Matthew Playfair (Left) and Lachlan Murdoch (Images: Playfair, Mable, AAP)

An Inq investigation has found that an organisation appointed by the federal government to provide a surge workforce for aged care facilities is backed by a powerful business network which includes Liberal Party donors, members and campaign helpers.

Online workforce platform Mable Technologies was awarded a $5.8 million contract without open tender in April to provide emergency staff for COVID-affected aged care homes. 

Within four days of being appointed, however, the company was unable to provide staff for Sydney’s Newmarch aged care facility, leaving Newmarch — which had lost 87% of its staff — to beg the federal health department to find “other avenues … to source suitable and skilled staff”.

Mable’s shareholder list includes a number of individuals with ties to the Liberal Party, including:

  • Macquarie Private Wealth banker Matthew Playfair. Playfair was thanked by Liberal MP Dave Sharma for his help during Sharma’s campaign for the seat of Wentworth last year. Playfair and his wife Fiona were also reportedly in line to host a fundraiser for Sharma’s campaign.
  • Lawyer Lucinda Aboud, whose name is attached to a $20,000 donation to the Liberal Party in 2013-14. Aboud’s husband Russell is the executive chairman of the billion-dollar hedge fund Manikay Partners. Lucinda Aboud and Playfair are joint shareholders in Prual Pty Ltd which has a stake in Mable Technologies.
  • Lawyer, company director and investor Ray Whitten AM, former president and current vice president of the Double Bay branch of the Liberal Party, in Sharma’s Wentworth electorate. (Whitten has held roles on NSW government boards and received his Order of Australia in June this year.)

Playfair, Aboud and Whitten are part of an exceptionally well-connected network of investment bankers and investors, drawn largely from Sydney’s wealthy eastern suburbs, which backs Mable Technologies.

The platform — an industry disruptor which links carers directly with clients — was developed by one-time Bankers Trust venture capitalist Peter Scutt, along with investment banker Tony Charara.

Its major backer is Ellerston Capital, a hedge fund founded by Kerry and James Packer. Other notables include BRW Rich Lister Tony Wales, who made the bulk of his wealth with ASX-listed stock transfer company Computershare, and marketing kingpin Matt McGrath, brother of real estate figure John McGrath. Matt McGrath’s wife, the leading fashion designer Jodie Boffa, also has a stake in the business. Ellerston fund manager and investment guru Chris Kourtis also has a private stake.

Mable Technologies has also been backed by Scaleup Mediafund, a media-for-equity fund owned by News Corp and other Murdoch media businesses. The grouping, closely associated with Lachlan Murdoch, is made up of Fox Sports, Foxtel, digital advertising company REA Group and Nova Entertainment (owner of metropolitan radio stations). The Ten Network is also part of the group.

According to Mable, Scaleup has provided around $500,000 in advertising and marketing for the company, promoting the Mable name across Australia. It boasts that its network reaches every Australian household and can deliver “every target demographic with brand and direct response advertising”. In return for promoting the Mable name, Scaleup has a minority shareholding, meaning it too stands to benefit from the government contract awarded to Mable.

A grouping of former News Corp executives, operating under the umbrella of Macdoch Ventures has also invested in the business.

The Mable platform functions as a marketplace catering to a growing need for aged care as well as disability care under the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). The platform does not employ carers. Instead a would-be carer is a “member” of the platform. They upload their profile to the site and the client gets to choose who they will employ, using money from government-approved home and disability care packages.

Mable is not a registered NDIS provider. Nor is it an approved Home Care Package provider. So how did the government come to appoint Mable to provide the essential backup workforce for Australia’s aged care staffing crisis?

The Health Department said Mable was “directly sourced” in line with “procurement guidelines”. This was a limited tender with Mable being the only supplier.

And what did it get for the near $6 million contract?

The department told Inq that Mable had “met the deliverables” in its contract, though wouldn’t detail what the deliverables were, beyond access to workers via the Mable platform. These workers “would then fall under the responsibility of the aged care provider”, the department said.

Mable told Inq “a number of facilities” had accessed its platform, though it didn’t say how many workers that meant.

Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck didn’t respond to Inq’s questions on whether or not Mable’s powerful network of backers played any role in the company being granted the contract. Mable told Inq that co-founder Peter Scutt had been “engaging with various levels and sides of government over the past few years to explain its model”. It said that no shareholders of Mable, nor any of their connections, were “in any way involved in discussions with the government regarding the contract”.

Mable advertises that it has more than 10,000 “members” on its books. Yet when the crunch came, it was found wanting. 

Grant Millard, CEO of Anglicare, which owns the Newmarch House aged care home, told the aged care royal commission last month that “very few” of Mable’s carers had residential aged care experience while some had home care experience.

“Early on they just weren’t up to the task. It was dangerous for them,” he said.

As COVID-19 engulfed Newmarch House, Anglicare spelt out its problems with the staffing solution in an email to the Health Department:  

“They have only been able to supply one suitable RN [registered nurse] and we’ve only been able to source six carers from Mable and we have a much greater need that it appears they cannot fulfil. 

“As you would be aware, we now have 20 residents and 11 staff who have tested positive and both cohorts are undergoing an extensive testing regime and we expect the number of infections to escalate. 

“Mable did have a significant number of staff who applied through their website but most were not suitable or did not want to work in a facility that had positive cases of COVID.”

In an email to Inq, Mable concedes there were “some teething issues” with Newmarch, but said that these were resolved after the first few days. Anglicare’s CEO told the royal commission that ultimately Newmarch was supplied with some “very capable people” once “the requirements and specifications for the particularly challenging environment were better understood”.

“These learnings,” Mable told Inq, “helped with subsequent use of the Mable platform by other residential aged care facilities.”

At the same time the Mable labour supply model, experts argue, represents a highly insecure form of employment, with no allowance for sick days, holidays and no guarantee of continuity — a position not unlike the employment model used for hotel quarantine guards.

A Victorian government inquiry into the so-called gig economy, commenced at the end of 2018, highlighted the insecurities for carers getting work using the Mable model. The inquiry reported in June this year that Mable had no process to “onboard” carers. Nor did it have a mechanism for sorting out lack of payment. That needed to be done between the carer and the recipient.

Scutt disputed that the platform facilitated one-off “gigs”.

“It’s a platform that enables ongoing relationships to form. The client’s needs are ongoing. The consumers and workers agree on all aspects of their engagement together,” he told Inq.

This “relationship-based care”, Scutt maintained, offered “flexibility in scheduling that works positively for both consumers and workers”.