The Coalition’s contentious proposal to privatise visa processing will be examined by a parliamentary inquiry after revelations Infosys had 46 meetings with lobbyist Scott Briggs to discuss a bid for the work.
On Thursday, the joint committee of public accounts and audit announced the new inquiry, after Infosys revealed the meetings with Briggs, a Liberal powerbroker, in response to questions at an inquiry into the Synergy 360 procurement controversy.
Briggs is a friend and former employee of Malcolm Turnbull and was president of Scott Morrison’s electorate conference. Briggs was more recently in the news over text messages he exchanged with the former home affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo. Pezzullo was sacked this week for 14 breaches of the public service code of conduct – including using his power for personal benefit.
The Turnbull government considered outsourcing visa processing functions – potentially a $1bn tender – which Labor said raised conflict of interest concerns due to the participation of Pacific Blue Capital, one of only two prospective tenderers.
The inquiry, launched on Thursday, will consider “the multi-stage procurement process commenced by the Department of Home Affairs in 2017 for a new IT workflow system to manage the processing of Australian visa applications”.
Its terms include “the conduct of entities or persons involved – or interested – in that procurement process”.
The chair of the committee, Julian Hill, said “the previous government wasted $92m on a failed attempt to privatise visa processing, yet after they abandoned their tender process still forced Home Affairs to bear a $180m cut from fake savings that never materialised”.
“The auditor-general examined some of these issues in a report tabled this year, but further questions that have emerged warrant a standalone inquiry,” he said in a statement.
“The parliament and public should understand what went on regarding this aborted, wasteful privatisation and what lessons should be learnt given the critical importance of actually doing something to upgrade Home Affairs’ antiquated IT systems.”
According to a submission from Infosys to the earlier inquiry, it began a commercial relationship with Australian Visa Processing (AVP) in April 2018, including working with Briggs, AVP’s executive director, who was until 2020 also the chief executive officer of Pacific Blue Capital, an investor in AVP.
Separately, Infosys engaged DPG Advisory Solutions as a lobbyist on 15 July 2021, at which time Briggs was a partner of DPG.
“In around September 2018, AVP selected Infosys to be a subcontractor as part of its response to the Department of Home Affairs tender for the design and build of a global digital visa processing platform,” Infosys said in its submission.
In October 2020, the department issued a new tender in relation to the digitalisation of visa processing, which AVP bid for but was unsuccessful.
Infosys’s submission includes details of 46 meetings with Briggs, including 39 attended by Synergy 360 owner David Milo.
The audit committee is investigating possible “tainted contracts” following allegations that former Coalition MP Stuart Robert helped lobbying firm Synergy 360 and its client, Infosys, win government work. In June, the audit committee heard that Infosys paid $16m to Synergy 360.
Robert has denied any wrongdoing and said he never “part owned any company that ever received anything from Synergy 360”.
In September, the audit committee recommended the National Anti-Corruption Commission (Nacc) examine the Synergy 360 procurement controversy, saying it had received “concerning evidence … raising serious allegations and questions about financial impropriety, improper relationships and undisclosed conflicts of interest” with parties receiving government contracts.
“In making this recommendation the committee is not making any findings in relation to the conduct of any individuals,” it said.
In February 2020, Guardian Australia revealed the Liberal party had scrubbed records of a $165,000 donation from a company run by Briggs, Southern Strategy, refusing to say why the donation which it labelled a mistake had been recorded.
“That is a matter for the Liberal party,” Briggs said at the time. “All I can confirm is that Southern Strategy made no donations to the Liberal party.”