Liberal Senator Ben Small
Liberal Senator Ben Small (Image: AAP)

Mathias Cormann’s replacement in the Senate has been described as an “ordinary citizen” from “small beginnings”, a bar owner with no experience in politics who unexpectedly found himself in Canberra.

But beneath the wave of PR spin that welcomed Senator Ben Small’s appointment to Parliament is a savvy political operator who has spent considerable time working his way up in the Liberal Party while also being employed at one of Australia’s most powerful companies, oil and gas giant Woodside. 

Woodside is one of the biggest corporate donors to the Coalition, contributing almost $200,000 to Liberal and National Party coffers last financial year, and the company has benefitted from a range of government policies including an $8.8 million grant to help advise the government on how to clean up its own abandoned vessel in the Timor Sea.  

Small still holds shares in Woodside, as well as another major WA-based mining company MMA Offshore, raising a potential conflict of interest. 

So who is Ben Small, and does the oil and gas industry have a new friend in Parliament? 

Long-time Lib

Small was hand-picked by the WA Liberals to replace retired minister Mathias Cormann in the Senate late last year. 

Despite being painted as no expert in the field of politics, the 32-year-old’s affiliation with the Liberal Party goes back almost a decade. 

Small was a campaigner for the Liberal Party’s Bunbury branch in WA before becoming the vice president in 2013. He later served as president of the branch from 2015 to 2017 and became president of the Forrest division from 2017 to 2020. 

In 2016 he made a tilt for federal parliament, mounting an unsuccessful challenge to sitting federal MP Nola Marino. It was then that he was billed a future prime minister by WA Liberal powerbroker Geoff Prosser. 

Prosser, a former WA MP and WA Liberal Party president, wrote to preselectors at the time urging them to back Small, claiming he “can one day be a very senior minister if not achieve even higher office”.

Prosser’s backing was not entirely serendipitous — Small went to school with his son, Michael, with whom he co-owns a bar in Bunbury

Gas the ‘next pariah

Small’s first speech to the Parliament last week was filled with the usual small-government platitudes: lower taxes, free trade, personal freedoms. But he also singled out the importance of the resources industry and made no mention of climate change.

He told AAP in November that his experience in the energy sector would prove an asset under Scott Morrison’s push for a “gas-led recovery”, warning that gas was at risk of becoming “the next coal” and a “bit of a pariah like the activist left have made it”.

“Gas being front and centre of the Morrison energy plan is a real opportunity for Western Australia,” he said. 

In addition to Small’s shares in Woodside and MMA Offshore, Small remains a shareholder National Australia Bank and Webjet. He also owns five investment properties around Bunbury and is a director of property investment group Ascension.

Crikey contacted Small’s office to ask whether his mining shares presented a conflict of interest, but a spokesperson did not respond to questions.

If you have any tips or information about conflicts of interest, please email us at [email protected], or get in touch through our tips line.