Therese Rein

Kevin Rudd is back in the Lodge. And his wife is getting on with business.

Therese Rein’s significant wealth comes from her multinational business Ingeus, which she founded with her late business partner Frances Jane Edwards in 1989 (it was then known as WorkDirections Australia). The company’s main business was helping those with injuries or disabilities enter or re-enter the workforce — a business built on Rein’s earlier career as a psychologist counselling injured workers.

It was a good time to kick off — governments were outsourcing programs to private providers. Rein won her first government contract from the Hawke government, and went on to execute major contracts for the Howard government’s Job Network agency.

And then it grew and grew. Today, it’s a diversified global human resources powerhouse offering corporate consulting, recruitment and labour hire, on top of helping the unemployed secure work. It has operated in the United Kingdom since 2002, France since 2005, Germany since 2006, Sweden since 2009, Poland since 2010 and South Korea and Saudi Arabia since 2011. Rein remains the CEO.

For her, it’s a passion business. Her official corporate bio mentions her father, who was wheelchair-bound after being injured while serving in the Australian Air Force during World War II. His doctors expected he’d never work again. He defied the critics, trained as an aeronautical engineer and worked until he was 65. His daughter wrote in a 2003 business book Marketing without Money:

“I don’t like people being thrown on the scrap heap. Enabling people to reconnect with their communities, to reconnect with independence, to reconnect with their potential — I think that matters.”

But Rein’s business has been criticised, particularly from those who object to the outsourcing of government functions to “unaccountable” private-sector providers.

In the UK, where the business is 50% owned by accountancy Deloitte, Ingeus was one of the biggest tender winners of the government’s Work Program, receiving $1.4 billion in contracts from the program in 2011. The Cameron government’s Work Program has faced negative headlines, with rival company A4E exposed as having offered the unemployed it was meant to help find work unpaid work in its own offices. Last August, leaked emails showed Ingeus UK had missed some of the targets it was set to meet.

In 2007, Ingeus sold its Australian operations as Rein’s husband stood poised to win government. As she explained to The Courier-Mail: “It would not be sensible for my company to receive even one dollar of a federal government budget if Kevin was elected prime minister.”

It was by no means a blow to her fortune. In 2012, Rein debuted on the BRW Rich 200 (at number 199) with an estimated fortune of $210 million. Her business, of which she is no longer the sole owner but is the CEO, is far larger — BRW estimated its 2012 revenues at $254 million. Rein fell off the Rich List in 2013, but BRW estimates her personal wealth to have stayed the same at $210 million.

Ingeus has returned to the Australian scene; in October 2011, it bought Brisbane-based organisational development company Assure Programs. Rudd is again PM. So will Rein divest herself of the local operations?

“When she divested in 2007, he was opposition leader, and they didn’t want the distraction. It was about politics.”

Apparently not: Rein has said the Australian business has been pivoted away from Australian government contracts. It doesn’t appear to have received any since it was sold. Last year it emerged that Ingeus may also be prevented from bidding for government contracts by dint of it having signed non-compete agreements with the buyers of its Australian business.

SmartCompany contacted Rein’s office; Rein was in Indonesia with her husband on an official visit but a spokesperson declined to comment. According to its website, Ingeus Australia, through Assure Programs, now offers “organisational development services and employee assistance programs”. That is, services to corporate clients, instead of getting the unemployed back to work.

Rein is the first spouse of an Australian prime minister to keep working, and the first to be asked pointed questions about her business. Such questions are likely to become far more common, according to lobbyist and former Labor ministerial adviser Jody Fassina. Lucy Turnbull would likely face similar questions if her husband ever become prime minister.

“Say there is an attorney-general whose partner is a judge, given the attorney-general oversees funding for the courts, and also the government could well be a party to a legal action in the very same court, would that be construed as conflict of interest? My point being, where do you draw the line, where do you say what is appropriate and what isn’t?” he said.

“When she divested in 2007, he was opposition leader, and they didn’t want the distraction. It was about politics.”

There are few overseas precedents, says Clem Macintyre, head of the University of Adelaide’s school of history and politics, and an expert on parliamentary democracy. “I suppose there were some questions about Cherie Blair practising as a barrister while Tony was [British] PM — but as you can see I am scratching the bottom of the barrel here,” he said.

“There were a few eyebrows going up in days gone by about an MP’s wife appearing in an advertisement, and when Margaret Whitlam had a column in a magazine — but nothing much more than that.”

Last August, blogger Michael Wyres found opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull’s wife owned shares in Vodaphone, which, given her husband’s position, Wyres said went to conflict of interest. Turnbull’s office said the register was out of date and that she had since sold the shares. That followed another kerfuffle about Turnbull’s ownership of France Telecom shares — a company involved in rolling out fibre-to-the-premises internet, which Turnbull’s party opposes.

When it comes to assets, the formal onus on Australian politicians is for transparency rather than divestment. They must register their assets, as well as those of their spouses, in a record of public interests.

Fassina thinks Rein shouldn’t have to divest. “She’s come out and said her business won’t pitch for government contracts. I think it’s entirely reasonable for her to pitch her business where else she can,” he said.

*This article was originally published at SmartCompany

Peter Fray

Join us today for just $1 a week.

Get your first 12 weeks for $12. Cancel any time.

Our journalism is funded directly by our members — that’s how we maintain our fierce independence. We don’t rely on advertisers, clickbait or culture war obsessed columnists.

If you like what we do, join us today.

Peter Fray
Editor-In-Chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW