Every week for the past two-and-a-half years, tens of thousands of Gold Coast residents have woken to the insights of veteran spin doctor Graham Staerk. Over 800 punchy words in his Gold Coast Bulletin column ‘Staerk Reality’, the self-styled “Mayor maker” regales readers with the glitter strip’s hot issues — usually local council shenanigans combined with the ups and downs of the property industry.
For Staerk — a registered lobbyist with a number of high-profile clients — the Bulletin column is the perfect gig, a platform to lecture the council, plug clients and present his credentials for future lobbying work. Unfortunately, it seems transparency and disclosure are not one of Staerk’s or Bulletin editor Dean Gould’s strong suits.
Crikey has reviewed all of Staerk’s 120 columns for the Bulletin. We found that existing and future clients (as listed on the Queensland Parliament lobbyists register), or Staerk’s direct associates, had been explicitly mentioned without disclosure on 12 separate occasions. As well, we counted 37 specific calls for the Gold Coast council to wind back charges or subsidise developers, who now feature prominently in Staerk’s paid client base.
Staerk, a fixture in the city’s business scene, is arguably just doing his job. But the Bulletin’s readers, without a context to place his columns, have been left in the dark.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
Staerk began as a media officer on then-ALP state secretary Peter Beattie’s staff in 1983 and masterminded former-Brisbane Lord Mayor Jim Soorley’s 1991 election victory, before joining him as a private secretary. Later, he struck out with own firm, Winning Directions, which collapsed in 2005 owing creditors $1 million and leaving him bankrupt.
In 2004, Staerk worked as an adviser on Ron Clarke’s triumphant run for the Gold Coast robes, while south of the border, he set up a spinoff outfit, Tweed Directions, that secured $500,000 in developer cash to fund a council takeover tilt. While the Tweed council was sacked following a public inquiry that accused Staerk of “a gross exercise in deceit”, the Queensland Labor government rejected a Crime and Misconduct Commission’s recommendation that developer donations be disclosed.
His business may have crumbled, but Staerk’s political connections continued to hold him in good stead. Over the last few years a number of prominent Gold Coast players have begun to re-emerge from under the Southport boardwalk, with the plotting plain to see in the pages of the Bulletin. Staerk started writing his column in January 2008 and registered a new lobbying outfit, Consultum Pty Ltd, owned by his wife Sarah, on 22 April 2009.
Since then, there is a catalogue of examples of how Staerk the columnist serves the interests of Staerk the lobbyist.
Geoff Burchill and the development lobby: In March 2009, before Consultum’s arrival, Resort Corp, a development outfit helmed by two of his close associates from the Tweed era — Paul Brinsmead and Peter Madrers — went bust owing $300 million. Staerk was working as the firm’s marketing manager and its collapse forced him back on to the job market. But his links to the industry were far from severed. A future client, development doyen Geoff Burchill, would soon start getting mentions in his columns. On 22 August last year [not online], Staerk plugged Burchill’s “Turning Point” development conference at the Marriott Hotel. “A cracking bunch of speakers” had apparently signed up, including Staerk’s old boss Jim Soorley. The conference got another shout out the following week, amid pleas for a group of the city’s “best and brightest” to band together and change public policy.
On May 6 2010, Burchill Strategic Projects signed up Consultum to formally start knocking on state and local government doors.
Icon Energy : On August 22 last year [not online], Staerk had some supportive words for someone called Ray James, was apparently keen to create “an iconic arts and community precinct on Wave Break Island”. “At its heart”, wrote Staerk, “would be a world-class Opera House to rival Sydney’s, with the addition of a concert hall, comedy theatre, playhouse and art gallery — all accessed by water and public transport tunnels”, which “offers our community glorious opportunities — if we are brave enough to take them.” There was just one problem — James needed the government to step in. But Staerk had a solution. “His tenacity in pursuing his plans will require both state and council support but he believes the funding solution can be sorted quickly with the introduction of a Gold Coast Opera House Lottery.”
Unfortunately, the Bulletin wasn’t quite brave enough to disclose to readers that just four days before, Staerk had been engaged by James’s Icon Energy conglomerate as a paid lobbyist. There was no reference to Icon, or the arrangement, in the column.
V8 Supercars: The Bulletin, along with a substantial chunk of the Gold Coast public, had become increasingly bored with the annual loss-making Indy/A1GP open-wheel flesh fest. But on October 24 last year Staerk decided to salvage something from the wreckage. That something was the V8 Supercars, who were planning a Gold Coast “SuperCarnivale” to replace the international imports. Staerk was their man with a byline: “It’s been all about Holden versus Ford and not a bunch of no-name international drivers on a taxpayer-funded binge to bikini-land.” But, according to Staerk’s “race organiser friend” only an “investment of $3-5 million” from the government could guarantee the V8’s future.
