Interestingly, property developers are prohibited donors under the NSW Election Funding, Expenditure and Disclosures ACT (1981) and it is illegal for them to give donations to candidates or political parties in NSW. (The Liberal Party has already been tainted by these kinds of donations following its 2011 victory).
Property developers Tony Perich and Arnold Vitocco own Narellan Town Centre and these two plus Mark Perich and Irene Vitocco make up the four directors. We can only surmise that these four also represent the board of the Centre.
As you can see in the timeline, in June this year, the Centre had already refused to allow a Federal Greens candidate, Danica Sajn, to have a similar space at the Centre. It is worthy of note that at no time in the Greens email exchanges with the Centre that we have in our possession was their any suggestion that the space was free.
But at the end of the day, payment or not, it didn't matter. To directly quote the final email sent by a representative of Narellan Town Centre on June 27.
“Unfortunately the Board has declined your request to have a stall in the Centre.”
But back to the Libs. Had there normally been a cost for the space they occupied, this donation to the Liberals candidates would have fallen squarely under prohibited donors in the NSW Act, because the Directors of Narellan Town Centre are property developers or close associates.
But after an email exchange with Narellan Town Centre, it appears even though the Liberal candidates were given the space over a number of days for free, this space has always been free to community groups. The implication was that the Liberals candidates fell under the definition of a community group, so no cost was involved as would be the case with a business.
The Centre further claimed in an email that all of these free spaces were booked up until the day of the election, September 10, so none were available for other candidates or parties.
However, several days after the Liberals had moved on this space, and others, clearly appeared to be vacant.
After an additional exchange of emails – and a call to Narellan Town Centre from the Sydney Morning Herald, which had been alerted to the curious Liberal campaign booth - the Centre unexpectedly found they did indeed have free spaces.
They notified me of their availability late on Monday, saying other candidates could use them on Wednesday and Friday, just before the election. You can see the process that led up to this in the timeline of events.
But even if this space had remarkably become available at the last minute, the reason this case needs to be looked at more closely is because of two key points.
- By providing the desk for free and in an area that is always free for use then the floorspace is not a donation or gift that must be declared to the NSW Electoral Commisson.
- Because of this, it doesn’t matter whether the advantage the party gained from this space came from a property developer or not because it is not a gift or a donation. It doesn’t even matter if one party is allowed to use the space while another is not.
Inadvertently, this sequence of events has exposed a potential loophole in the NSW Election Funding, Expenditure and Disclosures ACT (1981) that other prohibited donors may be able to exploit. While no money is involved there is clearly an opportunity for prohibited donors to give one party an unfair advantage over another.
With political donations so much in the news, perhaps this is the time to make an amendment to the Act to prevent this kind of advantage being offered in the future.
For those interested, you can find a full timeline of the events and emails exchanges behind this story here.