By Nick McKenzie and David Crowe
Senior federal Coalition MP Stuart Robert has been secretly providing advice to a Canberra lobbying and consulting firm that helps large companies win lucrative government contracts and obtain access to senior Coalition politicians, including Peter Dutton.
A cache of leaked emails reveals how Robert used his status as a federal MP in 2017 and 2018 to help the firm, Synergy 360, sign up corporate clients with the promise of helping them navigate the federal public service and political system and meet key decision-makers, including senior Coalition ministers. Synergy 360 is paid a retainer by companies to lobby officials and is paid a commission if a contract is successfully secured.
Shadow Assistant Treasurer Stuart Robert during question time in federal parliament on Wednesday. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
The emails also show Robert introduced Synergy 360 to overseas officials and businessmen whom he met in his official capacity as an MP. Robert also vouched for Synergy’s managing director and majority shareholder, David Milo, to help Milo secure clients.
The Age and Sydney Morning Herald is not suggesting Robert was an employee of Synergy 360 or was paid for his advice and assistance.
While Milo, a former British military official turned consultant, is Synergy 360’s majority shareholder, one-third of the firm is owned by a company controlled by Queensland businessman John Margerison.
Margerison is a close friend and ex-business partner of Robert and was running the politician’s political fundraising vehicle at the same time Robert was helping Synergy 360 win work. Robert was a director in a separate business founded by Margerison — JM National Property — for almost six months in 2018. Robert stood down as a director prior to being appointed assistant treasurer in August 2018 by then-prime minister Scott Morrison.
Among the clients of Synergy 360 is Indian multinational Infosys, which won Centrelink contracts in late 2019 and 2020 worth more than $100 million. Robert was the minister for government services overseeing Centrelink between May 2019 and 2021. There is no suggestion that Robert had any involvement in awarding the contract to Infosys.
When Milo was contacted by The Age and Herald, he denied that Robert had provided his business with advice, saying only: “Stuart is a friend of mine and we are both ex-paratroopers.” Margerison did not respond to a request for comment.
Robert’s contact with Synergy 360 covered a period of time when he was on the backbench.
A close friend of Morrison, Robert was assistant minister for defence from September 2013 to September 2015 and was promoted after the leadership spill that elevated Malcolm Turnbull to the prime minister’s office and installed Morrison as treasurer.
Robert was minister for human services and minister for veterans’ affairs from September 2015, but was removed in February 2016 after revelations he took a “private” trip to Beijing while he was a minister. He was restored to the ministry after Morrison became prime minister in August 2018 until this year’s election.
This meant Robert was subject to a ministerial code of conduct during most of this period, but not while he was a backbencher from February 2016 to August 2018, a period when he continued to stay in touch with friends at Synergy 360.
The code of conduct applied by Morrison as prime minister said ministers should ensure that dealings with lobbyists “do not give rise to a conflict between public duty and private interest”. There is no similar code for backbenchers.
Robert denied helping or advising Margerison and Synergy 360 in its work with any companies that were trying to get government contracts.
“I don’t know but I can’t recall a single contract he lined up in Canberra,” Robert said of Margerison.
Robert argued that ministers did not decide contracts because their departments applied probity rules that took them out of the decision.
“I’m not part of this. I don’t have any ownership of this. I don’t have any involvement in this,” he said.
Asked if he helped Synergy 360 and its clients get contracts from the federal government, Robert said: "Of course not. What a load of rubbish."
Robert acknowledged he had a business relationship with John Margerison in the past but said he no longer had a stake in JM National Property. He said his blind trust had been disclosed to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet while he was a cabinet minister and the department had been briefed annually on what the blind trust owned.
David Milo, CEO of Synergy 360.
The leaked emails reveal Robert’s close contact with the people at Synergy 360 and offer a rare, unvarnished insight into the way companies can seek out personal contacts in parliament in the effort to win lucrative business with the federal government.
Meetings with Unisys
The leaked files reveal dealings with American tech giant Unisys, including a meeting in November 2017 that Synergy 360 hosted at Margerison’s Gold Coast home with Robert, Milo and the company’s representatives.
