Australia’s rich funding ‘grassroots’ No group

Earlier this week, Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price made an unexpected announcement about her campaign to defeat the Voice to Parliament referendum.

The breakout star of the Coalition had defected from a committee she’d started, Recognise a Better Way, in favour of heading up “a new grassroots No campaign funded by right-wing activist group Advance”, The Australian reported

Price’s involvement with Advance’s campaign (formerly Advance Australia) against the Voice, called Fair Australia, is unsurprising. The Country Liberal Party senator was named as the right-wing lobby group’s spokeswoman in 2020, before she was elected to the Senate last year. Her comments are frequently packaged and shared to Advance’s 104,000 followers on Facebook and beyond with paid advertising.

However, Advance is far from a normal grassroots organisation. Crikey analysis of Advance’s most recent filing with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) reveals that the group is funded by some of Australia’s richest people, often obscured by holding companies and donations spread across associated individuals. 

Associates and holding companies funding Advance

In the 2021-22 financial year (which includes last year’s federal election), Advance reported receiving $2.45 million — $723,422 in amounts that were over the mandatory disclosure threshold of $14,500. 

Crikey analysis of disclosed donors reveals that just 12 associated individuals and groups were responsible for at least 30% of Advance’s entire funding during the year, often through a series of donations or through holding companies.

These include:

  • $112,500 from Louis Denton and Rayleen Giusti, who both have links to the Garnaut property family. Giusti, who gave $37,500, is employed as a personal assistant to the managing director of Garnaut Private Wealth, Chris Garnaut. Garnaut is also the founder of Fawkner Property, a property fund that has “arranged and managed property syndicates to a total value in excess of $500 million”. Denton, who gave $75,000, listed his address in the same Melbourne building as both Garnaut Private Wealth and Fawkner Property. Denton’s wife, Katherine Denton, told wedding publication Harrold’s Journal that Kathy Garnaut, a director of Garnaut Private Wealth, is a “close friend”
  • $75,000 from various members of Sydney’s millionaire O’Neil family, through holding companies Nedigi Pty Ltd, SixMileBridge Pty, and Willimbury Pty Ltd, documents lodged with ASIC reveal. The companies have been among some of the largest disclosed AEC donors over the last three financial years. Rodney and Janette O’Neil, whose father established Australian Blue Metal, are listed by ASIC as directors of both Nedigi and SixMileBridge. Their brother Colin, meanwhile, is listed as director of Willimbury. The three companies made donations of $25,000 each. 
  • $75,000 from JMR Management Consultancy Services. Company documents lodged with ASIC list Melbourne businessman Brett Ralph as the sole director and secretary. He owns the transport company “Jet Couriers”, and with his brother Shaun owns a 20% stake in the Melbourne Storm NRL club. 
  • $50,000 from former fund manager, Simon Fenwick and his partner Lisa, the directors of Silver River Investment Holdings. The $50,000 donation is a drop in the pond for Simon, who in 2020 donated a record $1 million to the group to help fight “left-wing agendas” and “dictatorial” politicians like Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.
  • $45,000 from Gabrielle and John Hull, a Queensland couple who’ve frequently donated to both the Liberal National Party and Advance.
  • $25,000 from Ian Tristram, CEO of the 100-something-year-old company Trisco Foods which created the “Trisco” soft drink before selling it to Cadbury.
  • $25,000 from Telowar Pty Ltd, a company linked to the owners of Taylor Wines. The company lists Loretta Taylor, Victoria Taylor, Angela Cattana, Michell Taylor, Justin Taylor and Clinton Taylor as directors. Both Cattana and Mitchell Taylor use Taylor Wines as their address. This company had also given $125,000 to Advance in the two years prior.
  • $20,000 from Andrew Abercrombie, a multimillionaire Liberal party powerbroker and chair of buy now pay later company Humm. A cocktail party at his luxury Aspen chalet in 2020 was ground zero for a COVID-19 cluster affecting wealthy Victorians.
  • $20,000 from Marcus Blackmore, the scion of the Blackmore supplements empire. 
  • $20,000 from Siesta Holdings Australia, a company which lists storage king and long time Advance backer Sam Kennard as one of its directors. 

The remaining $171,628 came from the Australian Taxation Office. (The ATO told Crikey it couldn’t comment on an individual case but said generally that funds declared to the AEC could include deposits related to income tax, GST or other employer obligations.)

This analysis considers only disclosed donations that were above the $14,500 threshold. More than a third of donations to political parties in 2021-22 were made up of “dark money”.

Despite denying it has links to the Liberal Party, Advance has a number of connections with the Coalition including listing former ACT Liberal MLA Vicki Dunne as a director. Unlike many grassroots organisations, Advance has a history of using advertising firms to assist with its campaigns; its Facebook lists Whitestone Strategic and RJ Dunham & Co as partnered organisations. 

While Advance’s early efforts to campaign online were hamstrung when Meta rejected Facebook ads against the Voice for containing misinformation, the group launched its Voice-specific website and Facebook page this week. A section of the website seeks to organise volunteers to phone canvas, man polling booths, and even call in to talkback radio stations to argue against the Voice.

In a statement to Crikey, Senator Price said she respects the work of the national committee, but believes her efforts would be better spent focusing on the Fair Australia campaign, as opposed to the “thought leadership and policy focus of Recognise a Better Way”.

On donations, she said: “Donations to Advance are a matter for them, however, I am aware that the campaign has already attracted more than 79,000 supporters to be a part of their grassroots campaign.

“I would further note that the Yes campaign is a big-government, big-corporate-funded exercise that is about as far away from the reality of vulnerable Indigenous Australians that you can get.”

Advance declined to comment on the campaign.

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