The West

Firms buy Barnett s ear for $25,000 a year
Firms buy Barnett's ear for $25,000 a year

Millionaire businessmen, property developers and some of the world's largest firms are paying $25,000 a year for exclusive access to Premier Colin Barnett and his ministers through a secretive Liberal Party fundraising group called the Leaders' Forum.

The party's head office refused to disclose the current list of between 25 and 30 forum members, what benefits they receive for their annual fee, which ministers have taken part or how often the cash-for-access group meets.

But _The West Australian _understands forum events occur every two months and are held in the Perth conference rooms of international legal firm Freehills and global accountancy firm Ernst and Young. Both are forum members.

At $25,000 per member, the forum, which was conceived in 2006, had the potential to make up to $750,000 for the party in the past financial year.

Unlike the Liberals' other major fundraising group the 500 Club, there is no reference to the Leaders' Forum in the party's annual financial declarations published by the WA Electoral Commission.

The only sign in the 2009 returns was a string of $25,000 entries marked "other" under disclosures by the Liberal Party of Australia (WA Division) Inc.

Another of the world's top four financial services firms Deloitte, as well as Wesfarmers, Schaffer Corporation, Perdaman Industries, Alinta Energy and property developer Finbar are also forum members. Some in the forum are concerned that the corporate influence has made it into a "lobby-fest" with lawyers rather than the companies' leaders attending.

Construction company boss Gerry Hanssen said he was the first member of the forum and described it as the "best thing the Liberal Party has done".

"To influence the politicians, the best way is for key CEOs to sit down in front of them and read the riot act to them," Mr Hanssen said.

He said anyone who joined believing it was about lobbying would be "greatly mistaken" but agreed that policy could be shaped by the forum.

"It's really to teach ministers how to conduct their affairs," he said. "They (forum members) are hard-nosed business people in the State. How better to influence the Government?"

He said the 2008 resignation of Troy Buswell as Liberal leader was an example of its influence.

"We hammered him to death with 'what the hell do you think, this chair-sniffing will win government?' He resigned, Deidre Willmott stood aside (as candidate for the seat of Cottesloe) and Colin became leader."

Liberal Party State director Ben Morton would not discuss the forum but provided a statement in response to questions.

"The Liberal Party does not accept funds that are donated subject to political conditions of any kind," he said.

"Under no circumstances will the Liberal Party accept funds which, even if only by inference, are intended to obtain the Liberal Party's support for specific actions or attitudes." He said the party always complied with financial disclosure laws.

The West Australian

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