Small business ombudsman awards contracts to Liberal-linked firm without tender

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

A small Liberal-linked communications firm was given multiple contracts without tender by the office of the Australian small business ombudsman, Kate Carnell, a former Liberal leader in the ACT.

Agenda C, a Sydney-based consultancy, has won three small contracts with the ombudsman’s office for social media-related work since it was established early last year.

The ombudsman’s office said it did not use a procurement process to award Agenda C the contracts – worth $79,840, $79,922, and $31,989 – because they each fell below the procurement threshold of $80,000.

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Agenda C is led by former Liberal party advisers and candidates. Its managing campaign director, Carrington Brigham, worked as part of the federal Liberal party digital strategy team on Tony Abbott’s election campaign in 2013.

He is also a former campaign adviser with the Liberal-aligned firm Crosby Textor, where he helped develop the “Strong Choices” ad campaign for the former Queensland premier Campbell Newman before his defeat at the 2015 state election.

The firm’s campaign account manager, Jacqui Munro, stood as the Liberal candidate for Sydney at the last election, and has previously worked for then New South Wales treasurer Gladys Berejiklian and City of Sydney councillor Dr Kerryn Phelps.

Agenda C’s managing strategy director, Parnell Palme McGuinness, edited the Liberal party’s Fair Go website and her LinkedIn page states she was previously a policy consultant to the Liberal party.

The contracts for the ombudsman’s office included work on a “social media advertising package” and services such as a “social media audit, strategy, content plan, and marketing analysis”.

There is no suggestion anyone at Agenda C did anything improper or that they were not qualified for the work. Requests for comment to Brigham and McGuinness went unanswered.

Carnell, the former ACT Liberal chief minister, was made the inaugural Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman in 2016, appointed by then small business minister Kelly O’Dwyer.

A spokeswoman for the ombudsman said the contracts were awarded to Agenda C because it was a small business and the ombudsman supported small businesses.

The office denied any conflict existed.

“Both Agenda C contracts were below $80,000 and therefore there was no requirement to go to tender,” she said.

“The office of the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman supports small businesses – Agenda C is a small business. All ASBFEO content is created in-house for the purpose of raising awareness about ASBFEO and small business-related issues. There is no conflict of interest.”

The federal government’s procurement rules state that contracts do not need to be put to market if they are below $80,000.

Two of the contracts fell just below that threshold. The first, worth $79,840, was awarded in June last year and expired in May this year.

The second, worth $79,922, was awarded in May this year for a period of one year.

The spokeswoman for the ombudsman said the more recent of the two was entered into to “ensure continuity of service until 30 May 2021” from the termination of the preceding contract.

In 2017, an audit report identified a relatively high number of contracts awarded just below the $80,000 threshold.

In a submission to a 2018 parliamentary inquiry into contract reporting, the Grattan Institute noted that splitting contracts to avoid the threshold was against the procurement rules and called for a broader investigation of the auditor’s findings.

“The Department of Finance should use the ANAO report as a basis for more detailed investigation of whether there is systematic flouting of the CPRs,” the institute said in its submission. “The department should conduct such a review annually, using the types of screens for potential non-compliance set out by the ANAO.”