Three months later, on February 6, Staerk revealed in the Bulletin that he had been “hired by V8 Supercars to help sell its message of a reformed and family and community-friendly racing festival…because I’m proud of the V8 guys for the determination to limit the new SuperCarnivale’s footprint.” The next week, he flew to the SuperCarnivale launch at Sydney’s Fox Studios, “and I can say it was the best corporate sports event I’ve ever seen”. On March 26, Staerk was at it again, demanding a new “Major Events Precinct” on the Spit north of Sea World to house the Supercars, this time without any disclosure at all.
The only way for readers to make the V8 connection was if they had looked up Consultum’s entry on the Queensland government’s lobbyist register, which had been quietly updated on January 27.
Gold Coast Turf Club: Last Friday, Staerk added the Gold Coast Turf Club to his client list. But what had been happening in the opinion pages of the Gold Coast Bulletin in the weeks and months before? On January 9, Staerk told readers about “fabulous plans” to relocate the GCTC’s galloping and training facilities to a new facility at Palm Meadows. “I understand that a strong local push for the vision will soon be before the State Government.” Fast-forward four months to May 14. Queensland racing authorities were threatening to take majority control of the turf club. Staerk went for the jugular: “I have no doubt that a move of the track north would be on the cards long term and that would be a travesty. That’s why I’m backing the local club’s board in its tiff with Queensland racing.”
Fourteen days later, on May 28, the GCTC appeared on the register as an official client of Consultum.
Richard Holliday: Information obtained by Crikey from the Queensland Office of the Integrity Commissioner shows that on May 1, 2009, Sarah Staerk, the director and owner of Consultum, added Labor “mate” Richard Holliday to its employee register. Holliday, a serial ALP council candidate in the 1990s and the ex-husband of past-ALP Assistant State Secretary Linda Holliday, had resigned in 2008 as marketing chief of the Surfers Paradise Alliance, filling in time as a campaign chief to Ron Clarke rival Rob Molhoek. A year after the election, and 12 days before Holliday was added to Consultum’s register as a strategist, Staerk wrote his friend a 700-word job application in the Bulletin under the headline “Take a trip down Holliday road“. Holliday, according to Staerk, was “just so passionate about the Gold Coast and what it has to offer…someone should give this guy a badge or at least a job promoting the place.” The council needed to hire “someone like Richard who knows how Labor works.”
Once he joined Consultum, a fact invisible to the Bulletin‘s readers, Staerk was even more effusive. Holliday was the only person that could “clean up” the Gold Coast through a Rudy Giuliani-style zero tolerance policy [not online]: “…my good mate Richard Holliday is still right on the money”. Just weeks later, on October 10, he was still banging on about Holliday’s tough-on-crime credentials in terms befitting a political dynasty. “Apart from transport reform, Holliday wants a veritable army of coppers on the beat to tackle street crime; hundreds of CCTV cameras; and additional lighting.”
Holliday continues to serve as a strategist for Consultum.
Resort Corp: In 2008, the Gold Coast council, with its pro-development majority intact and Clarke at the helm, headed to the polls. Staerk says he was approached by Clarke to offer his services, but the Olympics legend withdrew the offer. And anyway, by this point, Staerk was running marketing for Resort Corp, run by his mates from the Tweed.
In January 2008, with Resort Corp brawling with the local community over permission to build an outsized apartment complex at Currumbin Beach, Staerk joined the Bulletin as an election commentator. Having been rejected by Clarke, his sympathies lay with the Holliday-backed Rob Molhoek, whom he likened in print to Robert Kennedy. In a letter to the Bulletin the following week, Molhoek’s rival, John Bradford, accused Staerk of a glaring conflict of interest, given that Resort Corp’s apartment complex was still before the council.
After an initial mention of Staerk’s job at Resort Corp in his inaugural column, the Bulletin fell silent.
Developers: It wasn’t just property industry scion Geoff Burchill who stood to benefit from Staerk Reality’s extra eyeballs. Crikey counted numerous direct demands to slash fees or increase subsidies, including a sustained campaign late last year against “Priority Infrastructure Plan” charges levied by the council. Here are some of the most blatant lobbying attempts:
November 8, 2008 [not online]: on the potential bail-out of serial political donor Jim Raptis’ disastrous Hilton Hotel project: “Our council has acted appropriately in planning to make available potential support…now is the time to act to ensure that as many projects as possible get out of the ground!”
