NDIS Minister Stuart Robert. (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Embattled Human Services and Veterans’ Affairs Minister Stuart Robert is set to step down after a government investigation concluded he had breached the ministerial code of conduct in the course of a “private” visit to China.

Robert accompanied close friend and Liberal donor Paul Marks to China in 2014 in an ostensibly private capacity, where he attended a signing ceremony for one of Marks’ companies and met with a Chinese minister. Robert is an investor in Marks’ companies.

After an investigation by the new head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson, Robert is to be cut adrift by the government, which endured a week of questions about his behaviour, leaks of former meetings between Robert and Chinese tycoons and tales of returned Rolex watches. The tensions between Tony Abbott loyalists and Malcolm Turnbull forces played into the widening affair, with suspected leaks from both sides about Robert and the circumstances in which his travel was approved. The affair was enough to rob the government of any momentum in its first sitting fortnight of the year, while feeding impressions of instability created by an apparently revolving door to the ministerial wing. And a succession of ministers, from the Foreign Minister and the Treasurer to the new Deputy Prime Minister, have all defended Robert.

On Friday morning government sources extensively briefed media outlets that Robert was for the chop, reportedly after a late Thursday night discussion by senior ministers over whether to let him go. But the departure of Robert, along with the rapid elevation of Barnaby Joyce to the deputy prime ministership in the wake of Warren Truss’ long-awaited resignation, gives Malcolm Turnbull the chance to finally undertake a reshuffle that has been pending since Jamie Briggs stepped down from the ministry and Mal Brough stepped aside over the summer break. Joyce is currently Agriculture Minister, but he might take a more prominent position, such as Truss’ former portfolio of Infrastructure.

The timing of the reshuffle announcement is unclear, with the traditional reshuffle timing of Sunday afternoon a possibility.

Update: Just after 2pm, the Prime Minister confirmed that Stuart Robert was stepping down, releasing this media statement:

Following media reports of a visit to Beijing by the Hon Stuart Robert MP, in accordance with the Code of Ministerial Standards, I asked the Secretary of my Department, Dr Martin Parkinson PSM, to investigate the matter and advise accordingly.

Mr Robert advised Dr Parkinson that at the time he travelled to Beijing in August 2014 he did not believe that he had any interest in or connection to Mr Paul Marks’ company, Nimrod Resources.

In the course of assisting the investigation, Mr Roberts [sic] 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.

Mr Robert recognised that this connection would create the impression that at the time he went to Beijing he had something personally to gain from the Nimrod Resources project.

As a result, Mr Robert has asked me not to consider him in the pending reshuffle of the ministry. I thank him for his service as a minister and for his candid co-operation with Dr Parkinson in his inquiry.

Dr Parkinson has given his advice to the governance sub-committee of the Cabinet.

Dr Parkinson concluded that Mr Robert had acted inconsistently with the Statement of Ministerial Standards, although he accepts that Mr Robert may not have intended to do so. He also notes that Mr Robert appears not to have received any financial benefit and that the conduct in question did not directly relate to Mr Robert’s Ministerial duties.

Peter Fray

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