"Absolutely it's tough for us": Garry Edwards, Liberal MP for Swansea. Photo: Dean Osland
The NSW Liberal Party has begun pairing wealthy north shore branches as fund-raising sponsors of poorer marginal seats as it prepares to defend western Sydney and central coast electorates in the election in March next year.
But as the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s investigation into donations resumes on Wednesday, the party has tried to downplay the blue-ribbon "adoptions".
Liberal candidates in western Sydney and the central coast – former Labor heartlands – are reporting difficulties in soliciting donations, and face cutting back on their election campaigns because of the cash shortfall.
Julian Leeser. Photo: Supplied
‘‘Absolutely it's tough for us," said Garry Edwards, Liberal MP for Swansea, one of the state's most marginal seats. "People aren’t keen to give you $100 or $250."
‘‘The mood for change isn’t there as much as in 2011 ... there’s less money,’’ said Melanie Gibbons, another first-term Liberal MP, whose seat of Menai had been renamed Holsworthy.
An email sent by Hornsby Liberal Julian Leeser to local members said they had been asked to raise $85,000 for marginal seats, and Holsworthy, a seat based in Liverpool, was described as ‘‘our donor conference for the 2015 election’’.
Funds drought: Melanie Gibbons. Photo: Jeff de Pasquale
Ms Gibbons was to visit the blue-ribbon Hornsby branch to talk about her campaign for a seat that had shifted west in a boundary change, limiting her ability to raise funds.
‘‘Note Hornsby has been allocated to assist the Holsworthy campaign,’’ the May 4 email said.
But Mr Leeser was now gagged by Liberal NSW head office, which told The Sun-Herald the email was wrong.
In a statement, a NSW Liberal Party spokeswoman said: ‘‘Seats are asked to raise funds for their own campaign and to support other seats. Other than local needs the extra funds are paid to the central party.’’
ICAC's Operation Spicer heard in May the Liberal’s successful 2011 central coast campaign was partly bankrolled by tapping its wealthy Manly branch for donations and cheques were handed directly to Terrigal MP Chris Hartcher.
The NSW Liberal Party is understood to have tightened record-keeping practices of branch fund-raising since 2011 and a central computer system was now able to track donations.
The Liberals risked losing a swag of western Sydney and central coast seats that were won in a record swing in 2011 as voters rejected the Labor government.
But Labor was preparing to play the class card if volunteers and donations from wealthy branches were swung into the Liberal defence campaign in western Sydney electorates.
After Mr Leeser's email was leaked to the media, the head office axed the Holsworthy ‘‘adoption’’.
‘‘Although Holsworthy was mentioned in the email, that is an error,’’ said a NSW Liberal spokeswoman. Hornsby would instead adopt Mr Edward’s central coast seat of Swansea.
Mr Edwards said his fund-raising would be limited to a ball and raffles, as there was no business community in the seaside village, which had previously voted Labor.
‘‘I will be relying on my donor branch at Hornsby to help me ... If we can buy some radio time, that will be our top-end.’’
Both Mr Edwards and Ms Gibbons said ‘‘hard work’’ in the community would substitute for money. ‘‘Where we might have paid for letterbox drops, we will get volunteers to do it,’’ said Ms Gibbons.