(Image: Private Media)

This article is part one in a series. For the full series, go here.

A Crikey investigation has raised serious questions about the use of a blind trust by Minister for Employment Stuart Robert to shield scrutiny of his financial dealings.

The questions relate primarily to Robert’s time as minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) between 2019 and 2021, and his relationship with close business associate and friend John Margerison, who is a leading entrepreneur in providing NDIS services.

Robert is the only Morrison government cabinet minister to have put a complete wall of secrecy around his assets via a blind trust.

Crikey‘s investigation shows:

  • Robert and Margerison were co-directors of a company which made investments with and for Robert up until Robert was elevated to the Morrison ministry
  • The Robert-Margerison company was registered at the same address as Margerison’s NDIS-linked companies. The address is that of accountant Sean Beasley, based at Robina on the Gold Coast
  • Robert has provided no detail on the blind trust or who is running it. He has declined to answer Crikey‘s questions, including whether or not the trust is being run by Margerison.

Under the prime minister’s statement of ministerial standards, cabinet ministers are subject to higher standards of accountability than other MPs and are ultimately accountable to the PM.

This is especially testing for Scott Morrison in the case of Robert, who is a close friend. The two have shared accommodation in Canberra. Robert acted as Morrison’s numbers man for the 2018 Liberal Party room ballot which made Morrison prime minister. Both are devoted Pentecostal Christians.   

Morrison defended Robert to the hilt over allegations in 2016 that Robert breached ministerial standards when he accompanied major Liberal Party donor Paul Marks on a business trip to China. A subsequent investigation ordered by then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull revealed Robert held shares in the same minerals company as Marks, leading to Robert resigning from the ministry. Robert said he wasn’t aware he had the shares. The public certainly didn’t know.

Who is John Margerison?

Margerison, 46, originally hails from the UK. Corporate profiles describe him as an entrepreneur and a strategy expert, with experience in capital markets, finance, trade, health, retail, banking, funds management, property and IT.

He is also reportedly a close friend of Robert and set up a so-called “business council” for him, bringing together business people and politicians. Margerison’s name appears in the Paradise Papers, a trove of documents leaked in 2017 detailing tax haven investments for the global rich. (It is not illegal to use tax havens to minimise tax.)

Crikey approached Margerison for a response to this series but he has refused to answer.

What really matters is the sort of business Margerison and Robert got up to together.

The business relationship between the two appears to have taken off in March 2018. Back then, Robert was into his third year of exile on the Liberal Party backbench with little prospect he would return to cabinet.

As the humble member for Fadden, Robert had more time and freedom to be the hands-on manager of his family’s extensive shares and property holdings. How extensive? Robert’s parliamentary register of interests records that his family and self-managed super fund held shares in 18 ASX-listed companies. Nearly half of those were involved in minerals, chiefly gold. Through interlocking trustee structures, Robert also held investments in technology, data and financial services companies as well as half a dozen commercial properties in NSW and Queensland. 

The record shows that Robert returned regularly to update his parliamentary register with changes to his holdings and company structures. What was it all worth? It’s impossible to know — MPs don’t need to declare how many shares they hold in a company. 

When Margerison came along, the member for Fadden was about to expand into a new set of investments, including a stake in a Gold Coast business selling dietary supplements for body-building.

The Margerison-Robert partnership 

ASIC documents show that Margerison set up a venture called JM National Property Pty Ltd, and was joined by Stuart Robert in March 2018. Robert remained a director for close to six months until Morrison appointed him assistant treasurer.

And what a six months it was.

Robert inserted JM National Property into the heart of his financial affairs, as a trustee company for another trust which held property and shares for Robert and his family. 

A month later, Margerison set up the Australian Ibero-American Business Council, a networking body which gave investors and businesspeople a forum to mingle with politicians and had been Robert’s brainchild. 

In August 2018 JM National Property took a 50% stake in Cryo Australia, a Brisbane-based franchise group specialising in cryotherapy. Robert in turn became a director of the company. But after only 17 days media reports revealed that the company’s founder and co-director Neranjan de Silva had previously been convicted of rape. (An appeal to have the conviction overturned was eventually dismissed.)

Robert, who was Morrison’s assistant treasurer when the news broke, claimed that de Silva had not told him about the conviction.

The disability services

While Robert came unstuck in the Cryo Australia venture, Margerison was going from strength to strength in a health services business called DJ Health, part of the wider DJ Group which has a property and a capital arm. Margerison was a director and secretary of DJ Health, the engine room for several businesses involved in disability services. DJ Health director Nicole Wright had also joined as a director of Cryo Australia the same day as Stuart Robert. 

And the business links between Robert and Margerison went further. ASIC documents show that both DJ Health and the Australian Ibero-American Business Council were registered at the address of Sean Beasley Accountants in Robina, Queensland.

Other disability services businesses registered at Sean Beasley Accountants in which Margerison is a director or an investor include United Disability Care (covering Queensland and NSW), Social Solutions (WA) and Adelaide Supportive Care.

United Disability Care’s annual report for June 2020 — covering a period when Robert was minister in charge of the NDIS — shows the company received $29 million in NDIS funding. The annual report also showed more than $5 million worth of related party dealings with Margerison’s corporate entities.

The wall of secrecy goes up

In August 2018, just as the Robert-Margerison partnership was expanding, Robert was returned to the ministry and forced to rearrange his financial affairs to avoid a conflict of interest. So he resigned from Cryo Australia and JM National Property. (Margerison remains a director of JM National Property.)

Robert then closed the curtain on his investments, declaring on his parliamentary register of interests that all his assets had been placed “in blind structures (Blind Trusts) that were independent of me, where I have no control over investment decisions and where they are externally professionally managed”. The declaration covered assets in his family trust, self-managed super fund, and major investment vehicle “Robert Property Portfolio”. He also declared that all shares held in his, his wife’s and children’s names had been sold.

What this means is that, since the Morrison government’s reelection in May 2019, Robert’s parliamentary interests register has been little more than a blank page in a time when he was in charge of the multi-billion dollar NDIS budget and privy to confidential information about the scheme.

At the same time, Margerison’s DJ Health, like other disability service providers, has branched out into the highly lucrative area of specialist disability accommodation — a rolled-gold investment underwritten by federal government incentives to stimulate the construction of housing for people with disabilities.

Crikey is not alleging any wrongdoing by Robert or others. The point is that if a minister of the Crown has a blind trust, the public should have a right to know the bona fides of the arrangement — including who is administering the trust — so there can be no suggestion of a conflict of interest.

Robert, though, has never made it clear who manages his blind trust.

Next: Why Crikey is investigating Stuart Robert.