‘Platinum member’: How billionaire’s fee to failed political party was spent

‘Platinum member’: How billionaire’s fee to failed political party was spent

April 28, 2023

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A failed political party described a billionaire as a “platinum member” to explain his $250,000 payment that would have breached Victorian electoral laws if it was counted as a donation.

Members demanded to know how the Victorians Party burnt through the fee, paid by Jonathan Munz within the state’s donation rules.

The annual general meeting last month – attended by only five people including the leadership team – was told that a senior member of the party received $112,000 in consultancy fees for six months of work.

The Victorians Party received $250,000 from a company connected to billionaire Jonathan Munz, pictured in 2008.Credit: Martin King

This masthead in February revealed that GSA Capital, a company owned by Munz – who previously rejected an approach to top up the taxpayer-funded salary of the then-opposition leader’s chief of staff, Mitch Catlin – paid the Victorians Party $250,000 as an annual subscription fee.

The payment was within the rules because membership fees are exempt from donation caps of $4320, prompting integrity experts to call for the loophole to be closed.

The short-lived political party withdrew from the November state election in August, stating it had been hamstrung by donation rules introduced in 2018, angering some members who questioned where the money went.

This masthead can reveal that a senior member within the party, Randal Killip, received $112,000 in consultancy fees for a period of about six months last year.

Killip was on the party’s state support committee when the contract began in March last year. He went onto become the party chair in July.

Party secretary Bill Lang, also the executive director of lobby group Small Business Australia, told the March annual general meeting that the potential conflict of interest was properly declared and managed.

In a statement, Lang said the party met all legal obligations and requirements.

“The consulting work done by Randal Killip for the Victorians Party was on a reasonable and commercial arm’s length basis,” he said.

“It was approved by the Victorians Party executive and has never been questioned. Randal’s work was excellent, and he spent much of the relevant period working full-time for the party. He also provided services at no cost pre-incorporation and pre-registration and has continued to work at no cost for the party since September 2022.”

A financial audit was also circulated at the AGM.

Lang told the meeting that Munz was a “platinum member” to explain his $250,000 annual fee.

It is not suggested Munz received or expected to receive anything from the payment, which was disclosed to the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) as required.

Membership fees are not bound by the $4320 donation caps, introduced in Victoria in 2018. Subscription fees need to be deposited into a separate account and cannot be used for political campaigning.

New parties and independents struggled to fund their campaigns in Victoria as a result of the donation cap, while established parties benefited from public funding and registered “nominated entities”, which can provide unlimited cash to Labor, the Liberals and the Nationals.

Uncapped affiliation fees from associated entities, such as those from unions to Labor, are also allowed.

Kathleen Browne, a member of the party who attended the AGM, said the donation rules were unfair for minor parties and independents.

But she said the actions of the Victorians Party did not pass the pub test and questioned whether the platinum membership should be considered a breach of donation rules.

“My passion is to bring integrity back to politics and everything the Victorians Party presented aligned with that … But unfortunately ‘integrity’ was just a word to them,” Browne said.

Geoffrey Watson, SC, a former counsel assisting the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, said subscription fees were an obvious loophole and the VEC should investigate whether the payment was for bona fide membership.

“The fact that there’s a $250,000 membership fee for joining the party … makes you wonder,” said Watson, now a director of the Accountability Round Table.

Dr Catherine Williams, research director at the Centre for Public Integrity, said subscription and affiliation fees should be capped at $2000 in line with NSW.

Other members of the party had their membership fees refunded after the party voluntarily deregistered in September.

A spokeswoman for the VEC said it would be inappropriate to comment or confirm whether the payment was being investigated or not.

“Membership fees, annual affiliation fees and/or annual levies are not considered political donations, as long as they are not paid into the recipient’s state campaign account. However, if anyone has information or evidence of a breach of electoral law they should lodge this as a complaint.”

This masthead last year revealed Catlin asked Munz in leaked emails to top up his taxpayer-funded job, in what could have amounted to an attempted breach of new donation caps. The proposal never eventuated and Munz said he rejected it out of hand.

Munz was contacted for comment on Friday. Killip referred this masthead to the party’s executive.

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