With millions of dollars flowing in from some of the country’s wealthiest people, the so-called right-wing antidote to GetUp should be one of the most powerful forces in politics. Yet the fledgling Advance Australia group is still mired in obscurity.
Figures released this week show just how much its supporters are trying to turn the organisation into an effective vanguard against left-wing activism.
Despite having gained almost no public profile since it was set up in 2018 (unless you count its weird Captain GetUp misfire during the last election), Advance Australia was the second biggest spender on political campaigns in the 2019-20 financial year after the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). It spent $1.5 million on campaigns to “save free speech” and keep Australia Day on January 26.
That’s more than 10 times the amount spent by GetUp — just $114,570.
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Of course the figures don’t tell the full story. Australia’s political donation rules are so lax that only donations greater than $14,300 need be disclosed.
But it raises the question: who exactly are the wealthy benefactors propping up this flailing organisation, even when it seems to be fading into irrelevance?
It’s no secret the group is closely tied to the Liberal Party. As Crikey has reported, its former national director Gerard Benedet was a Liberal Party lifer who worked for Tony Abbott as an 18-year-old, and was most recently chief of staff to former Queensland Liberal National Party leader Tim Nicholls during his unsuccessful 2017 election campaign.
In the past two years it has received a steady stream of income from Sixmilebridge Pty Ltd, an entity controlled by former concrete magnate Rodney O’Neil, whose family has been a fixture in Sydney’s harbourside suburbs for decades.
Sixmilebridge has appeared on various conservative parties’ donor returns in the past few years. But it directed all its funding to Advance Australia this year.
The latest donor returns show the O’Neil family also provided Advance Australia with more income through several other entities. Telowar Pty Ltd, registered to O’Neil’s Double Bay address, donated $75,000.
And Willimbury, controlled by O’Neil’s brother Colin, and Helen O’Neil, threw in another $75k.
And Sixmilebridge contributed another $75,000 on top of that, rounding out the O’Neils’ contribution to $225,000.
Advance Australia also got $150,000 from the Burleigh Trust, $25,000 from businessman Peter Farrell and another $75,000 from Negidi Pty Ltd, which is not listed with the corporate regulator.
There was a big injection of cash last year — $1 million from Simon Fenwick, a Dan Andrews-hating fundie who had been moved to support the organisation after watching “socialism fail all around the world”.
Fenwick had previously been on Advance Australia’s advisory board and donated $280,000 to the Liberal Party in the lead-up to the 2019 federal election.
Advance Australia has a shopping list of cultural crusades it wants to push into the mainstream. Its most recent missive is a petition against Cricket Australia over its removal of the words “Australia Day” from its Big Bash League advertising material — more evidence, Advance Australia says, that the organisation is being bullied by “the Marxist-led Black Lives Matter movement”.
However, gaining mainstream appeal might be hard for a group backed almost solely by an investment banker and a bloke from Double Bay.