Christopher Pyne formally warned he is banned from lobbying for defence contractor

Christopher Knaus
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

The Attorney-General’s Department formally warned Christopher Pyne that he was banned from lobbying for a defence contractor that won millions of dollars in government work, including during his time as minister.

The Guardian revealed last year that GC Advisory, Pyne’s lobbyist firm, planned to lobby on behalf of a defence contractor, Saber Astronautics, which had won three contracts with the defence department worth $2.7m in the previous 12 months.

A day after the Guardian’s report, the Attorney-General’s Department wrote to Pyne’s firm to remind it that the former defence minister was banned from lobbying for clients like Saber. Lobbying rules prohibit former government ministers from engaging “in lobbying activities relating to any matter that they had official dealings with in their last 18 months in office”.

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Documents obtained through freedom of information show the head of the department’s integrity and security division, Andrew Walter, expressly warned GC Advisory that it must take steps to avoid a conflict of interest.

“We understand that Saber currently holds a number of contracts with the Department of Defence, some of which were obtained while Mr Pyne held the position of Minister for Defence,” Walter wrote.

“As such, Mr Pyne is prohibited from engaging in lobbying activities on behalf of Saber until 11 October 2020.”

The letter, though, highlights difficulties in enforcing the lobbying rules. Walter could only seek assurances from GC Advisory that Pyne would be kept at arm’s length from involvement with Saber.

“While this does not prevent other GC Advisory lobbyists from undertaking lobbying on behalf of Saber, the department seeks your assurance that Mr Pyne will not do so and that appropriate processes are put in place to manage any potential conflict of interest,” he wrote.

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Pyne is one of only two registered lobbyists working on behalf of GC Advisory.

Pyne is barred from lobbying for Saber, but his colleague, GC Advisory’s principal Adam Howard, is not.

Howard is a former chief of staff to Pyne, meaning he was also subject to restrictions on lobbying on matters he had official dealings with in the year prior. But Howard left the minister’s office about 18 months ago and there is no suggestion he would be in breach of the code by lobbying for Saber.

Howard wrote a reply to the Attorney-General’s Department saying Pyne was “acutely aware” of his obligations and that measures had been taken to ensure he would not lobby for Saber.

One such measure was to ensure Pyne was given no knowledge of “Saber Astronautics defence interests”.

“Any lobbying activities concerning Saber Astronautics applicable under the Australian Lobbying Code of Conduct will not be handled by Mr Pyne,” he wrote.

“Mr Pyne will not be aware of Saber Astronautics defence interests, if any. His advice will not be sought. In that regard appropriate measures have been put in place to ensure there are no conflicts of interest.”

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In an additional statement to the Guardian, a GC Advisory spokesman said: “Mr Pyne is well aware of the code of conduct for previous Ministers and he abides by it. Mr Pyne does not lobby for any defence clients. GC Advisory adheres to the Lobbying Code of Conduct in every respect.”

Saber is not the only defence contractor taken on by GC Advisory. The firm is also acting for Ethan Group, an IT contractor that won more than $50m in work from the defence department in the last four years.

Tender data also suggests it won about 43 contracts with defence worth $8.9m during Pyne’s time as defence minister.

Ethan Group said it was only using GC Advisory for general consulting work.

Pyne’s job helping consulting giant EY grow its defence business also sparked intense scrutiny last year. The role prompted an inquiry into ministerial standards, which, among other things, prevent former ministers from lobbying or holding business meetings with members of the government, parliament, public service or defence force on any matter for which they held ministerial responsibility for 18 months after leaving parliament. They also require ministers not to use information they have obtained in office for private gain.

Pyne was cleared of any breach of the standards by the former Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson.