Emails show Tony Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, proposed to use question time to showcase claims by Brickworks chief executive Lindsay Partridge. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

BY NEIL CHENOWETH (The Australian Financial Review)

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, has been revealed as the mystery Liberal Party figure involved in an email exchange Liberal Party lawyers sought to have suppressed by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

In the emails, dated March 1, 2011, Ms Credlin proposes to use question time to showcase claims by Brickworks chief executive Lindsay Partridge, after Liberal NSW fundraiser Paul Nicolaou described Mr Partridge to her as “a very good supporter of the party”.

The emails show Mr Abbott’s office working with Mr Partridge and Brickworks for Mr Abbott’s campaign against the carbon tax, at a time when senior federal Liberals would have been aware Brickworks, a prohibited donor, had channelled funds to the NSW Liberals through the Free Enterprise Foundation.

Ms Credlin’s husband, Brian Loughnane, the federal director of the Liberal Party, was copied in on emails on July 30 2010 about a $50,000 donation to the NSW branch by Brickworks which was subsequently paid via the Free Enterprise Foundation, together with $100,000 to the federal party, for the federal election.

Counsel assisting ICAC Geoffrey Watson, SC, said on Thursday “we’ve been threatened” with a Supreme Court action to suppress the emails after concerns were raised by Robert Newlinds, SC, the counsel for former assistant treasurer Arthur Sinodinos. “I think it’s not coming from Senator Sinodinos, it was coming from the Liberal Party,” Mr Watson said.

“I just don’t want this to get out,” Mr Newlinds said, in asking for a suppression order not only on the page but also the legal argument about the order.

The emails had been published on the ICAC website on Thursday morning before they were withdrawn three hours later.

The suppression order was lifted by commissioner Megan Latham after the lawyers for the House of Representative Speaker Bronwyn Bishop said they would not claim privilege over the documents.

NSW LIBERALS’ BIGGEST BACKER ICAC has already heard Brickworks was the NSW Liberal Party’s largest backer in the March 2011 state election, despite its work as a property developer making it a prohibited donor for NSW.

Liberals state finance director Simon McInnes has confirmed donations were made to the Free Enterprise Foundation in Canberra before being forwarded to the federal party with instructions they be forwarded to the NSW division, though he insisted they were used for the federal campaign.

The suppressed emails begin shortly after 2.52pm on March 1, 2011, when Mr Partridge forwarded to Mr Nicolaou an internal Brickworks email. The email, headed “Bunya estate off to a good start” included a Daily Telegraph article about the need to free up land for housing in western Sydney.

“Paul. This is what I was talking about,” Mr Partridge wrote. “I have written a price I will send you when I return. Best. Lindsay.”

Mr Nicolaou testified on Friday he was not aware Brickworks had a property development division (the division earned $29 million in fiscal 2011).

Four minutes later, Mr Partridge emailed Mr Nicolaou again: “Tell Tony to stick to his guns on no carbon tax. We want certainty that there is no new tax. Thanks Lindsay.”

At 9.29 that night, Mr Nicolaou forwarded Mr Partridge’s second email to the federal opposition leader’s chief of staff: “Dear Peta, please note below from Lindsay Partridge the MD of Brickworks the largest producer of bricks in Australia and a very good supporter of the party.”

Four minutes later Ms Credlin replied: “Paul, Lindsay provides a great line for Question Time. Do you have a number that I might be able to contact him on … it would be ideal for tomorrow cheers Peta.

A series of comments about Brickworks followed, in parliament and in press conferences by high-profile Liberals.

At 9.37pm, three minutes after Ms Credlin’s email, Mr Nicolaou replied with a phone number, copying to Mr Partridge: “Lindsay would be only too happy to help … Feel free to call him.”

In fact, Mr Partridge was in Europe on a business trip and did not reply until 1.15am Sydney time: “Paul/Peta. This is amazing I am in France and talking to a manager of a large roof tile maker … Under a carbon tax regime many products including cement production will move offshore. The others the price will just go up.”

With the difficulties of the time difference, the following day in question time Mr Abbott instead raised the case of a Canberra businessman “John Fragopoulos, who runs FishCo in Belconnen and who is already paying $3,000 a month for electricity to keep his small business going”.

Brickworks surfaced in parliament on March 24 in a speech by the Liberals’ shadow assistant treasurer, Mathias Cormann. “I was drawn to an article today which was published by AAP where Mr Partridge, Australia’s largest brick and tile maker, said the federal government’s carbon price proposals will add about 10 per cent to the cost of housing across Australia – 10 per cent,” Senator Cormann said.

Senator Cormann told The Australian Financial Review on Monday: “My comments in Parliament were based entirely on information which was in the public domain at that time and which supported the public policy arguments against the carbon tax we were pursuing at the time, namely that the carbon tax would push up the cost of living and the cost of doing business.

