No Such Thing As A Free Lunch With Turnbull


Another dark and possibly stormy cloud is gathering over federal Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull today. The Greens democracy4sale investigation team has uncovered some unusual techniques used by the would-be prime minister to amass $1.1 million in the run-up to the 2007 federal election. These most recent revelations about the member for Wentworth’s fundraising efforts could prove highly embarrassing to Turnbull and further erode public confidence in his judgement and leadership qualities.

Concerns for Turnbull’s re-election prospects could well have been the impetus for the formation of the organisation known as the Wentworth Forum in the lead-up to the 2007 election. The boundaries of the Wentworth electorate had been changed to include Labor and Greens strongholds in Darlinghurst, Potts Point and Woolloomooloo. This traditional Liberal stronghold was now seen as marginal — with Labor having some chance if they picked up Greens preferences. And so the Forum was swept into being. It is Turnbull’s key fundraising body and a veritable cash cow.

Turnbull’s fundraising efforts have been largely managed by his friend — and veteran Liberal Party fundraiser — Michael Yabsley. With their intimate knowledge of how to tap rivers of gold from wealthy Australian donors, these two have proved to be a formidable team.

Yabsley brought considerable experience to the task of establishing the Wentworth Forum. Significantly, as Chair of the NSW Liberal Party’s Millennium Forum, Yabsley introduced a new style of political fundraising in Australia, one which put access to leading politicians centre stage when donations were solicited. Donors are able to make direct donations to the Wentworth Forum or they can become one of several types of Forum member, each with different levels of access to Turnbull. There are five categories of membership with different costs associated with each one: Member ($5500), Sponsor ($11,000), Patron ($16,500), Benefactor ($25,500) and Governor ($55,000).

When the Wentworth Forum was set up, Turnbull was environment minister in the Howard government. The workings of the Forum provide a clear insight into how donations can be used to buy access to a politician. A Wentworth Forum Member receives one seat at larger events organised by the Forum and tickets to three boardroom events. In contrast, a Governor gains a package of events, including hosting boardroom events, two tables at larger events, seating at all boardroom events and attendance at the Governors and Benefactors Dinner.

The individuals who have contributed to the Forum are a Who’s Who of Sydney’s finance, law and property worlds. At least 17 — including Turnbull himself, who has donated catering for Forum events — have been listed at least once during the past three years in the list of Australia’s 200 richest people, published annually in the Business Review Weekly. They include Frank Lowy of Westfield, Harry Triguboff of Meriton Apartments, former Macquarie Bank head Allan Moss, Phil Green, the former CEO of the failed investment company Babcock and Brown, the gaming machine manufacturer Len Ainsworth, John Symond of Aussie Home Loans, Charles Curran of Capital Investment Group and the property developer Bob Rose.

Kerry Stokes recently became a joint member of the Forum with William Warwick, who used Stokes’ Australian Capital Equity contact information when he joined. Warwick contributed an even larger amount through Jefferson Investments. The latter company was directed by the late Kenneth Parker, Stokes’s right hand man. While Parker was alive, Jefferson Investments and associated companies donated over $1.5 million dollars to political parties in Australia — largely to the Coalition.

Although Turnbull has elsewhere argued against foreign donations to Australian political parties, the Wentworth Forum was able to accept $64,000 from the wealthy American Peter Briger, Chairman and Director of the controversial "vulture company" Fortress Investment Group.

Throughout 2007, the money rolled in for Turnbull; the Forum raised over $1.1 million for his re-election campaign. A total of 92 individuals joined the Forum in this period, mainly as Members or Sponsors. There were only 10 people among the Patron and Benefactor group and one Governor. The latter was Bob Rose who listed his company as Coastal Hamlets, the development company for the controversial Catherine Hill Bay project.

Bob Rose’s companies did not donate to the Liberals after the 2007 election and Rose hasn’t renewed his Wentworth Forum membership. This change coincided with the federal Coalition losing government. Rose’s companies are generous donors to NSW Labor and have given almost $120,000 since mid–2007. Last March, the Minister for the Environment, Peter Garrett’s findings, allowed the Catherine Hill Bay project — which involves the development of some 700 homes — to go ahead.

Turnbull’s large war chest for the 2007 federal election was subsidised by almost $72,000 of his own money, mainly spent on the production of campaign material and direct mailing. Because of the electoral funding rules it is not possible to determine either how much the NSW Liberal Party spent on the Wentworth election or exactly how much Turnbull spent on his campaign. The estimates from other parties of the money he spent based on the amount of campaign materials produced and mailouts to electors range from $1.1 million to $1.5 million.

The Forum continues to raise money for Turnbull. The latest figures for the six months up to December 2008 show that it raised over $300,000 for the 2008–2009 year. Most of this money was from membership renewals, which provide the many levels of access to Turnbull. Only about $17,000 came from direct donations. More money will be received throughout 2009 as people renew their memberships.

One of the more contentious donors to the Forum is British American Tobacco Australia (BAT). Early on, only small amounts of money were paid by BAT for attendance at fundraising events. Then in December 2008, Bede Fennell, who is the Head of Public Affairs for BAT Australia, paid $8250 for a half-year Patron membership in the Forum to take effect in 2009. A further $16,500 was paid for a Patron membership in 2009–10. The Liberal Party reported this money as received from BAT.

There has been considerable controversy about political parties accepting donations from tobacco companies. After a strong community campaign in 2004, then federal Labor leader Mark Latham announced a ban on his party accepting tobacco related donations. The Greens have never accepted such money. But since mid–2007 the NSW Liberals have taken almost $175,000 from tobacco companies.

The Wentworth Forum activities do not sit easily with Turnbull’s earlier reform zeal for electoral funding when he was a humble backbencher.

In a February 2005 email to Woollahra councillors, he went on the public record in opposition to donations from companies and other groups. He wrote, "no political donations should be allowed unless they are: from citizens and/or persons on the electoral roll (i.e., no companies, unions, associations etc); subject to a cap; and donors should certify that the donation is either their own or their spouse’s money and has not been given to them by a third party."

Interestingly, in these comments Turnbull did not mention a cap on a candidate’s own money, which leaves him, as a very wealthy individual, with a distinct advantage. He spent over $600,000 of his money on the 2004 election. It is not known if the NSW Liberal Party also spent funds in Wentworth since this information is not required to be disclosed to the Australian Electoral Commission.

In his time as federal Opposition Leader, Turnbull has thwarted electoral funding reform, quite possibly judging that the current system gives the Liberals an advantage. When federal Labor and the Greens combined in 2009 voting to ban foreign donations and make contributions from other sources more transparent, the Coalition and Senator Fielding defeated it in the Senate.

Turnbull’s recent actions show that he is no longer a voice for electoral funding reform. He has no interest in turning off the Wentworth Forum’s river of gold.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.