Revealed: Stuart Robert’s new connection to business partner

Stuart Robert faces an investigation over allegations he helped a lobbying firm while a minister.

Stuart Robert faces an investigation over allegations he helped a lobbying firm while a minister. Photo: AAP

Former government services minister Stuart Robert was a major investor in a company that became reliant on payments from a department he oversaw as it staved off bankruptcy, The New Daily can reveal.

The MP is already facing investigation after a report quoting leaked emails showed he advised and opened doors for a former business partner and a firm lobbying to win government IT contracts while a backbencher.

But now documents reveal a more recent and starker apparent conflict between Mr Robert’s business interests and his responsibilities while serving as a minister.

The MP was defiant in Thursday’s question time and “egregiously” denied the “innuendo” conveyed by the Nine newspapers report, insisting he had no say over contracts while a minister.

As he became assistant treasurer in 2018 – after an earlier demotion and scandal about undisclosed interests – Mr Robert maintained a large shareholding in a company soon to lose $100 million from its peak valuation and become reliant on government cash infusions.

The MP and his wife held one million shares, then worth $600,000, in a Gold Coast startup, Smiles Inclusive, a listed company planning to operate dozens of dental surgeries in Queensland.

It took more than six months (long after he first said they had been ‘presold’) for Mr Robert’s shares to move into a trust he says was run independently.

That company, he had disclosed, was to be one set up by the same friend who had controversially sought advice on contracts: John Margerison. But that detail was deleted.

‘Benefit greatly’

Down to its last few hundred thousand dollars, the company would say only the start of JobKeeper subsidies worth $1.8 million would help it through the next financial year.

But the downturn made another government payment even more crucial.

In August, an executive told investors profitability could return as the company expected to benefit “greatly from a Medicare scheme called the Child Dental Benefits Schedule”.

That $1000 federal subsidy was dispensed by the government services department now overseen by Mr Robert.

Smiles Inclusive received $3 million in federal grants that year and $3 million more the next.

By October the trust holding Mr Robert’s shares was no longer a significant shareholder, while one controlled by Mr Margerison had joined the list.

It eventually folded amid ASIC action and one shareholder’s allegation that claims worth $100,000 had been filed for work that had not been done.

Mr Margerison is the former head of Mr Robert’s personal fundraising body: The Fadden Forum.

‘Close to the wind’

Mike Timoney, the company’s founder, said it was afforded no special treatment and Mr Robert had acted “impeccably” and only via his trustee.

“It was some company in Brisbane,” he said.

He did say Mr Robert had “sailed close to the wind” such as when expensing $38,000 for an inexplicably large monthly internet bill.

“I mean, yeah, he does seem to collect headlines that are not really very positive,” he said.

A spokesman for the MP denied there was an apparent conflict.

“Throughout the entire period Mr Robert was a minister, all shareholdings were either sold or moved to a blind trust that was independent of Mr Robert,” he said.

Then-PM Scott Morrison’s department had also expressly signed off on the arrangement, he added.

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by Mr Robert or his associate; the MP was not obliged to divest his holdings.

But the use of trusts to manage conflicts in the Morrison cabinet has been the subject of a debate about Parliament and the public interest since it led to the downfall of former attorney-general Christian Porter.

Full investigation

On Thursday, Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten promised an investigation into Mr Robert’s relationships with the Synergy 360 IT company which he said should have registered as a lobbyist.

Bill Shorten has promised a full investigation into the charges. Photo: AAP

“The Albanese government believes that the job of an MP is to work for your constituents – not your former business partners,” Mr Shorten told Parliament.

Other grants made under Mr Robert now seem likely to become the focus of the probe.

Another of Mr Margerison’s companies, Australian Property Reserve Pty Ltd, was paid $3.59 million by the services department for the three-year lease of a warehouse in Tuggerah NSW.

Synergy 360’s CEO, David Milo, was paid $28,000 by Services Australia shortly after Mr Robert became its new minister. A call to the company was not returned.

Mr Robert said ministers were not responsible for contracting decisions.

“All ministers know the process for procurement [and] understand how procurement is run by the public service,” he said.

A healthcare conglomerate of Mr Margerison’s was paid $5 million in annual fees for services provided to the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Mr Robert had also been the minister for the NDIS.

A code of conduct under then-prime minister Morrison said ministers should ensure dealings with lobbyists “do not give rise to a conflict between public duty and private interest”.

In 2016 Mr Robert was ousted from cabinet after travelling to Beijing to witness the sealing of a deal between a local and Australian mining company.

He was sacked when it emerged he had been holding a stake in the Australian miner. But Mr Robert said he did not know – the shares were held in a blind trust.

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