Political donations and Joe Hockey.
Political donations and Joe Hockey. Photo: Fairfax Graphics

Treasurer Joe Hockey is offering privileged access to a
select group including business people and industry lobbyists in return
for tens of thousands of dollars in donations to the Liberal Party via a
secretive fund-raising body whose activities are not fully disclosed to
election funding authorities.

The Independent Commission Against Corruption is probing
Liberal fund-raising bodies such as the Millennium Forum and questioning
their influence on political favours in NSW.

Mr Hockey offers access to one of the country's highest political offices in return for annual payments.

The key players.
The key players. Photo: Fairfax Graphics

The donors are members of the North Sydney Forum, a campaign
fundraising body run by Mr Hockey's North Sydney Federal Electoral
Conference (FEC). In return for annual fees of up to $22,000, members
are rewarded with "VIP" meetings with Mr Hockey, often in private

The North Sydney FEC officials who run the forum – which is
an incorporated entity of the Liberal Party – say its membership lists
and therefore the identities of its donors are "confidential". Mr Hockey
also says details of who he is meeting and what is discussed are

What little public information is available reveals members
of the forum include National Australia Bank as well as the influential
Financial Services Council, whose chief executive is former NSW Liberal
leader John Brogden.

The FSC's members, including financial advice and funds
management firms, stand to benefit from the changes to the Future of
Financial Advice (FOFA) laws being considered by the federal government,
which would involve a winding back of consumer protections introduced
by Labor.

The National Australia Bank would also benefit from the changes.

The chairman of the North Sydney Forum is John Hart, who is
also the chief executive of Restaurant and Catering Australia – a
hospitality industry lobby group whose members stand to benefit from a
government-ordered Productivity Commission review of the Fair Work Act
that is expected to examine the issue of penalty rates.

Mr Hart also sits on Prime Minister Tony Abbott's Business Advisory Council.

In March, it was revealed a former member of the North Sydney
Forum was controversial infrastructure company Australian Water
Holdings (AWH), which has been linked to the family of corrupt former
Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid and is under investigation by the ICAC
over its attempts to win lucrative government contracts.

When AWH's links to the Obeid family were revealed last year,
the North Sydney FEC returned an $11,000 forum membership fee and AWH's
membership of the forum was ended. In March, the North Sydney FEC
revealed it had returned another $22,000 in membership fees from AWH,
whose former chairman is Liberal Party senator and former assistant
treasurer Arthur Sinodinos.

Senator Sinodinos stood aside as assistant treasurer in
March, after giving evidence at the ICAC about AWH's attempts to win a
billion-dollar contract with the NSW government. Before that, he was
responsible for implementing the government's FOFA reforms.

During the three years AWH was a member of the forum, the
company's chief executive was Liberal fund-raiser and former lobbyist
Nick Di Girolamo, whose gift of a $3000 bottle of Penfolds Grange
Hermitage to Barry O'Farrell shortly after his March 2011 election win
led to his resignation as premier last month, after he gave false
evidence to the ICAC.

North Sydney Forum deputy chairman Robert Orrell said he was
"sure" Mr Di Girolamo – a close friend of Eddie Obeid jnr, who was
employed by AWH – had attended private boardroom meetings with Mr

However he was adamant Mr Obeid jnr did not attend any meetings.

The North Sydney Forum was established in May 2009, shortly
after Mr Hockey became shadow treasurer in February, by Joseph Carrozzi,
managing partner at professional services firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

Mr Carrozzi is also chairman of the Italian Chamber of
Commerce and Industry in Australia and was a board member of the
organisation when Mr Di Girolamo was its chairman.

He said he could not recall how AWH became a member of the
North Sydney Forum but denied it was through this link. He said the
chamber was not a forum member.

Mr Carrozzi, who said he had known Mr Hockey for 20 years,
said he was "honoured to be asked" to establish the forum, which was
"essentially there to provide a network and insight for small

"Members get an opportunity to sit down and chat with Joe. We've had other ministers, state and federal, participate as well."

Mr Carrozzi said NSW Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian
and Premier Mike Baird – until recently treasurer – had participated in
the forum's functions for members.

Past forum members include wholesale distribution and
marketing firm Metcash and business services group Servcorp, founded by
long-time Liberal Party supporter Alf Moufarrige.

In 2008, it emerged Mr Moufarrige had given former treasurer
Peter Costello six bottles of Penfolds Grange – reportedly worth about
$3000 in total – as a thank you gift for opening a Melbourne building.

Mr Carrozzi said Mr Hockey "sits down regularly" with members
of the forum. Mr Di Girolamo "may have attended one or two" meetings
with Mr Hockey but Mr Carrozzi stressed "he was certainly not a regular

He said Mr Obeid jnr was "certainly not at any meetings I attended with Mr Hockey".

Mr Orrell said the forum had had about 12 lunches each year, "typically in a members' boardroom".

"It's genuinely an exchange of information," he said. "Joe just goes around the table and talks about issues."

The North Sydney Forum membership structure offers "full
membership" for an annual fee of $5500 for which members are entitled to
five boardroom events.

The fee for corporate and business members is $11,000 which
offers an extra "VIP boardroom function" while private patrons paying
$22,000 enjoy the additional benefit of "10 boardroom events".

Mr Orrell said money raised by the forum was often distributed to Liberal Party marginal seats.

However, the forum does not lodge its own disclosures to the NSW Election Funding Authority.

In its disclosures, the NSW division of the Liberal Party
declares membership fees – regarded as donations for the purposes of the
election funding act – but does not state they are for the North Sydney
Forum. This practice masks who is donating directly to the North Sydney
Forum and the identity of its members.

A spokesman for the NSW Election Funding Authority said: "There is no record of the North Sydney Forum in the EFA system."

Occasionally members name the North Sydney Forum in their
disclosures to the Election Funding Authority but there is no
requirement to do so.

The structure of the North Sydney Forum is based on that of
similar vehicles established by other Liberal MPs, such as the Wentworth
Forum which was set up for Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull in
August 2007.

The Wentworth Forum was established by former federal Liberal
Party treasurer Michael Yabsley to raise funds for Mr Turnbull's
re-election to the eastern suburbs seat of Wentworth following a
redistribution in 2004 which made it a less safe Liberal seat.

It operated between August 2007 and late 2009 – for six
months when Mr Turnbull was environment minister but primarily while he
was shadow treasurer and then opposition leader – and gave members
access to exclusive functions he attended. It also had a sliding scale
of membership fees from $5500 to $55,000.

The Wentworth Forum was based on the Millennium Forum, the
Liberal Party's main fund-raising body, which was established by Mr
Yabsley in the late 1990s to replicate corporate fundraising practices.

Millennium Forum members are regularly invited to events hosted by NSW and federal ministers.

Last week the chairman of the Millennium Forum, Paul
Nicolaou, resigned after ICAC heard allegations it and another entity,
the Free Enterprise Foundation, were used to disguise payments from
prohibited donors including property donors to bankroll the Liberal
Party's campaign to win the 2011 NSW election.

Detailed questions were sent to the NSW Liberal party about
the North Sydney Forum, how it operates and why its membership is not
disclosed to authorities. A spokeswoman responded that the North Sydney
Forum was "covered by the Australian Electoral Act with donations
disclosed to the AEC in accordance with the law by the NSW division of
the party and funds are used for the work of the party".

Questions were also sent to Mr Hockey inviting him to
disclose details of his meetings with members. A spokewoman responded:
"Questions about the function and administration of the North Sydney
Forum should be addressed to them. The Treasurer's diary is

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