ROYCE MILLARApril 1, 2010
VICTORIAN Labor has scrapped or revamped some of its most lucrative fund-raising events in a bid to spruce up its image and avert controversy ahead of this year’s state and federal elections.
But the party’s fund-raising arm, Progressive Business, is still aiming for a revenue record this year with an extensive schedule of breakfasts, lunches, dinners and drinks sessions featuring state and federal MPs including Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Premier John Brumby.
Senior Labor figures confirmed that the party’s controversial annual business forum had been cancelled, saying the government could not guarantee that ministers, in their efforts to avoid controversy, would attend.
Last year the event sparked an outcry after The Age revealed that for a fee of $5000, companies could buy exclusive, one-on-one sessions with Mr Brumby and some ministers.
As recently as last month a version of the forum had been pencilled in for August 5. Documents seen by The Age show that Progressive Business had anticipated income of about $100,000 from the event.
Last night, ALP secretary Nick Reece confirmed that the forum had been cancelled. But he insisted it had been cancelled due to an overcrowded fund-raising calendar.
Senior sources also confirmed that the Progressive Business annual dinner scheduled for October was to be revamped so that bigger donors did not necessarily get more access to Mr Brumby.
In November, The Age reported that a $10,000 gold sponsorship of a table at last year’s dinner earned coal industry executive Alan Blood a seat next to – and the chance to ”bend the ear” of – Mr Brumby for much of the evening.
Mr Blood’s frank description of the night was at odds with Mr Brumby’s repeated insistence that access could not be bought in Victorian politics.
Well-placed party sources said the annual dinner would be reconfigured so that bigger donors would not necessarily get more time at the Premier’s side. ”We’re trying to remove every contentious thing,” said a Labor insider.
Last night, a spokeswoman for Mr Brumby, Fiona Macrae, said Progressive Business events were conducted with ”high standards and strict probity arrangements”.
”PB has put in place a number of measures to ensure there is confidence in the integrity of the forums and to protect against even a perceived possibility of influence,” she said.
“The Premier and Treasurer cannot participate in private meetings with any individual or company with a live tender before government.”
A source confirmed that, despite its probity challenges, Progressive Business was aiming for gross receipts of close to $2 million for 2010, and about $1 million (after costs) from events alone, a record in its decade-long history.
To achieve its targets it has had to convince sometimes reluctant ministers and their minders to involve themselves in ever-increasing corporate carousing activities.
Sources who attended a confidential presentation to government staffers last month confirmed that Progressive Business executive director Richard Vines had urged greater involvement by political minders and their ministers.
Mr Vines had sought to reassure those present that controversy would be minimised.
In a symptom of Labor’s anxiety, Progressive Business has been without a president since property industry lobbyist Phil Staindl stood down from the role in November, weeks before the government launched its lobbyist register on which his company was to appear.
Labor sources agreed that, given the sensitivities around fund-raising, it had not been possible to find a suitable candidate – ideally a respected, retired businessman.
Mr Reece said last night that Progressive Business provided an important meeting point for Labor and business. ”As Australia emerges from the global financial crisis, Victoria finds itself ahead of the pack and there is a lot to talk about with business regarding new investment and jobs in our state,” he said.