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Australia The minister, the ex-Liberal candidate and the $2.2 million contract

01:55  03 december  2019
01:55  03 december  2019 Source:   smh.com.au

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Ken Wyatt wearing a suit and tie: Under pressure: Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt on Monday.© Alex Ellinghausen Under pressure: Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt on Monday.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt awarded a $2.2 million contract to a company connected to prominent Liberal Party donors and a former candidate to conduct Indigenous eye surgeries at double the market rate.

The contract, which never went to tender and emerged from an unsolicited proposal, was delivered despite the objections of a senior staff member, according to transcripts of interviews that form part of a confidential Department of Finance investigation seen by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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Mr Wyatt is already under pressure following allegations he ignored "outrageous and unconscionable" bullying of staff in his former position as aged care and Indigenous health minister - leading to a communication breakdown, a staff exodus and the Finance investigation.

The transcripts show the department heard Mr Wyatt's office was lobbied to approve the contract for 500 eye surgeries for the Indigenous and Remote Eye Health Service (IRIS) in 2018.

Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) documents list Dr Bill Glasson and lobbyist Kerry Gallagher as directors of IRIS between 2016 and 2019. Dr Glasson is an ophthalmologist, former Australian Medical Association president and former Liberal candidate who ran unsuccessfully for the Queensland seat of Griffith in the 2013 federal election and a 2014 byelection.

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Dr Bill Glasson wearing glasses and smiling at the camera: Dr Bill Glasson said he did not personally receive any money from the contract and had no financial interest in Vanguard.© Glenn Hunt Dr Bill Glasson said he did not personally receive any money from the contract and had no financial interest in Vanguard.

The ultimate holding company of IRIS is Vanguard Consulting, a lobbying firm owned by Mr Gallagher, which also operates Vanguard Health - the company listed as the winner of the contract on the government's GrantConnect website. IRIS is described as a "Vanguard Health initiative" on its website.

Vanguard Health has donated at least $21,000 to the Liberal National Party of Queensland since 2009, including direct funding for Dr Glasson's campaign. Labor estimated Dr Glasson received up to $1 million in funding from the LNP in his bid to unseat former prime minister Kevin Rudd in his seat of Griffith.

The Finance Department heard evidence from a staff member that "the company [Vanguard] has party connections" and they "contacted every man and their dog" over the contract.

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The staff member protested that "just because you're connected to the party doesn't mean you get written a blank cheque" and said they were "exceptionally concerned that a briefing had come into the minister's office that is subject to Freedom of Information giving a private company in Queensland $4000 per eye surgery when I know the going rate is $2000".

"This does not stack up," said a staff member, who asked not to be named because the investigation was confidential.

The department heard Mr Wyatt "went off" when concerns were raised about the contract, which was subsequently also signed off by Health Minister Greg Hunt.

Dr Glasson said he did not personally receive any money from the contract and had no financial interest in Vanguard. He said he was unaware he had been publicly listed as a director of IRIS but did have previous business partnerships with Mr Gallagher.

"All I do is sit on the committee to decide where they are short of services," he said.

The $4000 per surgery figure is almost double what eye surgeons in Sydney or Melbourne charge to remove cataracts and more than five times the item's $772 listing on the Medicare Benefits Schedule. The Queensland LNP government had negotiated contracts for a comparable Indigenous eye service at half the price through the market under former premier Campbell Newman.

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Dr Glasson said the $4000 cost was probably due to extra infrastructure needed in rural and remote areas and in that context the price was "pretty fair".

Vanguard Health chief executive Tim Gallagher said he was "incredibly proud" of Vanguard's work, noting it had helped restore the sight of more than 2000 Indigenous Australians living in remote parts of Australia.

GrantConnect documents show the contract was approved on August 24, 2018 - the final day of the Turnbull government. The initial briefs were signed by Mr Wyatt on August 9 and Mr Hunt on August 15.

A spokesman for Mr Hunt said the unsolicited proposal from IRIS was evaluated by the Indigenous Health Division and approved on the basis it would address the un-met need for cataract surgery. A spokesman for Mr Wyatt delivered the same statement.

The revelations follow claims in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on Monday that Mr Wyatt ignored the bullying of junior staff within his office, and allegations made by his former chief of staff, Kate Johnson, of repeated procedural failures and the burying of aged care statistics in the lead-up to the aged care royal commission.

Labor's aged care spokeswoman, Julie Collins, said the allegations "were incredibly concerning".

"This government has consistently failed to be honest about the state of Australia's broken aged care system," she said.

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