In June 2013, Chinese billionaire Li Ruipeng from the firm Liguancheng Group was in Canberra. There was a dinner at Parliament House and representing the then-federal Opposition was leader Tony Abbott, his chief of staff Peta Credlin, opposition industry spokesman Ian Macfarlane, and opposition spokesman for defence, science, technology and personnel, Stuart Robert.All MPs were given designer watches by Li as a goodwill gesture. There were also watches for Abbott’s wife and Robert’s wife, who were not in attendance. A spokesman for Mr Abbott said Ms Credlin was not given a watch.
Macfarlane reasoned his Rolex was a fake. He went and saw the clerk of the House of Representatives to decare the gift. In Opposition, he was not bound to declare a value, but he estimated it was worth between $300 and $500.
Some months later, during the election campaign, Macfarlane was in the Western Australian seat of Moore with Liberal candidate Ian Goodenough. Goodenough had made his pile in real estate and had an eye for quality. He spotted Macfarlane’s watch, held his own Rolex in one hand and Macfarlane’s in another, compared the weight and reasoned it was a genuine.
Somewhat worried, Macfarlane used a visit to Sydney straight after the election to have the watch valued. He was told it was worth about $40,000 and his wasn’t as flash as those given to Abbott and Margie Abbott.
Macfarlane informed the clerk and said he thought he should hand it back. The clerk said he was entitled to keep it, but giving it back would be a good idea.
Macfarlane informed Tony Nutt, who had been recruited for several months following the election to help the new prime minister set up his office.
Nutt, now the Liberal Party’s federal director, was the fixer and enforcer inside John Howard’s office for over a decade and his reaction was immediate and swift.
He ordered the immediate collection of the watches so they could be given back.
Robert, like his MP colleagues, complied.
Just two months before, when Li visited the Gold Coast, he gave then MP Rob Molhoek a watch worth $23,000. Amid great publicity, he declared it and gave it to charity.
Despite all this, in August 2014, as assistant defence minister, Robert then went on that trip to China with friend and Liberal Party donor Paul Marks who was securing a business deal. Robert said he paid his own way and was on leave, but he stands accused of using his ministerial clout to help Marks. He should have learned from the watches to tread warily in China. Everyone knew at the time – the-then prime minister’s office and the embassy – but it is now an issue because it has been put in the broad public domain.
His fate now rests with senior public servant Martin Parkinson, who is deciding whether Robert breached the ministerial code of conduct. If he finds he had, his future is grim. It is an election year and the bar for dismissal is a lot lower than usual.
An earlier version of this story said Peta Credlin also received a watch. Both Ms Credlin and a spokesman for Mr Abbott say she did not receive a watch and it was Ms Credlin who ordered the other watches be returned after it was realised they were genuine.