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Liberal Party-linked fundraising body Cormack Foundation bankrolling two Senate crossbench parties

Former Family First senator Bob Day and with Liberal Democrats senator David Leyonhjelm at Parliament House in Canberra.A wealthy fundraising body linked to the Liberal Party has quietly begun bankrolling the organisations behind two of the Coalition’s biggest crossbench supporters in the finely balanced Senate.
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The Cormack Foundation has donated more than $40 million to the Liberal Party over the last 18 years – including more than $3 million in 2015-16 – making it one of the party’s biggest benefactors.

The foundation is an investment company and “associated entity” of the Liberals that donates dividends from its share portfolio. It has stakes in a number of blue-chip companies – including the big four banks, Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton, Telstra and Wesfarmers – raising about $3.9 million last year.

But for the first time in its 30-year history, the foundation last year donated to parties other than the Liberals – giving $25,000 each to the conservative Family First and the libertarian Liberal Democrats, according to the n Election Commission annual returns released this week.

The foundation has eight listed shareholders, who are also the company’s directors. They include Rupert Murdoch’s brother-in-law John Calvert-Jones, former Reserve Bank board member and Business Council of president Hugh Morgan and former ANZ chairman Charles Goode.

The donations came in a year that the Abbott and then Turnbull governments were highly reliant in the Senate on the votes of Family First’s Bob Day and the Liberal Democrats’ David Leyonhjelm.

The men were generally supportive of the government’s agenda in both the former Parliament and the current one. An analysis of their first year in the chamber found Mr Day voted with the government 90 per cent of the time and Senator Leyonhjelm more than 70 per cent of the time.

It’s believed to be the first occasion an “associated entity” has linked itself to more than one political party at a time.

The $25,000 donation represented nearly 30 per cent of Family First’s total donations for 2015-16. For the Liberal Democrats it represented slightly less than 5 per cent.

Cormack Foundation secretary Peter Matthey insisted the company is not a Liberal Party vehicle and supports a number of organisations.

“Cormack Foundation donates to libertarian causes – that’s the reason for its existence,” he told Fairfax Media.

But AEC documents show that, up until last financial year, the foundation never listed any parties other than the Liberals under the disclosure subhead titled “With which party, or parties, is the entity associated?”

Family First does not describe itself as libertarian and indeed Mr Day – who resigned from the Senate last year after his national building empire collapsed – actively resisted the label. Family First could not be contacted for comment.

“I’m not going to go into the detail of the discussions around how that was worked out,” Mr Matthey said.

Mr Matthey is a retired chartered accountant who was a partner at auditor KPMG. He says the foundation is totally transparent.

Senator Leyonhjelm said of the foundation’s support: “We approached them. They like my small government message, is what they told me.”

He said his party did not co-ordinate with Family First in its approach to the foundation.

“A couple of donors decided to include Family First after agreeing to give us something. Must have been something about minor parties,” he said.

But Greens democracy spokesperson Lee Rhiannon said it was extraordinary the Liberals’ biggest donor was also funding rival political parties.

“Considering an associated entity is defined as a body that undertakes fundraising for a particular party, the Cormack Foundation’s action suggests a new level of collaboration between these three parties,” she said.

“The Cormack Foundation returns shows a financial link between the Liberals, Liberal Democrats and Family First that could imply a consolidation of political co-operation between these parties.

“The financial links might also play out politically with increased collaboration on preference deals and voting in support of each other in the Senate.”

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