September 5, 2009: on the Southport’s parklands $42 million facelift. “The ‘Bland-lands’ need restaurants, pools, a pub and accommodation options…developers should be encouraged through a special planning process to get involved in delivering such facilities, so the tax and rate-payer aren’t drained again.”
September 26, 2009: on a planned development “roadshow” to the southern states led by Labor-aligned councillor Eddy Sarroff: “What is the point in trying to attract new development investment at a time when our own council’s infrastructure charges are off the Richter scale and are discouraging development here?”
January 2, 2010: on the need for “higher density” living: “To cater for population growth without urban sprawl, the city must embrace higher densities in existing suburbs. Sadly, developers are usually pretty hopeless at the selling the benefits of higher density living to existing residents”. Someone else would have to do it for them.
The run culminated in this effort on March 19, with a direct call for fast-track planning approvals: “instead of miring small projects in red tape and inflated PIP charges…the city should be approving them hand over fist in the right areas.”
It seems some of the Coast’s biggest developers liked what they saw. On January 27, Staerk began lobbying for Pearls Australasia which had risen from the ashes of Resort Corp, again run by Brinsmead and Madrers. On May 6, Japanese developers Nifsan, responsible for the $1 billion Emerald Lakes development, and currently pursuing a $250 million extension, joined Staerk’s lobbying stable. And last Friday, Chinese developer Ridong signed, to assist with its plans to complete the Twin Tower Pacific Beach project abandoned by failed financier City Pacific.
The Gold Coast council: A not-so hidden subtext in Staerk’s offerings has been the formation of a group of “well-meaning local individuals” to lobby state and federal governments. Other councils had hired “prominent Labor aligned consultancies” to do their bidding in Brisbane and Canberra but the Coast was lagging behind. The only way to stop the rot was regime change at the council’s Evandale HQ.
In 2008, Clarke was re-elected but with the “conservative” vote split between Molhoek and Liberal Tom Tate meaning the pro-development “Bloc” narrowly lost a majority — an alliance of 7 notionally-unaligned candidates were now running the show. Over the next 28-months the ruling majority have been constantly attacked as “greens” and “lefties” in a similar manner to the Tweed.
Two weeks ago, Staerk nailed his colours to the mast, explicitly backing a Soorley tilt for mayor in 2012, naming other figures including Laura Younger and Paul Donovan as potential running partners. Staerk has repeatedly advocated a shift to proportional representation that would enable Labor to secure seats on the council.
Ron Clarke told Crikey that Staerk is hoping to install a Labor-leaning majority on the council, in the vein of his 1991 Jim Soorley triumph. And what better person to lead that pitch than Staerk’s old boss.
The Gold Coast Titans: Scattered throughout Staerk’s columns since January 2008 have been smattering of curious references to the Gold Coast Titans, who eventually signed with Consultum on May 6.
Two weeks after that addition, an extraordinary opinion piece appeared in the Bully under editor Dean Gould’s byline [not online], boldly stating that Titans co-captain Scott Prince was “innocent” of salary cap rorts and that CEO Michael Searle was hard done by, even while NRL investigators continue their probes into the club. That night, Gould attended the star-studded Titans annual ball wearing, according to the Bulletin, the same two-tone shoes as Titans forward Sam Tagataese.
Graham Staerk defended his record when contacted by Crikey, saying all his relationships are disclosed to Dean Gould in advance.
“I disclose everything. I have never offered a column for sale. I have never written about a specific business interest at any time,” he said. Staerk denied he was actively lobbying for the Gold Coast Turf Club, despite its inclusion last Friday on the lobbyist register.
“Sometimes my clients operate in a space that fits my narrative. And my narrative is what’s good for the Gold Coast.”
He backed his approach: “I am meticulous in how I conduct myself… I won’t be muzzled in expressing my opinion, because I don’t mind hitting back hard either.”
But he agreed that while he had never demanded one, the Bulletin should include a disclaimer on future columns: “My preference now is that there should have been a regular disclaimer. It should say that I provide the column on a complimentary basis and that I’m a professional working with a range of Gold Coast businesses.”
This morning in the Bulletin, following Crikey‘s inquiries yesterday, the following line appeared at the end of Staerk’s column:
“Graham Staerk is a corporate consultant and registered lobbyist.”
Gold Coast Bulletin editor Dean Gould did not respond to our calls.