This article is the second part of a series. For the complete series, go here.
Stuart Robert is the luckiest person in Parliament. Three years ago his political career was in the toilet. Expelled from Malcolm Turnbull’s ministry after a conflict of interest scandal, he languished on the bench with no salvation in sight.
Then came Scott Morrison and everything changed. “Brother Stuie”, as Morrison knows him fondly, has returned – to the ministry, to the government and to the top of the government; apparently untouchable as the prime minister’s right-hand man and political best friend.
Morrison, in short, made things right for Robert. In doing so, he clearly stated that, as far as he is concerned, Robert’s violation of ministerial standards does not matter. It’s a clear sign that Robert could do the same again with impunity.
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Robert solved the conflict of interest problems that have plagued his parliamentary career. Like? Simply by stopping to make a public statement of any of his financial interests, even if he is one of the wealthiest members of Parliament and has close relationships with big-capital developers and mining executives.
Robert’s MP interest register – which is critical to the integrity of the government – is now little more than a blank page.
The register exists to provide information to the public about politicians’ personal and family sources of income. Robert has not provided any answers on additional sources of income other than to refer to distribution from a “blind trust,” which he insists to be in line with the Prime Minister’s statement of ministerial standards. This places Morrison at the center of ensuring that Robert is doing the right thing.
In Wohthe new investigation Blind Trust: the Prime Minister and Brother Stuie, we reveal that in the months before Robert was returned to the ministry in late 2018, he had formed a close business relationship with a Gold Coast entrepreneur who has investments across Australia in the disability sector. The two were co-directors of a company that owned some of Robert’s investments.
After the 2019 federal election, Robert was promoted by Morrison and in charge of the disability sector as minister of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. However, with Robert’s affairs hidden in blind trust and beyond public scrutiny, it is impossible to know if there are actual or suspected conflicts of interest.
The problem is that Robert has a history of questionable relationships when it comes to public office. He used Parliament to spruik party donors, then denied any connection. He used taxpayers’ money for private purposes, then was forced to pay it back when it was discovered, all the while denying that he had done anything wrong.
He went into mourning under Malcolm Turnbull in part because he had shares in the same company as a wealthy donor and liberal friend – a stake that only became public knowledge after Robert struck a deal with his friend in China.
As our investigation shows, Robert refuses to disclose the identity of the trustee of his blind trust, despite such disclosure being a key element of public accountability. What if the person managing Robert’s financial affairs was an old friend? Or a family member? At this stage that is between Morrison and Robert. The public has no idea.
To make matters worse, Morrison’s ministerial standards are vague as to what level of detail should be disclosed publicly about blind trusts. Other parliaments in Australia insist, at the very least, that the trustee’s name be made public.
Former Attorney General Christian Porter’s refusal to provide details about the trust structure he used to fund his lawsuits against ABC marked a low level of government accountability. In his case, the facility was not technically a blind trust, although it had a similar effect in keeping financial information secret (also, presumably, from Porter himself).
But Robert’s use of blind trust and refusal to give public details indicate a wider and potentially more serious lack of transparency.
Woh it is not charging any errors. The point is that where a Crown Minister has blind faith the public should be entitled to transparency, so there can be no hint of a conflict of interest.
In this multi-part investigation, Woh He examines the relationship between Morrison and Robert and delves into Robert’s history of undeclared conflicts of interest.
We also examine Morrison’s secrecy and extensive network of connections when it comes to incentives from the NDIS and the federal government to build specialized housing for the disabled, which for some was a gold rush opportunity.
Next: Unimpressive as a minister, magnificent as a rainmaker.