A Newcastle business lobby group has taken advantage of a loophole in new laws limiting donations to political parties to run a last minute, privately funded media campaign in a bid to topple the local NSW Labor MP at this weekend’s state election.
Business advocacy group The Newcastle Alliance is running political advertisements in local print and radio media calling for people to consider changing their vote in the traditionally Labor seat.
The ALP’s Jodi McKay beat Newcastle Mayor John Tate on a margin of 1.2 per cent in 2007. This time Tate is running again as an independent and exchanging preferences with Liberal candidate, Tim Owen, previously the deputy commander of Australian forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Alliance, which in 2009 was a council contractor providing business services, has been reborn as an advocacy group.
NSW political donation reforms prevent interests associated with property development or the liquor industry from making donations to political parties. But a loophole allowing third party organisations to spend up to $525,000 supporting political policies means property developers and hotel interests can still donate to particular candidates.
The Electoral Funding Authority published the list of registered third party organisations several weeks ago. It includes unions, the Dame Pattie Menzies Foundation, the Property Council and the internet campaigning organisation Get Up. Last week, the Newcastle Alliance Inc added itself to the register.
The Alliance campaign is calling on traditional Labor voters to consider changing their vote: "We want our representatives to have a real voice in decisions, to be sitting at the table when the deals are done, not begging for crumbs," the ads state.
Alliance CEO, local businessman Paul Murphy, told New Matilda that the campaign was not endorsing either John Tate or Tim Owen but was calling on voters to consider shifting away from Labor.
The media campaign, which began on 17 March and runs until Friday, includes half- and full-page ads in the Newcastle Herald costing, according to its rate card, $6,400 and $12,000 respectively.
When asked who is funding the campaign, Murphy told New Matilda "it’s my business, it is not your business". He said it was a private matter for the Alliance Board, who are the only members of the organisation. Asked whether he thought this was transparent, he replied that he "was transparent" and that he did not "appreciate the line of questioning". He said it was up to the Board what promotional activities they undertook and that there were no big developer donations.
Norman Thompson, Director of the Greens’ political donations research project, which has campaigned for political donation reform, said: "The Newcastle Alliance is spending a vast sum of money to promote their own special interests. We will not know the identity of the donors to that lobby group for months. This is a perversion of the democratic process".
The Newcastle Alliance Board is made up of a broad host of influential businesspeople and professionals in the Hunter. Members include local lobbyist Chris Ford, who is a spokesperson for the controversial Rose Group, which has been a large donor to both political parties. As New Matilda reported last week, the Group’s applications for Part 3A developments at Catherine Hill Bay and Kendall Bay are in their final stages of being processed.
Ford’s entry on the NSW Lobbyist register says he lobbies for Hydro Kurri Kurri, a Norwegian aluminium smelter in the Hunter Valley. He also lobbies for Mondell Properties, Austar Coal Mine, Innova Soil Technology, Slattery Auctions and the private pathology Hunter Imaging Group, and has been a spokesperson for the Coal Infrastructure Group.
Also on the Board is Rolly de With, who, according to a Newcastle Herald report on people with influence in Newcastle, is a partner in three Castle bars: the Junction Tavern, Sunnyside and Fanny’s. He is also president of the Australian Hotels Association (AHA) in Newcastle, an executive of the NSW AHA and national AHA Board member.
Greens researcher Thompson says the loophole needs to be closed if reforms to political donations are to work: "There is a major loophole in the new electoral law relating to third party campaigners. Lobby groups can spend huge amounts of money pushing their own agenda. … They hope to elect candidates that will support their agenda, often to the detriment of the general public."
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