Malcolm Turnbull’s son has orchestrated donations for Liberal Party defector Julia Banks’ campaign to unseat Health Minister Greg Hunt at the federal election, as the “unusual” funding structure behind four high-profile independents sparks a formal complaint.
The Liberal Party has asked the Australian Electoral Commission to urgently investigate whether the creation of near-identical financial vehicles for Ms Banks, Kerryn Phelps, Tony Abbott opponent Zali Steggall and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s rival Oliver Yates “circumvents” donation laws.
Julia Banks, Kerryn Phelps, Zali Steggall and Oliver Yates are running in the May 18 election as independents. Ms Banks told Nine News, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age she has been soliciting advice from Alex Turnbull over the phone, and he helped put her in contact with one person who provided $8000 worth of in-kind support to set up her website. “Alex helped me with the set-up of my campaign, the website and set-up but this is a grassroots campaign,” she said.
Malcolm Turnbull, the former prime minister who was deposed in a leadership coup in August last year, will leave Australia before Anzac Day and spend the final three weeks of the election campaign away from domestic politics. He occasionally criticised his former colleagues in the months since his axing.
Julia Banks resigned from the Liberal Party in August amid claims male MPs bullied her during the leadership spill that ended Mr Turnbull’s prime ministership.
Mr Hunt was crucial in backing Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s bid to seize the Liberal Party leadership and is considered vulnerable in his Mornington Peninsula seat of Flinders at the May 18 election.
Documents show Sydney accountant Damien Hodgkinson has taken the unusual step of establishing public companies as financial vehicles for the seats of Wentworth, Warringah, Kooyong and Flinders.
Mr Hodgkinson set up companies, which all have listed directors, to support Ms Steggall, Mr Yates, Ms Banks and Dr Phelps.
Mr Hodgkinson runs consultancy firm DEM Asia which specialises in business transformation, crisis management and corporate restructuring.
The NSW and Victorian divisions of the Liberal Party have written to the AEC asking them to review the structures to ensure they are not a way to “circumvent donations laws”.
“Four independents are using identical “off-the-shelf” campaign structures, either purchased or donated from a single vendor, suggests they are functioning as a political party and not as independents,” NSW Liberal Party Director Chris Stone said in the letter to the AEC.
“The community would be justifiably concerned if such campaign structures were being used to circumvent donation laws.”
The name of the companies are Warringah Independent Limited, Peninsula Independent Limited, Kooyong Independent Limited and KP Independent Limited.
Mr Hodgkinson lists himself as the secretary on each of the four company records.
Dr Kerryn Phelps claimed the companies are nothing more than vehicle to manage donations responsibly.
“There are disclosure obligations on all candidates and members of Parliament and I will be fulfilling those obligations,” she said.
The company records shed some light on who is backing the independents hoping to unseat Mr Abbott in Warringah, Mr Hunt in Flinders and Treasurer Frydenberg in the Melbourne seat of Kooyong.
Former NSW MP Peter Macdonald is a director of the company backing Ms Steggall, while former ABC comedian Dan Ilic is listed as a director of ‘Peninsula Independent Limited’, set up to finance Ms Banks’ campaign. “I don’t have a relationship with Dan Ilic,” Ms Banks said when asked about the company.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age spoke with numerous campaign experts who agreed the structures were unusual.
“These people are claiming to be a grassroots movement but it looks more like a pyramid scheme than a political party,” an experienced Liberal strategist said.
“We (Liberal Party) are calling them Independents Inc.”
Labor sources agreed the operation was “sophisticated” but not necessarily suspicious.
“Make no mistake, this is an organised push from disaffected Liberals,” a senior Labor figure said.
While not listed as a director, Alex Turnbull is publicly supporting Dr Phelps and Ms Banks at the May 18 election.
Mr Turnbull has previously said his father is “not involved in the slightest” in Ms Banks’ campaign, but the former prime minister has called his former colleague “outstanding” and predicted voters in Flinders will face a “very stimulating contest”.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age attempted to contact Mr Hodgkinson and DEM Asia but they did not respond.