Ken Wyatt defends awarding of $2.2m contract to organisation linked to Liberal candidate

Sarah Martin
Photograph: Rohan Thomson/AAP

The minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, has defended awarding a $2.2m contract without a tender process to an organisation linked to the former Liberal candidate Bill Glasson.

A report in the Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday revealed an internal complaint was made about the process that awarded the contract to the Indigenous and Remote Eye Health Service (IRIS) for the delivery of ophthalmology services in remote areas at twice the market rate.

It came after a former chief of staff to Wyatt, Kate Johnson, went public with allegations that the minister fostered “a culture of bullying in his office”, which became the subject of a Department of Finance investigation.

Related: Ken Wyatt accuses IPA of engaging in bigotry in voice to parliament video

Glasson, who ran as the Liberal candidate against Kevin Rudd at the 2013 election, was a director of IRIS between 2016 and 2019, along with lobbyist Kerry Gallagher. The holding company of IRIS is called Vanguard Consulting.

Vanguard Health has donated at least $21,000 to the Liberal National party of Queensland since 2009.

In a statement on Tuesday, a spokesman for Wyatt said the contract to Vanguard was awarded “following advice provided by the Health Department” on 1 August 2018.

Initial briefs were signed by Wyatt on 9 August, and the health minister, Greg Hunt, on 15 August. The contract was approved on 24 August.

“The Australian Society of Ophthalmologists – through Vanguard Health – was provided funding from the previous Labor federal government in 2010/11, to plan and develop a four-year plan for eye services (IRIS 1.0),” Wyatt said.

“The IRIS proposal was assessed by the Indigenous Health Division, in line with the standard process for unsolicited proposals under the Indigenous Australians’ Health program, and was assessed as suitable for the funding on the basis it would meet the unmet need for cataract surgery.

“Given the pending delivery of the ‘roadmap’ for Indigenous Eye Health and relative value for money considerations, the department recommended the IRIS initiative be funded as a two-year trial, with an independent evaluation in the second half of year two to assess effectiveness and efficiency.”

The spokesman said that the department’s advice was that “the initiative would deliver 500 eye procedures for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the two years”.

Related: Ken Wyatt accuses IPA of engaging in bigotry in voice to parliament video

To date, more than 300 remote operations have been carried out.

According to the Herald’s report, a staff member in Wyatt’s office complained that “the company [Vanguard] has party connections” and they “contacted every man and their dog” over the contract.

The staff member, who has asked to remain anonymous, told the Department of Finance that that “just because you’re connected to the party doesn’t mean you get written a blank cheque”.

Labor’s assistant minister for Treasury, Andrew Leigh, said the issue was a “matter of scrutiny” for the Morrison government.

“And when it’s a matter of scrutiny – whether that’s scrutiny for the big banks, scrutiny for George Christensen, scrutiny for Ken Wyatt – they pull the covers over,” Leigh said on Tuesday.

“They say there’s nothing thing to see here. A doona is the best metaphor for the Morrison government that anyone can come up. They’re either asleep or pulling the covers over.”