Royce MillarJuly 26, 2011 –>
Premier Ted Baillieu. Photo: Joe Armao
A LIBERAL Party fund-raising group with which Premier Ted Baillieu has been involved breached federal electoral laws by failing to declare tens of thousands of dollars in donations to candidates in the lead-up to last year’s state election.
Business First, a little-known group based in Melbourne’s southern suburbs, raised money for Liberal candidates in a group of key bayside seats that helped the Coalition defeat John Brumby’s government in November.
But the group, founded by property development lobbyist and former Liberal MP Geoff Leigh, has operated beyond the reach of Australian electoral law, public scrutiny and, it seems, Liberal Party discipline.
Illustration: Ron Tandberg.
Liberal director Damian Mantach refused to be interviewed about Business First when first contacted by The Age last week. But in an email he acknowledged the group’s existence and described it as an ”associated entity” of the party.
This means it was required by law to make disclosures of revenue and payments to the Australian Electoral Commission, including for functions in early 2010 attended by Mr Baillieu, Planning Minister Matthew Guy and Treasurer Kim Wells, who were then in opposition.
Action is rarely taken under disclosures laws that have been criticised as weak in comparison with those in other countries such as Britain, New Zealand and the United States.
New South Wales and Queensland also have more stringent campaign funding laws than Victoria.
The first details about Business First were not lodged with the Australian Electoral Commission until last Friday – after The Age made inquiries about the group to the Liberal Party over preceding days.
The return for the 2009-10 year records revenue of $24,655. The return for 2011 is expected to be considerably more.
Business First also appears to have worked outside Liberal Party rules. In an email, Mr Mantach said the group was created under party requirements and that it had adopted a draft constitution required for support clubs.
A copy of the Liberal draft constitution for such clubs, obtained by The Age, says money raised is ”immediately” the party’s. Other than money for running costs, all funds raised ”are to be transferred … for the investment in the party’s central fighting fund”.
Mr Leigh, a former Liberal member for Mordialloc, said most of the money raised was distributed directly to candidates, including Inga Peulich (South-Eastern Region), Lorraine Wreford (Mordialloc) and Donna Bauer (Carrum). All three were elected.
Mr Leigh told The Age that local fund-raising was important because Liberal headquarters provided few resources. ”They [candidates] weren’t resourced by headquarters, they were resourced by us in the south-east. I helped Inga raise the money to actually get rid of the Labor Party in the south-east of Melbourne, no doubt.”
However, Mr Leigh said money raised by Business First was a minor part of total fund-raising effort in the south-east. He said he had encouraged local businesses to donate directly to candidates, rather than through Business First. ”Most of the money never went to Business First. I encouraged people to give it direct to candidates.”
Such action would raise issues for the party about how the money was being accounted for. However, in a second interview yesterday, Mr Leigh denied money raised had gone directly to candidates, and insisted all funds had gone to the Victorian division of the Liberal Party.
Mr Leigh is regarded in
Liberal circles as an important behind-the-scenes player in the party’s planning policy. He confirmed that among contributors to Business First were clients that would seek government planning approvals including QOD Property Group, headed by developer Lou Garita.
A Melbourne University specialist on money and politics criticised the party’s failure to make groups like Business First transparent and accountable.
”Shadowy fund-raising vehicles that flout disclosure laws and fail to comply with party accountability measures should have no place in Australian politics,” said Dr Joo-Cheong Tham. ”The fact the Geoff Leigh, the founder of Business First, is also a lobbyist … is also cause for concern.
”There will, at the very least, be a perceived conflict of interest when ministers and parliamentarians who have benefited from Mr Leigh’s fund-raising activities are lobbied by him.”
Mr Leigh said he took responsibility for Business First’s failure to make disclosures to the electoral commission.
Opposition planning spokesman Brian Tee said the revelations raised serious questions for Mr Baillieu, who in 2009 promised the Coalition would combat ”networks of power and influence that operate behind the scenes of John Brumby’s Government” and provide ”the highest standards of probity, transparency and integrity in government”.
Mr Tee said: ”Mr Baillieu promised his government would be open and accountable, so he must not ignore or sweep these allegations under the carpet.”
The Age asked Mr Guy how many times he and his advisers had met Mr Leigh since the election, but did not get an answer. A spokeswoman confirmed Mr Guy had attended ”a few” Business First functions as an MP.
Mr Baillieu confirmed that he attended a Business First function at which he drew a raffle. He said the government understood Mr Leigh was no longer the head of Business First.