THERE were smiles all round at the $500 a head lunch featuring a speech by former British prime minister Theresa May as diners looked out over the greens at Peppers Moonah Links Resort, Fingal, on Sunday 13 February.
The event was held to raise money for Liberal Party candidates to campaign in the Hastings and Nepean state electorates.
Briony Hutton is contesting Hastings, currently held by retiring Liberal Neale Burgess. Retired tennis professional Sam Groth was last week confirmed as the party’s candidate for Nepean, now held by Labor’s Chris Brayne.
One of the Nepean Liberals’ organisers said the “really pleasant local event” was attended by “about 40” people, who heard Ms May make a speech “that could have been made by a moderate Liberal”.
It has been widely reported that Ms May (Lady May) – who has been a Conservative British MP since 1997, including prime minister 2016-19 – visited Flinders MP Greg Hunt at his Mount Martha home before going on to lunch at Fingal.
But the lunch, which Mr Hunt did not attend, may have long-lasting repercussions as the Australian Electoral Commission has confirmed it is looking into whether money raised at events featuring Ms May are subject to a ban on foreign donations.
In 2019 the Morrison government introduced new laws that state political campaigns targeting Australians cannot be paid for by foreign donors, including election advertising, campaign phone calls and how-to-vote cards.
Two days after the Fingal lunch, AEC Commissioner Tom Rogers told the Senate’s Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee that the issue was being examined and the Liberal Party had been contacted.
Mr Rogers made his comments during questioning by Labor Senator Don Farrell, who wrote to the AEC saying that Ms May was a foreign citizen and had previously declared receiving income from speaking engagements to the House of Commons.
“If you find the arrangement between the Liberal Party and Ms May is not inconsistent with the foreign donation ban, I ask you to carefully consider the disclosure obligation that falls on the Liberal Party for the declaration of an in-kind donation by Ms May if there is a gap between fees paid by Ms May and Ms May’s standard speaking fee,” Senator Farrell stated in his letter.
“Australia’s foreign donation ban must not be undermined by attempts to exploit loopholes in legislation introduced by the Turnbull and Morrison governments.”
A Liberal Party member on the peninsula told The News “I’m certain Ms May volunteered her time”.
In a Facebook post, Ms Hutton, the Hastings candidate, said it had been “an honour to host” Ms May at the Moonah Links lunch.
“Ms May came to show her support of the Liberal Party candidates on the Mornington Peninsula as we head into the federal and state elections this year,” she wrote.
Ms Hutton did not respond to questions from The News about who arranged for Ms May to speak at the lunch or if Ms May was paid to attend.
Comment was also sought from the Liberal Party’s state director, Sam McQuestin.