(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Three of Scott Morrison’s closest friends and associates have teamed up to form a new advisory firm that will help foreign companies get government approval to buy up Australian assets. 

The new venture, FIA Australia, says it can help “guide complex transactions through the Foreign Investments Review Board (FIRB)”.

It’s particularly timely given Morrison’s recent changes to the review process which will make it harder for foreign companies to buy up distressed Australian assets during the pandemic.

But despite looking and sounding exactly like a lobby group, FIA Australia insists it is strictly providing “deal structuring advice” to smooth the process with the FIRB.

Who are they? 

Scott Briggs, David Gazard and Lachlan Molesworth are about as close to the prime minister’s inner circle as you can get.

Briggs is a former NSW Liberal deputy state director, party donor and personal friend of Morrison. He’s also the former director of the Cronulla Sharks, where the prime minister is the number one ticket holder. 

Gazard is a former Liberal staffer who spent almost a decade running a lobby group with Peter Costello, his old boss. 

Molesworth is a barrister and former foreign investment adviser to Morrison when he was treasurer. 

According to the company’s website, the trio are joined on the board by former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chair Allan Fels.

You could hardly find four people with better contacts in Canberra. But like former defence minister Christopher Pyne, they insist they are not lobbying, but offering “advice”.

Close connections

Briggs has a long history of using his connections to the prime minister to pursue business interests. His connection with Morrison became an issue earlier in the year when it was alleged he donated $165,000 to the Liberal party at the same time as he was vying to win the government’s $1 billion visa privatisation contract. 

Briggs denied the donation ever took place, but his other company, Pacific Blue Capital, reportedly made 14 donations worth about $90,000 to the Liberal party in 2018-19. The conflict resulted in him bowing out of the visa bid in February.

Gazard and Briggs are both registered lobbyists through another venture, DPG Advisory Services, where they offer “unique access to the highest levels of government and the opposition”. DPG represents several foreign companies, including Facebook. Briggs is also a registered lobbyist with Public Policy Solutions, which represents British American Tobacco.

So with two lobbyists on its board, why doesn’t FIA Australia have to be listed on the lobbyist register? 

Walking a fine line 

The government’s Lobbying Code of Conduct defines “lobbying activities” as communication with a government representative in an effort to influence government decision-making. This does not include giving strategic advice to clients. 

However it’s unclear what this means for advisory firms run by registered lobbyists. 

Crikey asked the company how it planned on separating lobbying from advice, but it did not respond to questions before deadline. Fels referred questions to Gazard, who did not return calls. 

Senator Rex Patrick said both Briggs and Gazard were walking a fine line between providing advice and lobbying. 

“There is a real risk that they could make a representation that would cause them to be in breach of the lobbyist register,” he said. 

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