Former Newcastle mayor and property developer Jeff McCloy (left) (Image: AAP/Dan Himbrechts)

Who exactly was pushing NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro to try and blow up the government over koala protection policy? Turns out, it wasn’t concerned citizens or rogue farmers pushing the Nats to defend their right to kill koalas.

Instead, as The Sydney Morning Herald revealed today, the only stakeholder to raise an objection to the koala protections was property developer Jeff McCloy. Of course McCloy is just a footnote to the great koala war, but he is a fascinating character in his own right. 

The real McCloy

Before being elected Newcastle’s lord mayor in 2012, Jeff McCloy built a name for himself around the Hunter as a blustering property developer with many fingers in many pies — a kind of Novocastrian Buddy Garrity, the fictional pushy fundraiser in the American football series Friday Night Lights.

As chairman of the Hunter Mariners in the 1990s, McCloy was embroiled in the Super League war that nearly broke Australian rugby league. He then gained a measure of fame when his 41-metre superyacht “Seafaris” (winner at the 2007 World Superyacht Awards) was rented out to the stars, including Princess Mary and Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark. (McCloy threatened to move Seafaris to Europe when two other guests, Giorgio Armani and an Emirati sheikh couldn’t visit parts of the Great Barrier Reef because the yacht was too big.)

A vocal critic of environmental planning laws, he once even helped sponsor a speaking tour for British climate change denier Lord Christopher Monckton. 

In 2005, he also made a series of corruption allegations to the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) against far-north Queensland mayor Mike Berwick, who had rival business interests in the region. This was helped along by Liberal MP Bob Baldwin tabling the claims under parliamentary privilege.

The CMC dropped all McCloy’s complaints. But that didn’t stop him also suing Berwick for defamation over public statements made against him, later settling out of court. 

McCloy won the mayoral race in 2012, campaigning against a rail line through the centre of Newcastle. In office, he was initially best known for scrubbing off pro-LGBT rainbow footpaths. And then ICAC came into the picture.

A walking ATM

A year into McCloy’s term as lord mayor, Seafaris caught fire and sunk off Cairns. It would be an omen of what was to come.

In 2014, ICAC’s Operation Spicer revealed McCloy spent the 2011 state election driving around in his Bentley delivering wads of cash to Liberal candidates. State laws banned McCloy, as a property developer, from making political donations.  

One of those candidates to get cash was vet Andrew Cornwell — he was midway through operating on a dog when McCloy arrived at his doorstep with $10,000. At the hearings, McCloy was initially unrepentant. He was just doing it all for the good of Newcastle, he said. It wasn’t his fault politicians treated him “like a walking ATM”. At a lunch break between sessions, journalists were handed a 50-page dossier by McCloy, outlining his various good deeds, and quoting from Mother Teresa

Then the walls started to close in: candidates who received McCloy’s donations stepped down, then-premier Mike Baird called for his head. McCloy resigned as mayor.

But then, he decided to hit back by going to the High Court. He argued the NSW laws capping political donations and banning property developers were at odds with the constitution’s implied freedom of political communication. The court thought otherwise, handing down a judgment that will keep McCloy immortalised in law textbooks for years to come.

Out of politics, beaten in court, burned by ICAC, McCloy is still around — always ready to offer his takes on Newcastle politics. And koalas.