Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Labor at odds over billionaire's advances, by Siobhain Ryan and Imre Salusinszky - The Australian - 3rd February 2009

NSW Labor has washed its hands of one of the country's most generous political donations, from a company linked to Hong Kong gambling billionaire Stanley Ho, while accepting another $400,000 directly from the man himself.

The branch's general secretary, Matt Thistlethwaite, last night told The Australian the party had sent back a $600,000 donation - the equal largest received in 2007-08 by any political party - from Gold Coast-based company Hungtat Worldwide, which lists Dr Ho as a director.

But its decision to accept a $400,000 cheque from Dr Ho puts it at odds with federal Labor, which turned down a $500,000 donation from Dr Ho's wife, Angela Leong, in the same financial year.

Explaining why the party returned Hungtat's money within days of receiving it in September 2007, Mr Thistlethwaite said: "At the time, the party's finances were sufficient to cover our expenditure. The donation was not required, so it was returned."

It is understood senior party officials at the time were concerned about negative publicity surrounding large donations from developers and other business interests.

Details of Dr Ho's generosity were contained in the Australian Electoral Commission's annual disclosure of political financing, which reveals the extent of corporate influence on the major parties.

Dr Ho declared a $200,000 donation to NSW Labor, but the branch's official disclosure put it at double that amount.

Both sides of politics have drawn heavily on major business figures, including billionaire Melbourne cardboard tycoon Richard Pratt, who donated $200,000 to the federal Liberal Party and $100,000 to federal Labor.

In other big donations, the founder of the collapsed ABC Learning centres, Eddy Groves, donated $50,000 to the Liberal Party.

Pulp mill proponent Gunns also donated $56,000 to the Liberal Party in the weeks after the Howard government gave conditional approval for the company's $2.2 billion Tasmanian pulp mill.

Dr Ho and Hungtat's donations flowed into Labor's coffers in NSW while the government of former premier Morris Iemma was considering whether to grant a second casino licence in NSW.

Eventually, the government decided to extend its exclusivity agreement with the Tabcorp-owned Star City, in a $100 million deal.

In 1986, Dr Ho was deemed a person "unsuitable" to hold a casino licence when he was part of a consortium that launched a bid for a stake in the NSW gambling market. In 2007-08, federal Labor refused a gift of nearly $500,000 from Ms Leong, Dr Ho's fourth wife.

The Australian yesterday visited a Surfers Paradise home, listed as Ms Leong's residence. The cream, double-storey home on the Gold Coast's exclusive waterfront island address of Cronin Island was shut up with blinds drawn.

ALP national secretary Karl Bitar said that, given the size of the donation, "the ALP conducted a due diligence assessment of this donation and decided that it should be returned".

Special Minister of State John Faulkner is currently championing changes to political disclosure laws that would ban foreign and anonymous donations for all political parties, whether state or federal.

The bill, now before the Senate, also brings the disclosure threshold for donations down from more than $10,000 to $1000, and shifts from annual to twice-year reporting obligations.

The Opposition has accused the ALP national secretariat of circumventing the Government's political disclosure standards by accepting NSW Labor money in the same year the branch received Dr Ho's donation.

Opposition spokesman on matters of state Michael Ronaldson said it was gross hypocrisy of federal Labor to take a public stand against foreign donations while accepting $925,000 from a state branch that drew on offshore contributors.

"It's almost a backdoor way of getting donations into the federal campaign," he said.

Dr Ho, who has featured in the Forbes list of the 100 richest people in the world, has high-placed contacts after four decades in the Macau gambling business.

His son Lawrence is a co-owner with James Packer of the giant Crown Macau casino.

At a Labor Party fundraiser in 2006, Dr Ho successfully bid $48,000 for lunch with Mr Iemma -- but did not bother to collect hisprize.

In 2006, Kevin Rudd spoke at a ceremony in Beijing to mark a $1.3billion retail redevelopment by Dr Ho and business partner Ian Tang or Tang Yui. Mr Tang, who has helped finance some of Mr Rudd's past China trips, is a director in Sydney-based Aust-China Information Technology.

The company boasts the same address as a Sydney-based donor called Aust-China Pty Ltd (Beijing), which declared a $50,000 gift to the ALP's NSW branch in 2007-08.

Dr Ho is a company director of Hungtat Worldwide, a Queensland-based company that manages the Palm Meadows Golf Course on the Gold Coast and owns a massive parcel of neighbouring land.

It has been the target of lobbying in recent weeks by senior Queensland racing officials who met Dr Ho in Hong Kong to present the businessman with a joint-venture proposal to develop a new supertrack on the Palm Meadows land.

Anthony Chan, who lists the same Hong Kong address as Dr Ho, added a further $100,000 to NSW Labor's coffers last financial year, his donor declaration shows.

The state branch has also attracted a $261,000 windfall from prolific donor Hong Kong Kingson Investment, which lists a Kowloon address.

The amount was the biggest of its 2007-08 donations to Australian political parties, which totalled $761,000. (Credit: The Australian)

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