The group behind anti-LGBTI flyers being handed out to children on school buses and ads with rainbow nooses got its start thanks to a $1.6 million loan from a Sydney couple with strong ties to the Catholic Church.
Marriage Alliance began its operations in 2015 with a splash, a big iceberg advertisement warning about the “consequences” of marriage equality and making complaints that it wasn’t getting a fair hearing in the media. Since then, the group has become a go-to for broadcast media to get comment against marriage equality, with spokesperson Sophie York appearing on Four Corners, The Drum and other programs. While the organisation was notionally set up to fight against marriage equality, it has taken on a broader fight against the “gay agenda”, speaking out on a range of issues, most notably the obsession of conservatives: the Safe Schools program. The alliance’s anti-Safe Schools and anti-marriage equality flyers were recently found being handed out to children on school buses in regional Victoria, and the group was called out in Parliament by Labor MP Tim Watt for depicting a woman with a rainbow noose around her neck.
York has also lobbied for gay people to get a different term for marriage, called “garriage”.
While the group’s links to the Liberal Party are well known, the source of the organisation’s funding has been a mystery, until today.
Crikey can now reveal that the source of Marriage Alliance’s funding is an investment firm owned by a Sydney couple, Byron and Francine Pirola. Marriage Alliance recently filed its annual report with ASIC, and this document reveals Beronia Investments gave the group a $1.67 million loan in the last financial year.
Crikey then obtained company documents from Beronia Investments, which revealed the firm has just two directors: Byron and Francine Pirola.
Byron is a co-founder of a resources company and a director of a strategy management consulting firm, Port Jackson Partners. The Pirolas chair the Australian Catholic Marriage and Family Council, which advises the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference — the group behind the controversial “Don’t Mess with Marriage” flyer. The pair also run a Catholic marriage service called the Marriage Resource Centre, and run a “marriage enrichment seminar” called SmartLoving Marriage.
The pair recently spoke at a marriage conference in October that included speakers such as conservative Liberal MP Kevin Andrews, and David Lejeune, the CEO of the new international group set up to fight against marriage equality worldwide.
The co-chairs of the marriage council were previously Byron’s parents, Ron and Marie Pirola, who made headlines in 2014 when they met with Pope Francis to explain their views on the joys of sex, and also called for the Catholic Church to welcome gay people and couples into the fold.
While Marriage Alliance received a $1.6 million loan from the pair to kick off its activities, it’s not clear how or when it will be paid back or how the organisation will keep going. Marriage Alliance raised more than $250,000 in donations in the last financial year, but burned through $1.35 million on its marketing efforts, with flyers and television advertisements, and also spent more than $400,000 on wages. The company’s financial document states that due to the “terms of the loan” Marriage Alliance is confident it can continue to operate without being put into liquidation.
When Crikey asked Pirola about the loan, and if he supported Marriage Alliance’s attacks on marriage equality and Safe Schools, we did not hear back. Instead, we were contacted by Marriage Alliance out of the blue — the organisation is known for either not responding to requests for comment or taking a long time to respond — asking Crikey to hold off publishing this article until the accounts could be examined. A spokesperson for the group ultimately confirmed the Pirolas had loaned Marriage Alliance the money.
“Byron and Francine Pirola have worked for over 30 years in the family and marriage space including founding and operating the Marriage Resource Centre,” he said.
“Consistent with their efforts to support family and marriage, Byron and Francine agreed to provide a loan to assist with the foundation of Marriage Alliance via their personal investment company, Beronia Investments Pty Ltd. Beronia Investments has a wide range of financial investments, including commercial loans like this one to a number of listed and private companies. Neither Byron nor Francine are directors, shareholders, or employees of Marriage Alliance.”