Ian Robertson NSW Labor donations scandal ICAC
Ian Robertson leaves the NSW ICAC (IMAGE: AAP/Joel Carrett)

“There’s been a massive fuck up,” NSW Labor’s now suspended general secretary Kaila Murnain allegedly told party lawyer Ian Robertson after she had found out about the party receiving illegal donations from a Chinese billionaire.

According to Murnain’s testimony to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), Robertson told her to forget all about it.

“Ian said to me ‘there is no need to do anything from here, don’t record this meeting, don’t put it in the diary… and don’t tell anyone about it’.” Robertson is yet to address this claim.

Just a few short months ago Robertson, listed as a leading technology, media and telecommunications lawyer, was being considered for appointment as chair of ABC. Sitting prominently on a number of film and television boards, and national managing partner for a prestigious law firm, he had been appointed as an officer in the General Division of the Order of Australia.

A glance at Robertson’s CV reveals he is one of the most influential people you’ve never heard of. While he’s yet to give evidence in the ICAC investigation, here’s what we do know about him.

Elite education

Robertson attended Camberwell Grammar School, an illustrious private school in Melbourne’s leafy eastern suburbs. The school’s alumni features famous football players, Anglican bishops, governors and judges.

He attended the University of Melbourne, graduating in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in business communications, law and commerce and was snatched up by law firm Holding Redlich as a lawyer in 1989. Just a year into his employment he was promoted to partner, moving swiftly up the ranks to managing partner in 1994, and national managing partner in 2015.

Friends in high places

Robertson can count among his clients former prime minister Julia Gillard — in 2013 he negotiated the terms of her memoirs and got her a $400,000 advance. In 2008 he was appointed deputy chair for Screen Australia and he was reputedly “a central figure” in the introduction of the producer offset tax rebate scheme.

Donor disclosures published by the Australian Electoral Commission reveal that Holding Redlich donated $92,700 in 2015-16 — the year Robertson became national managing partner. While this was mainly in the direction of state and federal Labor branches, AFR points out that the firm’s “donations go back a number of years, criss-crossing the political divide”.

Proximity to power (and occasionally scandal)

Robertson hasn’t held back in saying he thinks the Australian Broadcasting Authority should have more power. He was on the board from 1997 to 2004.

“I think the ABA should be able to use what are effectively civil penalties. I think the ABA should be able to receive legally binding undertakings,” he said in an interview, pushing for the power to obtain injunctions and suspend announcers from broadcasting.

The comments came after Robertson was on the panel overseeing hearings following the “cash for comment” scandal, where broadcasters including Alan Jones endorsed products without disclosing commercial partnerships. Robertson later called the broadcaster’s conduct “disturbing”.

In 2015, in a personal submission to the Department of Communications’ review of the Australian Communications and Media Authority, he pushed for the broadcasting regulator to have less power, stating it should “adopt a less legalistic and rigid approach to its investigations”.

He was also appointed president of the board for Film Victoria in 2011, which was at the time attempting to move on from embarrassment of spending $45,000 on a farewell party for outgoing CEO Sandra Sdraulig.

Peter Fray

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