The documents show that Unisys paid Synergy 360 a retainer for tasks such as meeting senior Coalition ministers and helping to organise a trip to Taiwan to meet officials and businessmen.
Synergy 360 part-owner John Margerison.
Emails from late 2017 detail how Synergy 360 billed Unisys for “meetings arranged for Unisys Global CEO Peter Altabeff in Canberra – Meetings confirmed with Hon Minister Dutton on 29 November 2017 & closed door Committee Briefing 30 November 2017”.
A Unisys vice president also emailed Milo at his Synergy 360 address the “agenda” for the company’s meetings in Canberra. This document discloses that Milo had helped to arrange a “meet with Stuart Robert” to “thank him for his support and align on Dutton meeting”.
Milo and Unisys also arranged to “lunch with Minister Stuart Robert, Parliament House Dining Room”. Robert was not a minister at this time.
Other emails reveal that Milo had assisted Unisys be “invited to brief on National Security Committee”; arranged an “opportunity to brief/present… to Senator McKenzie”; and “provided contacts” of the “Treasurer’s Chief of Staff & Mathias Cormann’s Office”.
Milo forwarded another email to Robert’s private Gmail account that described how Unisys was seeking a meeting with then-defence industry minister Christopher Pyne.
In an October 2017 email, Milo wrote to Robert via the politician’s Gmail address, and cc’ed to Margerison. The email from Milo asked that “Stuart” provide “advice on how best they [Unisys] can position themselves”.
In response, Robert emailed Milo and Margerison: “I don’t see anywhere here the senior engagement strategy where the CEO or you has gone and seen the DG DSD or the relevant Minister to ask them what they want.
“An audit report is neither here or there, it’s Government strategy that matters. Has Uniysis gone to the Department to seek clarity or further more offer advice on the best way to manage this transition?”
He signed the email: “Hon Stuart Robert MP.”
A month later, Synergy 360 again emailed Robert via his Gmail account, sending him a Unisys “submission” that was prepared to help win government work.
The email stated: “Dear Minister. David Milo has kindly requested your availability and travel plans to Canberra or Melbourne over the next two weeks to conduct a de-brief on the attached Unisys led… submission.”
In June 2018, Unisys was again seeking Synergy 360’s help to win government work. Milo in turn sought Robert’s assistance yet again. On June 15, 2018, Unisys senior executive Tony Windever wrote to Milo and said it was “puzzling and disappointing” that departmental secretary Michael Pezzullo did not want to meet to discuss Unisys supplying his department with “an advanced threat identification and targeting capability”.
Milo forwarded this email onto Robert and asked the politician for “guidance from you on how to progress. Tony [Windever] is here on Thursday so I could bring him to your office for a face to face”.
Robert responded: “Hmmmmmmm Who else have you briefed in the Department.”
In a subsequent email, the Synergy 360 boss wrote to Robert: “It reads like Pezzullo doesn’t care what Minister Dutton’s direction was,” to which Robert replied: “That is probably true.”
Milo also asked Robert: “Is there any value in getting Tony [Windever] to come up to Parliament House on Thursday to get any advice directly?”
Robert responded: “There would be if I had anything helpful to say, but on this occasion I can only advise you all to work with whatever level in the Department you can.”
In May 2017, Robert travelled to Taiwan as part of a political delegation led by veteran MP Kevin Andrews. During the trip, the six-man delegation met with Taiwan’s largest privately owned company, Formosa Plastics. A few weeks later, Synergy 360 met Formosa’s representatives in Australia and offered to help it obtain business.
Robert also wrote directly to Synergy 360 client Unisys to arrange a meeting between Unisys and Formosa in Taiwan.
In a leaked email from Robert to Unisys senior executive Tony Windever, the federal politician said that the “chairman Henry Cheng from FPG [Formosa Plastics Group] is very happy to meet you during your stay in Taipai. He will ensure he is there for your visit. He has asked for your personal details to be passed on to him. Are you happy for me to send him your mobile and email address?”
