31 March 2023

Shorten calls for investigation following Watt Review into previous Govt Services Australia and NDIA contracts

| Andrew McLaughlin
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Government Services Minister Bill Shorten

Government Services Minister Bill Shorten has called for an investigation into contracts overseen by former minister Stuart Robert. Photo: Facebook.

Government Services Minister Bill Shorten has called for further investigation into the former government’s handling of contracts overseen by former LNP Minister Stuart Robert.

The call comes after former public servant Ian Watt conducted a government-commissioned review of 95 contracts awarded by the previous government. The review found that 19 contracts with a combined value of about $374 million – mainly relating to Services Australia and the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) – had failed to meet public service standards and good practice.

“The agencies of Service Australia and the NDIA commissioned Dr Ian Watt AC to review the procurement and contractual arrangements of 95 contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars under the last government,” Mr Shorten said.

“Dr Watt’s report reveals that in a range of these contracts, perceived conflicts of interest were simply not disclosed,” he added.

“More needs to be done to find out what was the basis of the allocation for $374 million worth of taxpayer money under the previous government. Why weren’t the basic standards met? It is completely unacceptable.

“The former minister Stuart Robert certainly has questions to answer because the bulk of these contracts and literally hundreds of millions of dollars involved in these contracts occurred on his watch,” he said. “He will need to explain, in my opinion, how come there were so many deficient procurement standards in these contracts.”

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In a statement responding to Mr Shorten’s claims, a spokesman for Mr Robert said the review had studied the agencies’ procurement processes, and not the ministerial involvement. “This is because there wasn’t any,” it said. “Mr Robert has not been contacted by Services Australia, the NDIA or any person conducting any review. Mr Robert has not received or been asked to provide input to any report prepared for either agency.”

Mr Watt’s task force had “assessed whether internal agency procurement and contracting processes related to matters raised in the media regarding Synergy 360 and associated entities were consistent with the Commonwealth Procurement Rules (CPRs) and good practice, where applicable”.

Stuart Robert

Stuart Robert responding to Mr Shorten’s claims in Parliament on 27 March. Photo: Screenshot.

The ABC reported that, of the 19 procurements that were flagged for further investigation due to inconsistencies with CPRs or good practice, seven lacked the appropriate documentation and/or records, and 12 had insufficient value for money justifications. It added that nine out of 14 Services Australia procurements had delays in reporting contracts and amendments on AusTender within 42 days of entering into or amending a contract.

“Many procurements lacked appropriate conflict of interest documentation in accessible records. Further, a small number of procurements had poorly managed actual, potential or perceived conflicts of interest,” the report stated.

“While the task force found some procurements had poorly managed conflicts of interest, or questionable judgements about the choice of procurement method and repeated use of limited or sole sourcing, the task force did not find clear misconduct within the 95 procurement processes.”

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In a 27 March doorstop, Mr Shorten said: “There is a legitimate and well-known assumption that where there is a conflict of interest or a possible conflict of interest in the allocation of the contract, it has to be declared. Dr Watt’s report reveals that in a range of these contracts, perceived conflicts of interest were simply not disclosed.

“More needs to be done to find out what was the basis of the allocation of $374 million worth of taxpayer money under the previous government.”

Mr Shorten’s statement follows similar comments from last December, when he said claims that Mr Robert had influenced the outcome of a Centrelink contract would be “thoroughly” investigated.

NINE newspapers reported in 2022 that a lobbying company called Synergy 360, the shareholders of which reportedly had close ties to Mr Robert, who was the then-NDIS Minister, had met with him about a contract that a client of the company subsequently won in 2019. Leaked files allegedly showed Mr Robert had repeatedly met with the client in the lead-up to the award.

NINE also reported that Mr Robert allegedly helped the same company win contracts in 2017 and 2018 while he was a backbencher, at a time when he was not subject to the ministerial code of conduct. Further allegations of Mr Robert’s links to Synergy 360 were raised in the NINE newspapers on 28 March, including alleged links to border security contracts.

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Shorten needs to stop fighting those who’ve already been deposed and lost credibility, getting on with fixing things instead. That means examining public service practices and holding senior public servants to account for any failures, so that there are clear guidelines for future actions on integrity.

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