Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Malcolm Turnbull’s mates
Potential conflicts of interest are everywhere


There is a dangerous side to having an incredibly rich businessman as our prime minister: he has relationships all over the top end of town. Sometimes, when it comes to handing out government positions and contracts, that can pose problems.

In his National Press Club address last week, immigration minister Peter Dutton said Australia was only “a couple of years” off allowing airline passengers to walk off a plane and out of the airport without having to show a passport.

The exciting prospect will come as a result of a multi-billion-dollar tender for the design and build of an online visa processing platform, the initial stages of which the immigration department has underway.

As it turns out, one of Malcolm Turnbull’s former employees, Scott Briggs, who also directed his campaign for the plum seat of Wentworth in 2003, is now reportedly assembling a consortium expressing interest in that multi-billion-dollar contract. According to The AFR’s “Street Talk” [$] last November, Briggs’s investment firm Pacific Blue has pulled together Oracle, PwC, Qantas, NAB and Packer-linked Ellerston Capital to bid for the contract. If it wins, the bid vehicle could be floated on the stock exchange, advised by Credit Suisse. Credit Suisse is the merchant bank whose local chairman, John O’Sullivan, is also an old friend of Turnbull’s, and was at one point last year mooted [$] to be in the running for the head of the corporate watchdog, ASIC.

Turnbull launched Briggs’s new venture capital business, Pacific Blue, in October 2016. There is no doubt that Briggs is extremely well-connected, both in business and in the NSW Liberals [$]: he is also on the board of treasurer Scott Morrison’s beloved Cronulla Sharks rugby league club, and has been chair of the Liberal Party’s federal electoral council in Morrison’s southern Sydney seat of Cook.

During estimates hearings last night, Queensland Labor Senator Murray Watt asked the secretary of the immigration and border protection department, Michael Pezzullo, about the potential conflict of interest, and what, if any, special probity procedures had been put in place to guard against it. Pezzullo would not confirm or deny who was bidding for the contract and answered: “The fact of the matter is, it’s my department that’s running this process. We are completely blind to any other interests that may or may not be at play, and frankly there’s no way that my officers are going to be informed by anything other than the application of the commonwealth procurement guidelines.” Watt persevered:

Watt: … the question is, what is your department doing to manage a potentially very serious conflict of interest involving a close confidante of the prime minister and the treasurer …
Chair: That’s already been answered three times …
Watt: No it hasn’t …
Fifield: There are innumerable assertions and assumptions there. We can have colleagues read out any number of newspaper articles that muse about any parts of recent history … they’re completely irrelevant.

Committee chair Ian Macdonald ruled further questions about the conflict out of order, including whether the prime minister or treasurer had declared a conflict of interest in the tender process.

In his brutal account of his time in the NSW Young Liberals, John Hyde Page told the story of Malcolm Turnbull’s preselection campaign in Wentworth, the biggest branch stack in Australian history, in which the PM knocked off the sitting member, Peter King. He described Briggs, then working for venture capital firm Turnbull Pillemer (set up with former Goldman Sachs colleague Russel Pillemer), as Turnbull’s “paid political minder” who directed the preselection coup. John Hyde Page marvelled at the way Turnbull had enough resources to retain a pair of QCs full-time looking for avenues to challenge King’s preselection legally:

“The Turnbull victory was a textbook example of the ugly way in which money and power can be used to crush a weaker opponent … Turnbull and Briggs could blast away with their legal howitzers and still have plenty of hours left in each day to lobby preselectors …”

It’s the kind of time-in-the-trenches stuff that forms very close bonds indeed.

since this morning

Buzzfeed’s Alice Workman reports that police are investigating whether more people were involved in the media being tipped-off about police raids of the Australian Workers’ Union’s offices last year.

Buzzfeed is also reporting that officials in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet revealed in estimates that the prime minister’s home in Point Piper had been connected to the NBN on the top 100Mbps high-speed plan using hybrid-fibre coaxial cable in December.

Leading rural advocates have told the ABC that they are shocked and disappointed at the handling of a Western Australian woman’s confidential complaint against former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, which was leaked to the media. They say it may potentially discourage other women from speaking out.

in case you missed it

Australian Border Force boss Roman Quaedvlieg has collected about $500,000 in wages on paid leave, while allegations he had a relationship with a junior staffer are investigated, Senate estimates has heard.

The Australian reports [$] that in a secret recording of Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s speech at the Oaky North coalmine last October, Shorten tells striking CFMEU workers that he would rewrite labour laws if he won office.

by Scott Ludlam
How politics works in Australia, and how to fix it
An insider’s guide to government

by Claire Konkes
Bender’s choice
Tasmanian salmon, from farm to court

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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