing with Synergy 360 when it asked for help for its clients in Canberra? How much was this worth to Margerison and Milo?

And another question: Is this what voters expect from their MPs when they elect them to parliament?

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