Stuart Robert is again being investigated by the corporate regulator but, as Assistant Treasurer, he is also responsible for the oversight of the corporate regulator. Asher Moses reports on the conflict of interest over the regulator and the Liberal Party’s controversial fund-raiser.
The Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), which is investigating Assistant Treasurer Stuart Robert’s business interests, is trying to distance itself from Robert, arguing he does not have oversight of ASIC despite Robert issuing numerous recent press releases concerning ASIC powers and enabling legislation.
Amid claims that ASIC may be compromised in its investigations due to Robert’s role in overseeing the corporate regulator, ASIC revealed last week it would be making fresh inquiries into whether Robert breached the Corporations Act by failing to give timely notification to the regulator that he had resigned as a director of Cryo Australia.
This follows a previous, separate, investigation into Robert’s other business interests by ASIC which had stalled due to the perceived ill health of Robert’s parents who would be required to testify.
George Rennie, lecturer in politics at the University of Melbourne and an expert in lobbying and integrity, said he did not believe ASIC’s investigation could be impartial due to Robert’s oversight role of the regulator.
“Robert is being investigated by a regulator for which he has ostensible ministerial responsibility,” said Rennie.
“Furthermore, concurrent to his being investigated by ASIC, he plays a major role in drafting some of its enabling legislation.”
Pressed numerous times about whether ASIC’s investigations of Robert were compromised, an ASIC spokesman reverted repeatedly to the same line: “He is not the Minister responsible for ASIC.”
The ASIC spokesman pointed to an announcement on September 3 by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg which said the Treasurer would have “primary oversight” of ASIC.
Asked whether that would pass the pub test given Robert as Assistant Treasurer clearly has a role to play in ASIC matters, and whether ASIC is distancing itself from Robert, the spokesman referred back to the line that Robert was not the minister responsible for ASIC.
“The idea – being presented by ASIC – that Robert is not involved with ASIC is strange,” said Rennie.
“Either he is helping draft said legislation without any input from ASIC, which would approach negligence given its complexity. Or, as is normal for an Assistant Treasurer, he and/or his office is still in contact with senior levels of ASIC. The latter scenario would have grave consequences for the impartial investigation of his affairs.”
On September 18 this year Robert issued a media release announcing new legislation to enhance the powers of ASIC and increase its flexibility regarding staffing.
On October 19 Robert announced new powers for ASIC allowing it to investigate whether a term in a standard form contract may be unfair.
On October 23 Robert revealed new regulations allowing ASIC to intervene if financial products are found to be detrimental to consumers.
This is consistent with previous Assistant Treasurers in this government such as Kelly O’Dwyer, who had made announcements concerning the ASIC chairperson position, ASIC member appointments and ASIC regulatory powers.
The current investigation is not the first time ASIC has looked into Robert’s business interests.
ASIC told a parliamentary committee in September last year it was investigating Robert after revelations Robert had only offloaded shares in his IT services business, GMT, in 2010, three years after being elected to Parliament.
The company won more than $37 million in government contracts between 2007 and December 2011 from more than 45 government agencies, Fairfax Media reported.
Robert transferred his business interests prior to the 2010 election into the names of his elderly parents. His father told Fairfax Media this was done without his knowledge. Robert International Ltd owned shares in GMT until the end of 2011, despite claims from Robert he had “ceased involvement” with GMT before the 2010 election.
ASIC made initial inquiries but did not proceed to a formal investigation, telling a parliamentary inquiry in October last year there was not “sufficient evidence” Robert made his parents directors without their knowledge due to questions over the “competence” of Robert’s parents’ recollections owing to “health issues”.
“The lodgements occurred in 2010, so there’s a statute issue in terms of limitations around that,” said ASIC’s senior executive leader for assessment and intelligence, Warren Day. “Stuart Robert removed himself from a whole range of directorships at those times. Another person was appointed.”
Earlier this month, The West Australian reported that Robert was only removed as a director of alternative health business Cryo Australia following queries from the newspaper, after Robert had told parliament he had already sold his shares. This is what led ASIC to announce it would be making new inquiries, at the insistence of Labor.
Before the newest ASIC investigations into Robert’s involvement with Cryo Australia were revealed, ASIC’s spokesman indicated there was no conflict because the inquiries were conducted and outcome publicly known prior to Robert’s elevation to Assistant Treasurer. Now, after the new investigation was revealed, that line has changed to suggesting he actually does not have oversight of ASIC.
Robert, a powerful Liberal figure who raises a large chunk of the party’s funds, has managed to skate through a series of scandals unscathed including his expenses, suspicious donations, business interests and ambiguous evidence to a Queensland corruption inquiry.
“The allegations involving Stuart Robert and his business dealings are worrying and we welcome ASIC’s confirmation that they will make a new series of inquiries into Mr Robert’s actions,” said Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh.
“The Australian public need to be reassured that their faith in Mr Robert – who previously resigned from the front bench after breaching ministerial standards – is not misplaced.”
Robert, the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison and the Special Minister of State, Alex Hawke, did not respond to requests for comment.
Asher Moses is a former SMH/The Age technology editor. He twice won the Walkley Young Australian Online Journalist of the Year award in 2008 and 2011 and was a finalist for Best Digital Journalism in the 2012 Walkley Awards.
After over a decade in journalism he joined a consumer telecommunications lobby group before spending 4 years as a top executive in the PR industry. Asher is back writing again on his own website, bedofmoses.com. He graduated with distinction from a Bachelor of Commerce (Accounting/Finance) at UNSW.
You can follow Asher on Twitter @ashermoses.
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