More donations, better access?

Previously suppressed emails
before a corruption inquiry raise concerns over the access donors have
to senior politicians, reports Kate McClymont.

Labor has accused the federal government of taking "cash for
questions" after it was revealed that Tony Abbott's chief of staff, Peta
Credlin, planned to use Parliament to showcase the case of a prominent
Liberal Party donor against the carbon tax.

Emails between Ms Credlin and the former chief fund-raiser of
the NSW Liberal Party were suppressed last week by the Independent
Commission Against Corruption after lawyers acting for Liberal senator
Arthur Sinodinos said they could be subject to parliamentary privilege.

Peta Credlin, chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Peta Credlin, chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

But the suppression order was lifted on Monday after the
Speaker of the House of Representatives, Bronwyn Bishop, announced that
no claim for privilege would be made after Ms Credlin indicated she had
no objection to the emails being made public.

The emails reveal that, in March 2011, while the Coalition
was in opposition, Ms Credlin used a major donor to the Liberal Party,
Brickworks, as part of Tony Abbott's campaign against the carbon tax. 

Ms Credlin is married to Brian Loughnane, the party's federal
director. Brickworks was one of the largest corporate donors to the
Liberal Party, giving $384,000 in a nine-month period from July 2010 to
April 2011. As well as its brand Austral Bricks, Brickworks also lists
property development as a core business.

Paul Nicolaou, right, arrives at ICAC.
Paul Nicolaou, right, arrives at ICAC. Photo: Daniel Munoz

The ICAC has heard that Brickworks used the Free Enterprise
Foundation, a shadowy Canberra organisation, to channel $125,000 in
illicit donations to the NSW Liberals for the March 2011 state election.
Since 2009, property developers have been banned from donating to NSW
political parties, but it is legal for such donations to go to federal

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus has dubbed the saga
"cash for questions", saying: "We have claims that one of the Liberal
Party biggest donors is virtually writing Tony Abbott's question time
strategy. These are some remarkable allegations that go to the highest
levels of the Abbott government."

But Ms Credlin's letter approving the release of the emails
makes it clear that her priority was highlighting the concerns of
Brickworks managing director Lindsay Partridge about the impact of the
carbon tax on his business. While senior Liberals declined to comment on
the email, they stressed that all donations had been disclosed.


One of the previously suppressed emails reveals that on March
1, 2011, the former chief fund-raiser of the NSW Liberal Party, Paul
Nicolaou, sent Ms Credlin an email titled "Re Carbon Tax" advising that
Brickworks was "a very good supporter of the party".

Mr Nicolaou attached an earlier message from Mr Partridge, which read: "Paul, Tell Tony to stick to his guns on no carbon tax.

"I am running an internal fight with the BCA [Business
Council of Australia] who seem to be driven by a few companies who will
make bundles out of the tax."

Ms Credlin replied enthusiastically to Mr Nicolaou's request.

"Lindsay provided a great line for question time. Do you have
a number that I might be able to contact him on and see if he was happy
for us to use it", she said.

Mr Partridge, who was in France, copied Ms Credlin into an
email he sent to Mr Nicolaou in reply and provided further ammunition
for use in question time.

Two months later, on May 2, 2011, Mr Abbott, then opposition
leader, visited the Austral Bricks factory in Melbourne, which he
proclaimed was "one of the most efficient plants in the world".

He claimed a carbon tax would cause a 10 per cent rise in
costs at Brickworks, which would be passed on to consumers. On September
1, 2011, Mr Abbott was photographed with Mr Partridge, this time at the
Austral Bricks site at Horsley Park in western Sydney, again claiming
how much the tax would affect the cost of bricks.

On September 14, Mr Abbott told  Parliament that the carbon
tax would add $2 million a year to Austral Bricks' costs. Between March
and September, other members of the Liberal opposition referred to
Brickworks in Parliament, including the then finance spokesman Mathias
Cormann and Paul Fletcher, the member for the northern Sydney seat of

"What have people in the manufacturing sector to say about
this carbon tax?" Mr Fletcher said on September 19. "Mr Lindsay
Partridge, the managing director of Brickworks, had this to say: 'The
end result will be an exodus of manufacturing industries and investment
offshore, jobs will be lost, the cost of housing will increase and there
will be no change to carbon emissions."' 

The emails, which were briefly made public last week, were
quickly removed after Arnold Bloch, the law firm acting for Senator
Sinodinos, raised concerns about parliamentary privilege. 

Ms Credlin has told the Speaker's office in a letter that she
has no objection to her email correspondence being released.
Coincidentally, Mrs Bishop was also referred to in the same volume of
exhibits. She was a director of the Dame Pattie Menzies Foundation
Trust, which received $11,000 from the Free Enterprise Foundation on
December 9, 2010, which it then directed to the NSW branch of the party
for use in the 2011 state election.  The previous day, Mr Partridge sent
a cheque for $125,000 to the Free Enterprise Foundation with a note
that read: "We trust this donation will provide assistance with the 2011
NSW state election campaign."

In July 2010,  Mr Nicolaou, who was getting a 6 per cent cut
of all donations he collected, emailed Simon McInnes, the finance
director of the NSW Liberal Party boasting: "Please note! Another $50k
for us via Free Enterprise Foundation from Brickworks." Only a minute
earlier, Mr Partridge had sent an email saying: "Paul, via the
diversionary organisation there is $50k for NSW, $250k in total."

Mr Nicolaou shared the news of the  donation with Mr
Loughnane, as well as Senator Sinodinos, then treasurer of the NSW
Liberal Party, who will give evidence on Friday. Another Brickworks
director, Robert Webster, was on the NSW Liberals' finance committee.

Mr Mark Dreyfus said: "We have claims that one of the Liberal
Party's biggest donors is virtually writing Tony Abbott's question time
strategy. This is cash for questions."

Greens senator Lee Rhiannon urged the government to implement "far-reaching electoral funding reform".