Robert should face anti-graft body over scrapped $191m software deal

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The Morrison government’s growing record of wasting public money and dubious preferment is bolstered by revelations that controversial former cabinet minister Stuart Robert held multiple meetings with a tech company as it sought lucrative contracts, including a deal to build a government payment system.

The software was scrapped without ever being fully used, but still cost taxpayers $191 million.

Stuart Robert has denied helping or advising Synergy 360 in its work with any companies that were trying to obtain government workCredit: Rhett Wyman

In a document released on Tuesday by a federal parliamentary inquiry examining close ties between Robert and his consultant friend David Milo, whose firm Synergy 360 asked companies for “success fees” to line up contracts in Canberra, tech giant Infosys revealed it held 11 meetings with Robert before and after contract negotiations.

The statement from Infosys to parliament’s joint committee of public accounts and audit does not record the presence of any probity officer or federal official at the meetings.

The project at Services Australia was designed to calculate payments for pensions and other income support. Infosys won the contract in 2019, but the program collapsed due to software problems. The firm received $108 million and told the parliamentary inquiry it paid Milo’s consulting firm $16 million over five years.

These latest revelations can be added to a mounting pile of scandalous waste and suspect behaviour around the awarding of some former Coalition government contracts.

The relentless slashing of Australia’s public service over the past decade was sold as an efficiency dividend for taxpayers, but instead delivered a multibillion-dollar bonanza for consulting firms such as PwC.

Last month, an investigative series by The Age and 60 Minutes found that Australia’s Home Affairs Department had overseen the payment of millions of taxpayer dollars to Pacific Island politicians through a chain of suspect contracts as it sought to maintain controversial offshore asylum seeker processing centres.

Such prodigal policies sit uncomfortably beside the mean-spirited zealotry with which the former government pursued its unlawful robo-debt scheme, resulting in suicides and economic hardship for many as big data met big government at its most heartless and impersonal.

Most of the ministers involved in the robo-debt scandal – Malcolm Turnbull, Alan Tudge, Christian Porter and Robert himself – have since resigned. In Robert’s case, he re-contested and won his Gold Coast seat of Fadden at the 2022 election only to retire last May for “family reasons” on the eve of the robo-debt royal commission report.

Last November, The Age published extracts from an extraordinary trove of leaked emails indicating that in 2017 and 2018 Robert had provided advice to a lobbying and consulting firm that worked to win lucrative government contracts for large companies and to obtain access for them to senior Coalition politicians, including Peter Dutton.

One email from the firm to a potential client baldly requested an upfront payment such as $100,000 “before any meeting with ministers” could be arranged. That firm was Synergy 360, run by Milo and another long-time friend and former business partner of Robert’s, Queensland businessman John Margerison.

At the time, Robert denied helping or advising Synergy 360 in its work with any companies that were trying to obtain government work and said ministers did not decide contracts, because their departments applied probity rules that took them out of the decision.

In the months since, Robert has slipped the chains of political office, but the parliamentary inquiry keeps refining its understanding of whether he acted to help his friends’ company stitch up government contracts for its high-paying clients. While the inquiry has not made any findings against Robert, mounting evidence suggests his involvement with Synergy 360 demands its own formal investigation.

Indeed, given his intransigence, the newly constituted National Anti-Corruption Commission should be used to demand that Robert explain his case.

Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.

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