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For many years Kerry Packer has been swapping sides politically to back whoever will look after his commercial interests. This year it was $100,000 to the Victorian ALP which deadened the roar for a Royal Commission into Crown casino. How long can these grubby deals be tolerated?

Campaign finance scandals are bringing down Wahid right now, have destroyed Helmut Kohl, gave Tony Blair his biggest scare thanks to Bernie Ecclestone’s money and have also been huge stories in the US, Canada, Israel and Japan over the years, just to name a few.

Yet Australia never has a big issue with it. Could this be because our major media companies are some of the biggest donors.

Village Roadshow owns the two most popular FM radio stations in Australia’s major cities and they have given about $3 million to the Liberal Party since John Howard got into office.

They gave another $230,000 to the Libs this year so why didn’t any of the newspapers carry this line in any of their stories:

“Village Roadshow have turned a $300 million investment in Australia’s radio sector into an investment worth $1.2 billion over the past five years, largely because the government had held off issuing new licences leaving Australia as the most regulated and least competitive radio market in the western world.”

And what on earth happened to the Murdoch press on Friday morning when it came to reporting Kerry Packer’s blatant payments to the Victorian Labor Party in return for their backflips over Crown.

This is the sequence of events:

Sept 94: Packer gives Kennett $400,000 (as told by Kennett’s former press sec Steve Murphy to Crikey) settling a defamation action when he is $100 million in front on his investments in Crown and Hudson Conway.

Late 1998: PBL buys Crown for $1.8 billion leaving Packer with much regulatory exposure given he has a government licence to run the operation.

Sept 99: Packer media show blatant pro-Kennett bias. Jeff appears twice on Burke’s Backyard during the election and the Sunday program launches two vicious attacks on branch stacking implicating Steve Bracks directly but relying on two year old footage.

Sept 99: Packers cancel proposed meeting with Bracks’s fundraising team after Herald Sun publishes front page story saying Lloyd Williams is under a probity cloud. Lachlan Murdoch instructed Herald Sun editor Peter Blunden to run anti-Packer stories at this time and Blunden told Bracks they were keen for Crown-bashing yarns.

Sept 18, 99 (election day): Packer camp reads the newspoll in the Weekend Australian and say “shit, Labor could snatch this”. Call is put in from the Packer compound at Bellview Hill to the Labor fundraising camp trying to reinstate the meeting.

Oct 99: Bracks meets with James Packer and Grahan Richardson and discuss Crown which Labor have threatened to hold a Royal Commission into.

Oct 99: Packer critic Rob Hulls is moved from the Gaming portfolio and replaced by John Pandazopolos. Richo tells Crikey over lunch in Sydney that Pander is “a nice young fellow”.

Oct 99: Packer gives $100,000 to Labor two days before the Frankston East by-election.

Dec 99: Packer takes two tables at the $1000 a head fundraiser held at the Grand Hyatt, thereby donating an extra $20,000. This fundraiser is the biggest ever held by Labor and raises $800,000 but Packer is the biggest single donor and James sits next to Bracks on the insistence of Labor’s state secretary David Feeney. Bracks staffers were opposed to this and the table arrangements were revealed after Crikey pinched the guest list from the wall of the Grand Hyatt. Labor fundraisers are now held at Crown, but do they pay for the room hire?

Given that PBL’s share price has risen from $9.50 to about $13 since Bracks was elected and that Crown is the powerhouse division, it is amazing that the Murdoch press have chosen not to explore any of these issues with much vigour.

The whole scenario is an absolute scandal. The ABC is running scared because Packer has just won a defamation battle with them and even Fairfax is a bit hesitant because Packer is suing Fred Hilmer personally.

The Murdochs must be getting on well with the Packers at the moment based on Friday’s pathetic coverage. Let’s hope things change soon.

The other disgraceful thing about the political donations is that most of our commercial media outlets are big donors. Maybe this explains why the issues don’t get the run they deserve.

Kerry Stokes’s Seven Network gave $115,000 to the Libs – that would be a thank you for the digital decision which protected the incumbent free to air players from competition from Murdoch.

The foreign controlled Ten Network gave a total of $110,000 to both parties. They should have been stripped of their licence years ago for breaching foreign ownership levels that saw the original investors turn $90 million of equity into about $2 billion. And Ten owns 15 per cent of Southern Cross Broadcasting, the company that employs shock jock Steve Price who is suing Crikey for defamation in a frivolous and hypocritical action. We’ll be raising this and other matters with our friends at Ten in the months ahead.

Sydney spin doctor Max Markson has emerged as one of the favoured bagmen of the NSW Right who we hear are making some inquiries into Crikey after our recent attacks on Carr’s spinning mates at Hawker Britten.

Check out this story by legendary SMH journalist Ian Verrender about Markson last Friday. It also summarises some of the issues with other donors.

Spin king tops the list of donors

By Ian Verrender

Max Markson, the incorrigible London-born huckster, has forged a reputation in Sydney as a man who will do almost anything to get his or his clients’ names in the newspapers.

But even he yesterday admitted that there were easier and certainly cheaper ways to achieve notoriety than by donating $829,275 to the Australian Labor Party.

According to figures released by the Australian Electoral Commission yesterday, Mr Markson’s publicity company, Markson Sparks, was the biggest donor to any party in the year to June 30, 2000, eclipsing the donations of Australia’s wealthiest individuals and biggest corporations.

“The money may have come out of my bank account but not out of my pocket,” he said. “We’ve held six fundraising functions, including tribute dinners for Gough [Whitlam] and Wayne Goss, for the ALP in the past 18 months and raised about $1.7 million.”

Unlike Mr Markson, thousands of Australians last financial year dug deeply to help fund the political fortunes of the major political parties.

Mr Richard Pratt, the impeccably connected Melbourne businessman and long-time Liberal Party stalwart, claimed line honours as the biggest donor to the Liberal Party with a $453,000 outlay.

Australia’s second wealthiest man long has been known as a patron of the arts. But he also is a major recipient of government funds. In 1999, the Howard Government and the NSW Government awarded Mr Pratt’s privately owned paper and cardboard company a $40 million grant to help him build a state-of-the-art pulp and paper mill at Tumut in the Snowy Mountains.

Mr Pratt, worth an estimated $2.4 billion, wasn’t entirely partisan in his political donations, handing over $140,000 to the Australian Labor Party.

Australia’s wealthiest man, Mr Kerry Packer, also featured prominently, with the AEC records detailing $175,000 to the ALP from Publishing and Broadcasting and the Nine Network, but just $35,000 to the Liberals, amounts that do not correspond with those listed by the individual parties, where the donations appear to be much higher.

One $100,000 donation, to the Victorian branch of the ALP, was made just days before the crucial by-election that elevated Mr Steve Bracks to the Premiership.

Property developer Mr Lang Walker, who since has stepped aside from Walker Corp, donated $57,000 to the ALP and just $4,000 to the Liberal Party. The company was found liable for $11.5 million in damages last March in the Supreme Court for breach of promise after failing to live up to promises to a partner that it would use its political connections to have a property development rezoned.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-In-Chief of Crikey

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