Human Services Minister Stuart Robert has been forced to resign from the frontbench after an investigation found he had “acted inconsistently” with ministerial standards.
In August 2014 Robert travelled to China, where he attended a signing ceremony involving Nimrod Resources – the company of Paul Marks, his friend and large-scale donor to the Liberal Party. Robert had obtained leave for the private trip.
It emerged during the investigation that Robert had an indirect financial interest in Nimrod Resources, although he says he did not know it at the time.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had the secretary of his department, Martin Parkinson, examine whether Robert had breached ministerial standards after details of the trip became public.
In a statement on Friday, Turnbull said Robert told Parkinson that when he made the visit he did not believe he had any interest in or connection to Nimrod Resources.
“In the course of assisting the investigation, Mr Robert advised Dr Parkinson that on checking his records he had become aware that shares in Metallum Holdings Pty Ltd, a company in which Mr Marks was also a shareholder, had been allocated to his trustee some time before the visit to Beijing.”
“He told Dr Parkinson that this had been done without his knowledge. He further advised Dr Parkinson that he believed Metallum Holdings Pty Ltd had an interest in Nimrod Resources.”
Parkinson concluded Robert acted inconsistently with the code, although he accepted he may not have intended to do so. Parkinson also noted that Robert appeared not to have received any financial benefit and that his conduct did not directly relate to his ministerial duties.
The findings went to cabinet’s governance sub-committee on Thursday.
Turnbull said Robert recognised the connection with Nimrod would create the impression that when he went to Beijing he had something personally to gain from the Nimrod project. As a result, Robert had asked not to be considered in the imminent ministerial reshuffle.
Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen said Turnbull had “dithered all week” over Robert. Bowen said Treasurer Scott Morrison – who is close to Robert – had overnight gone in to bat for Robert “for internal factional reasons”.
Bowen said Morrison had tried “to save the career of a minister who had clearly, in an open-and-shut manner, breached the ministerial code of conduct. This goes to the heart of the dysfunction at the Turnbull government – the prime minister and the treasurer, in open warfare with each other about key ministerial appointments.”
But government sources hosed down the suggestion Morrison had waged a rearguard action for Robert.
Early in the week Morrison dismissed the story, saying “it is a massive overreach and it’s a shocking beat-up”.
Early on Friday, incoming deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce defended Robert. Joyce said: “I haven’t yet seen what is it that he has done wrong. What is his crime?”
Later, Joyce said Turnbull had dealt with the matter. “Once all the details become apparent you’ve got to say ‘sorry, goodnight Irene’.”
Resolving the Robert affair has cleared the way for the reshuffle. Turnbull is anxious to get the changes bedded down as quickly as possible. An announcement could be made as early as Saturday.