“I was not aware of any contact during that period between Brickworks and the then office of the Leader of the Opposition, which is not unusual, and to the best of my recollection have not myself had any contact with Brickworks either.”

On May 2 2011, Mr Abbott was at a factory in Melbourne for a press conference: “It’s good to be here at Austral Bricks [the subsidiary of Brickworks] … The company estimates that if a carbon tax comes in … that will add about 10 per cent to the cost of manufacturing bricks here in this country.”

On July 5, Nationals Senator Williams told the Senate: “Several of [Brickworks’] sites will become unsustainable and result in the loss of many jobs.”

And on September 14 Mr Abbott told parliament the carbon tax would provide “$2 million a year additional cost” for Austral Bricks.

The federal Liberal party would have been conscious of how Brickworks donations were channelled in 2010 through the Free Enterprise Foundation because of disputes over which branch would end up with the funds.

‘THE MONEY DIDN’T END UP THERE AT ALL’ Several emails about the Brickworks donations were copied to Senator Sinodinos and to Brian Loughnane, in July 2010.

“Via the diversionary organization [sic] there is $50K going to NSW,” Mr Partridge emailed Nicolaou on July 29 2010. He told ICAC he was referring to the Free Enterprise Foundation as the diversionary organisation.

While the July 29 exchange was not copied to federal officials, they were copied in on on July 30 when Mr Nicolaou emailed Michael Yabsley, the federal treasurer of the Liberal Party, about $50,000 that developer Harry Triguboff was donating via the Free Enterprise Foundation to be split between the state and federal parties for the federal campaign. This wasn’t the only money going into the Free Enterprise Foundation.

“In addition, I spoke to Lindsay Partridge from Brickworks last night and he is arranging for $100K to be EFT’d into the Federal Division bank account today with a further $150k to be distributed equally to NSW, Qld & WA for their respective federal campaigns,” Mr Nicolaou wrote, copying the email to Senator Sinodinos and and Brian Loughnane.

Mr Yabsley replied an hour later, also copied to Sinodinos and Loughnane, “The Brickworks donation is subject to discussions but certainly the reference to the contribution to NSW is correct.”

Mr Partridge wasn’t happy: “Giving money to the Liberal Party was like giving a hot chip to a bunch of seagulls, the seagull that’s got the chip in his mouth doesn’t necessarily get to eat it,” he told ICAC last week.

Mr Partridge said he had been “quite annoyed”, because he had intended to give $50,000 to the state Liberal branches in Western Australia, Queensland and NSW, and $100,000 to the federal division.

Brickworks’ property arm had rezoning applications looming in the three states.

“But the money didn’t end up there at all,” Mr Partridge said. Instead $100,000 was paid directly to the federal party, with $150,000 going to the Free Enterprise Foundation, with $50,000 of this going the NSW party, with the federal party holding on to the rest.

This appears to have been an allocation decided by federal officials after discussions.

Brickworks donated another $130,000 to NSW Liberals plus $50,000 coming from its associated company, Washington H. Soul Pattinson, in November-December 2010, with no reference to the federal campaign.

Mr McInnes and Mr Nicolaou have said they believed it was legal for money from prohibited donors to be channelled to the FEF and then back to the state party, but they had never sought legal advice on this.

On July 23, Colin Gracie of the Liberals’ federal secretariat emailed Mr McInnes: “Brian Loughnane has agreed that for the time being, the Fed Sec will ­operate on the policy set out in the attachment. In effect, there is no benefit for a NSW donor to donate via the Fed Sec, unless they are a ­property developer.”

Mr McInnes emailed state director Mark Neeham on August 7, 2010: “There have been $95,000 of ­donations made via the Free Enterprise Foundation that will be directed to the federal division with instruction from them to pay to us.”

Mr McInnes confirmed at ICAC the federal division was part of the scheme for funds to go through the Free Enterprise Foundation to the federal party then be forwarded back to the state party. But he said that the state used the money for federal campaigns.

Mr Partridge appeared to have high expectations of the level of access Brickworks’ donation bought him.

When invited to dinner with Mr Abbott in July 2010 (which was later cancelled), he wrote, “Will I get a photo with Tony like I got from John Howard[?] I will be wanting to talk about all my employees on AWAs [Australian Workplace Agreements] who are now stuck and don’t want to be unionised.”

On March 15, 2011, two weeks after the Credlin emails, Mr Partridge wrote to Mr Nicolaou: “A couple of people have said to me we should get rid of the cartoon ad, as it is infantile and is demeaning to the Liberals. If you could pass the comment on. Ta. Lindsay.”

Mr Nicolaou promptly forwarded this email to state director Mark Neeham: “Dear Mark, please note our biggest supporters’ comments below.”


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