In June 2017, Robert, whose electorate is on the Gold Coast, was again interacting with Synergy 360 and its clients. The politician wrote to two executives at Formosa and informed them that he had “spoken to the Gold Coast City Council (2nd largest Council in Australia) and they are particularly excited about potentially working with you on the nation’s first city wide lighting replacement program”.
“Likewise the cities Minister, Angus Taylor MP, when you met with him, is also excited about the opportunity.”
Robert then suggested to Formosa they use Synergy 360 to win contracts.
In his email, Robert gave a glowing reference for Milo: “His and his team’s capacity to manage these engagements and deliver for you is first rate.
“I know him well and he is first class and his teams are first class (I have used them before for some very complex work).”
A week later, on June 25, 2017, Milo wrote to Formosa and told them that “I’d be delighted to meet or call you to discuss the various opportunities Stuart [Robert] has outlined in his mail”.
In November that year, Milo emailed Robert via his personal Gmail account about another company, the Texas-headquartered Oracle Corporation, which Synergy 360 was assisting with contract bids.
The email attached a letter sent in late 2017 by Oracle to Dutton in his capacity as minister for immigration and border protection. The letter was pitching for a contract to supply technology to run Australia’s “National Criminal Intelligence System”.
Milo also forwarded to Robert a February 2018 email from an Oracle senior executive requesting that Synergy 360 secure meetings with “Stu” — a reference to Robert.
“Meeting with Stu … would be extremely beneficial,” the email from Oracle to Milo stated, while also indicating that Robert, a former military officer, would “get on well” with a key Oracle executive because he, too, had an army background.
There is no suggestion Dutton knew that Robert was involved in Synergy 360’s efforts to help Oracle win government tenders.
Health contracts discussed
The leaked correspondence also details how Robert was seeking out health and defence industry contracts.
On May 11, 2017, Robert used his personal account to email Milo and Synergy 360 to detail how Robert had been “chatting to the Singaporean High Commissioner, Kwok, Fook Seng about the $2bn Singaporean investment into Shoalwater Bay and Townsville for Defence”.
In the email, Robert revealed the high commissioner had told him how the Singaporeans were relying on “local emergency services and medical support and the support they bring themselves” and that this left “an opportunity for an Australian firm like Aspen Medical to engage with them and find the opportunity to be their medical partner in Australia for all their exercises”.
“The High Commissioner thought the idea was great and I indicated you would call him directly to seek a meeting and discuss this with him. He warmly welcomed that,” Robert wrote, supplying the high commissioner’s mobile number.
He finished his email to Milo by writing: “He is expecting your call. Hon Stuart Robert MP.”
On May 31, 2017, Milo wrote to Glenn Keys of Aspen Medical to pitch the prospect of having the firm provide “medical support to SAF in Australia”.
The leaked emails also reveal that another government contract that Robert suggested could be won by a client of Synergy 360 involved Garrison Health Services. On May 15, 2017, Milo wrote to private insurer Navy Health and stated that the MP had suggested Synergy 360 be hired to help win a tender.
“Stuart Robert suggested I contact you to arrange a meeting to discuss the forthcoming Garrison Health Services tender,” the email from Milo states.
On June 15, 2018, Milo emailed Robert asking for advice on whether “we should consider joining” the Hume Forum, a fundraising vehicle for then-federal minister Angus Taylor. Robert wrote back: “Nope. It will be declared and it will hurt you.”
However, the emails show that Synergy 360’s co-owner and Robert’s friend and fundraiser, John Margerison, encouraged Milo to attend Robert’s fundraising events in Canberra.
In February 2018, Margerison emailed Milo “on behalf of The Forum and the Hon Stuart Robert MP” to “invite you to a private dinner at Parliament house to welcome in the new year”.
“We are delighted to have the Treasurer, Hon Scott Morrison and new Senator Major General Jim Molan RTD as special guest speakers.” In April 2018, Margerison emailed Milo again “on behalf of The Forum and the Hon Stuart Robert MP” to “invite you to the 2018 Federal Budget Function and Private Dinner at Parliament House in Canberra”.
Milo emailed his colleague requesting two places at the dinner.
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