Former federal cabinet minister Michael Keenan had barely left parliament last year when he walked into a new role in the lucrative business of specialised disability accommodation (SDA) — a burgeoning property development industry underwritten by federal government funding through the National Disability Insurance Scheme and driven by federal policy incentives.
Keenan was hired as CEO of real estate developer Sana Living less than three months after leaving his role as human services minister in May, a move that raises questions about the ministerial code of conduct given his potential inside knowledge as a cabinet minister.
Keenan’s ministerial responsibilities touched on the NDIS: his department was part of a government taskforce on NDIS fraud.
Sana Living’s key backers in the new gold-rush industry of SDA are Perth businesswoman Megan Wynne and her investment partner Michael Anghie. Wynne’s company Advanced Personnel Management (APM) is a major private provider of Centrelink employment services (including disability services) funded by the federal government. Centrelink was part of Keenan’s ministerial portfolio for two years.
Anghie is APM’s group chief executive and a former long-serving managing partner of consulting firm EY. The two have invested in Sana Living through Encore Nominees Pty Ltd, which is listed as the company’s sole shareholder.
Wynne’s Western Australia-based APM has been a major Liberal Party supporter, donating more than $100,000 in 2018-19 — a federal election year — on top of $45,000 in 2015-16.
His massively successful business has prospered via a series of large, multi-year federal government contracts totalling about $1 billion. They include a $470 million contract with the Department of Education, Skills and Employment and a $315 million contract with the Department of Social Services.
Keenan’s experience in charge of large government social welfare agencies — as well as his cabinet-informed view of government disability policy –makes him the perfect match for Sana Living. Its pitch is that it knows how hard it is to navigate the near impenetrable bureaucracy and language of the NDIS to get the accommodation and the support you need. As the company puts it: “We are here to help from our first meeting, right through to the time NDIS funding is approved, to moving day and long after.”
SDA has been tagged as a necessary growth industry as the government moves to provide new specialised housing stock for people with severe disabilities who might otherwise be consigned to group homes providing no individual choice, an experience which has brought misery to many.
Ramping up a ‘burgeoning market’
In August last year, as Keenan took the reins at Sana Living, a former colleague, Government Services Minister Stuart Robert, outlined actions the federal government was taking to ramp up the SDA market.
“We are determined to see the burgeoning specialist disability housing market build with investors, developers and existing and new providers growing with confidence, and in confidence with SDA,” he told a disability access conference.
The changes included making it easier for those with a disability to “go out into the market” to find SDA accommodation, rather than be forced to exhaust other possibilities first. The NDIA would also have “a dedicated planning team” which would fast-track SDA approvals. Prices would be kept “stable” as the market developed.
Government moves had made SDA such an attractive new sector that Robert was forced to warn of “dodgy operators who may attempt to take advantage or scam well-intentioned Australians”.
Government action has worked. The number of SDA dwellings increased by 10.7% in the first six months of this year, according to the NDIA. More growth is not just expected, but necessary to meet government targets.
SDA is part of a network of NDIS services worth about $16 billion. The interconnected services are shot through with potential conflicts of interest — a problem labelled a “significant concern” last year by an independent NDIS advisory committee which warned of the potential for profiteering.
Up to $300,000 a year per person
At the centre of the conflicts of interest is the supported individual living (SIL) package which is individually tailored and can be worth up to $300,000 a year per person paid to an organisation to supply the service. This means a group house of four people might receive more than $1 million a year in government money.
The problem is exacerbated where the organisation supplying the service has a close relationship with whoever owns the accommodation — or where it is one and the same. NDIA experts have warned there is a lack of accountability and oversight of how services are delivered in the home.
In an emailed response, Keenan told Inq that neither Sana Living, its investors or directors had an interest in any entity that provides SIL packages. These were provided in Sana homes by “unrelated third parties”.
So is Keenan in breach of government rules covering post-ministerial work?
In 2018 Prime Minister Scott Morrison released a statement of ministerial standards which (theoretically) put an 18-month ban on lobbying or “business meetings” with “members of the government, parliament [or] public service” on any matters they dealt with as minister.
It also required ministers “undertake … on leaving office [that] they will not take personal advantage of information to which they have had access as a minister, where that information is not generally available to the public”.
It adds a catch-all that ministers should ensure their personal conduct is “consistent with the dignity, reputation and integrity of the parliament”, a set of words now arguably devoid of meaning given the lack of action on ministerial transgressions.
Keenan’s defence, provided to Inq, is that he “never had any ministerial responsibility for disability services or the NDIS”, noting that “this rested with the minister for social services at the time”, Paul Fletcher.
Wynne sold her majority stake in APM for more than $400 million to private equity group Quadrant in 2017. She stayed on as the company’s founder and managing director.
A spokesman for Wynne and Anghie told Inq they had “no operating, management or board involvement” in Sana Living and that APM had “no ownership in Sana and no business dealings with Sana”.
Next: the SDA money pot — a who’s who of the new government-fuelled gold rush.