Electoral contests are increasingly about preferences and the brokers who cut deals that give minor parties a bigger say than they could possibly achieve on their own. Consider Family First, founded in 2002 and gaining its first major success with Victorian Steven Fielding, who was elected to the Senate on the back of a byzantine preference deal in 2004, despite receiving only 2500 primary votes.

But Fielding is no more. Instead, in the last few years the Victorian branch of Family First has been virtually taken over by people associated with property developer and party state director Ashley Fenn, his company, the Ethan Property Group, and his place of worship, the Ringwood-based GROW church.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the party’s policies now include advocating for a complete abandonment of rezoning controls for residential development on the city fringe, and an abolition of urban growth boundaries.

Of the 55 Family First upper and lower house candidates running in the Victorian election, six are members of the Fenn family, including Fenn’s wife, Cielo, who is contesting the marginal goldfields electorate of Wendouree, his son and daughter-in-law Brendan and Helen Fenn, who are contesting the upper house Northern Metropolitan region and the lower house seat of Northcote respectively. Then there is his daughter Janna Fenn, and family members Judith and Norman Fenn, who are contesting Eltham, Mildura and Mulgrave respectively.

At least 16 of the Family First candidates running in the Victorian state election are married couples, and another six are clearly from the same families. Most live far away from the electorates they are seeking to represent. In several cases, a married couple is contesting electorates at different corners of the state far from their homes.

Fenn’s Ethan Affordable Housing, one of the largest beneficiaries of the National Rental Affordability Scheme, has also been a rich candidate-recruiting ground.

Frank Giurleo, a real estate agent acting for Ethan, is the candidate for Brunswick. The candidate for Cranbourne, Pamela Keenan, is a former director of Ethan Affordable Housing, and Robert Keenan is the candidate for Bellarine.

Jamie Baldwin, the upper house candidate for Northern Victoria, was until recently part of the management team at Ethan, and Brendan Fenn, Ashley’s son, is the general manager of development for Ethan.

Family First candidates have refused media requests for interviews, with all calls being referred to Shane Clark, the upper house candidate for the Southern Metropolitan region. Clark is given as the main contact for Ethan’s development in Mooroopna, near Shepparton, and his family members are running for Family First in the Northern and Southern Metropolitan regions and in Geelong.

The Ethan Group includes a management consultancy that boasts on its website the “successful delivery of federal and state political campaigns” as among its team’s achievements. Ashley is also the largest single donor to Family First Victoria, contributing $70,000 in the 2013 financial year, according to documents lodged with the Australian Electoral Commission.

The other focus of Family First candidate recruitment is Ashley’s GROW Melbourne church. Twenty of the 55 Family First candidates have connections to GROW, and senior pastor Trudie Morris is the chairperson of Family First and upper house candidate for Eastern Victoria.

On the church’s website, Morris says opposition to abortion was a key motivation for her entry into politics.

Other GROW-aligned candidates include married couple Deborah and Keith Geyer, parents of former Australian Idol star Dean Geyer, who are contesting Albert Park and Buninyong. Candidates David and Ruth Clark co-host the Doncaster group of GROW.

Family First is contesting 39 lower house seats, including the 21 most marginal, the three inner-Melbourne seats, in which the contest is tight between Labor and the Greens, and the second and third most marginal National Party seats.

Ashley said Family First did not expect to win any seats in the lower house, but hoped for success in the upper house, and to influence the election result through the flow of preferences.

Asked whether it was a conflict of interest for a property development group in receipt of government support to dominate a political party, he said that Ethan did not take capital grants from government.

“We run affordable housing programs in a not-for-profit affordable housing structure. I don’t even take a wage from that structure … the government knows where every cent goes … the company operates purely above board.”

Family First has received the Liberal Party’s second preference in 25 of the 39 seats it is contesting, and the third preference in another eight seats.

Ashley is independently wealthy from years in the property development business, and he and Ethan Group also operate for-profit property interests across Melbourne.

Ashley Fenn previously ran in the Melbourne byelection in 2012, gaining 3% of the vote, but he says he’s not running this time around because of a major new commercial business project, to be announced in the next month.

Family First’s current policy platform includes opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, “getting the government off the back” of small business and opposition to the “climate change doctrine”. The party’s website claims that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, but a plant food that helps crops to grow.

The Victorian branch’s policy platform has recently added a major section asserting that affordable housing is not sufficiently available because land is locked up by government regulation. The policy says this should be addressed through the abolition of “master planning” and the abandonment of zoning restrictions on the urban fringe. Developers should be allowed to service new subdivisions with only the basics of water, sewerage and electricity, the policy says.

* Read the full article at UniPollWatch.orgAdditional research by Andy Hazel, Ronelle Richards and Scott Tibballs

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