Former minister Stuart Robert put “pressure” on public servants on Thursday morning over his involvement in an emerging lobbying scandal, Government Services minister Bill Shorten has alleged.
The allegation, made during question time later in the day, came as Mr Shorten revealed a review of the technology contracts linked to the alleged scandal will be conducted independently and has been widened to more companies.
Mr Shorten has ordered an examination of contracts in areas of responsibility of Mr Roberts that were awarded to clients of consulting and lobbying firm Synergy 360. This includes Delv, Adobe, Infosys and Salesforce, but potentially more, including Synergy 360 itself, which won Services Australia “labour hire” work during Mr Roberts time as minister.
Synergy 360 is part-owned by Mr Robert’s close friend, former business partner and political fundraiser John Margerison.
According to reports in the Nine newspapers based on leaked emails, the company claimed Mr Robert discussed potentially lucrative government projects in their meetings and met with the company’s clients, who were bidding for government tenders.
Mr Robert has rejected any suggestion of impropriety or any involvement in procurements during his time as either a backbencher or a minister.
During question time, Mr Shorten laid out the timeline of one set of contracts awarded Infosys to upgrade government welfare payments software – known as the entitlements calculation engine (ECE) project — alongside Mr Robert’s reported meetings with its representatives and Synergy 360.
He also noted Mr Robert spoke at the Indian multinational’s Australian conference in early 2020.
At the conference Mr Robert spoke of the “agile way” the company was delivering a proof of design under the $18 million contract it was awarded a few months earlier.
In July 2020, Infosys was awarded a $142 million contract to deliver the payments software and would go on to win two more contracts for the work worth another $130 million.
Mr Shorten said other vendors had to be called in to “resuscitate” the project after the “wheels fell off” under Infosys.
“In light of these facts and other materials from the Synergy 360 papers,” Mr Shorten told Parliament, “I’ve asked agencies a range of questions including
- Did the former minister ever alert the department he was meeting synergy 360 and/or Infosys up to and after its successful bid?
- Were unsuccessful rival ECE bidders IBM and Accenture ever notified of the Member for Fadden’s [Mr Robert’s] meetings with an Infosys consultant?
- What, if any, were communication between the Minister or other persons in his personal office and Services Australian and Department about the progress of the ECE contract pre and post Infosys being awarded the contract?
- Were the status reports of the ECE project provided at least monthly to minister Robert and any of his personal staff?
- What, if any, contracts were awarded to synergy 360 clients in areas of responsibility of Minister Robert, including but not limited to Delv, Adobe, Infosys and Salesforce?”
Services Australia declined to comment on how many contracts or their total value are expected to be included in the review, which has now been taken outside the agency.
Mr Shorten went on to accuse Mr Robert of creating an “unfortunate incident” earlier in the day when he contacted the Services Australia chief executive directly.
“Please come through my office if you have any requests of the relevant agencies,” Mr Shorten told Mr Robert and the House.
“Do not do what you did this morning and inappropriately task and pressure public servants who are no longer your ministerial responsibility.”
Mr Robert said he had written to Services Australia chief executive Rebecca Skinner, who has led the agency since March 2020, seeking “she provide probity confirmation to me so I can provide it to the House as is appropriate”.
“That was of my initiative this morning,”
Mr Robert again rejected the accusations, saying he had “zero involvement in this procurement or any other procurements” and is looking forward to any process that ensures transparency and accountability.
Mr Shorten last week ordered Services Australia and the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) to review contracts that may be linked to Synergy 360. But the “lobbying scandal” now warrants an independent review, Mr Shorten said.
An “eminent Australian” will be appointed to lead the review working across Services Australia and the NDIA, Mr Shorten said.
“This arrangement will ensure there is no real or perceived conflict of interest that might exist were agencies to investigate themselves. It’ll provide important independence as we seek to get to the bottom of the matter whether there was any misconduct,” he said.
“Australian taxpayers and voters have the right to know whether there’s been any impropriety. Equally, to be assured that government contracting processes are independent and merit based and not swayed by special interests or lobbyists.”
Terms of reference for the review are expected within weeks.
Earlier in the day, Mr Shorten told ABC radio the issue was the type that could “absolutely” be examined by the upcoming National Anti-Corruption Commission, if wrongdoing is uncovered.
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