AN all-powerful ‘‘Liberal-leaning’’ group of Port Stephens councillors has been called on to resign amid revelations members used an intricate web of preference deals to take control at the last local government election.
The calculated numbers game, never seen on such a scale in Hunter local government elections, cemented multi-millionaire mayor Bruce MacKenzie’s leadership and helped deliver seven of 10 council seats, and a solid voting majority.
A Newcastle Herald investigation can reveal the group, spearheaded by Cr MacKenzie and Port Stephens’ Liberal party president Steve Tucker, had links to 29, or almost half, of the September 2012 election candidates.
Those 29 have been confirmed by the MacKenzie camp.
If members of deputy mayor Sally Dover’s ticket are counted, which preferenced MacKenzie team members, 32 of the 66 so-called independent candidates were aligned.
Full disclosure of the behind-closed-doors planning has led to claims voters were ‘‘duped’’, as well as that dummy candidates and groups were used to farm preferences.
But Cr MacKenzie said he acted in the best interest of Port Stephens and voters would have been ‘‘dumb’’ and ‘‘can’t read’’ if they didn’t know what was going on.
‘‘We have the most prosperous and go-ahead council in the Lower Hunter and I’m very, very pleased with its make-up,’’ he said.
Residents and opposition candidates claim people were led to believe they were voting for “truly independent” candidates, rather than a ‘‘pro-development ticket’’.
For many the penny only dropped when the Herald revealed late last year that Election Funding Authority returns showed Cr MacKenzie contributed to the campaigns of eight other candidates.
Cr John Nell, an ALP party member who has voted with the MacKenzie faction numerous times since taking office, said while there was ‘‘nothing illegal’’ about what happened, collusion between so many groups was ‘‘devious’’.
‘‘I think it was really stupid and believe it could cost them a lot of goodwill,’’ he said. ‘‘The general public would have believed the candidates were independent and they weren’t.’’
Described by the mayor as ‘‘very like minded’’ and the ‘‘best council I’ve seen in 44 years’’, the independent councillors have voted as a bloc 99per cent of the time since taking office, at times in controversial circumstances.
Spokesman for the community group Voice of Wallalong and Woodville, Bob Beale, said the ‘‘secret’’ deals had alienated many voters and he called for those involved to resign.
‘‘It is fair to ask, as many voters do, what the participants had to hide, whether they would have been elected if they had told the truth, and in whose best interests they have been acting,’’ he said.
‘‘In my view, not only did they act unethically but they won power illegitimately.’’
But members of the MacKenzie team point to candidates’ ‘‘almost identical’’ how-to-vote cards, many that were authorised by the mayor’s son Robert MacKenzie, as ‘‘clear proof’’ the groups were linked. Cr MacKenzie also issued a flier before the election – which many opponents said they did not see – identifying his ‘‘team to achieve’’ in which he was photographed with the heads of eight other groups.
According to Cr Tucker, the disciplined strategy was brokered at a meeting with fellow Liberal party member Cr Ken Jordan and Cr MacKenzie months before the election.
Cr Tucker said the group had done nothing wrong. It simply worked within an ‘‘imperfect system’’ and identified the best way to ensure a voting majority was through disciplined preference swapping agreements with as many groups as possible.
‘‘There was not too much arm twisting to bring them [other candidates] in with us,’’ he said. ‘‘If people look at what we’ve done and decide they don’t like it then they can vote for [Geoff] Dingle in the next election ...We ran a very good, very tight, very coordinated campaign and it achieved exactly what we wanted it to achieve.’’
He dismissed criticism of the group as “sour grapes’’ and said the council was ‘‘achieving real results”, not like Newcastle City Council that just “sits there arguing all the time’’.
Cr Tucker said there was no pressure for councillors to vote with the mayor on issues, but described the group, the same Cr MacKenzie did, as ‘‘very like minded’’.
‘‘We don’t always agree with Bruce MacKenzie, but most of the time we do,’’ he said.
All 10 elected councillors sit in the chamber as independents, but in reality the makeup is more complicated.
Three councillors are members of the ALP (Geoff Dingle, John Nell and Peter Kafer) and seven part of the MacKenzie faction.
To confuse matters, four of the MacKenzie-aligned councillors are former or current Liberal Party members (Steve Tucker, Ken Jordan, Sally Dover and Paul Le Mottee), Cr MacKenzie is a former member of the National Country and Liberal parties, Chris Doohan is not a member of a political party and John Morello did not respond to requests for an interview.
The Herald can also reveal that Port Stephens MP Craig Baumann gave his weight to the push for power by offering ‘‘advice’’ to a candidate in discussions about his group joining the MacKenzie alliance.
University of Sydney political communication expert Dr Richard Stanton said law reform was needed to ensure greater transparency of links between candidates and a cap should be introduced on campaign funding to ensure a level playing field.
‘‘There is absolutely no transparency in the system at all,” he said. ‘‘The general public has not a clue about what goes on.’’
In pursuit of their aim, Cr MacKenzie and key supporters approached candidates and offered them in on the numbers game.
Central Ward candidate Darrell Doggett said the detailed strategy was outlined to him at a meeting with the mayor’s son, Robert MacKenzie, and Mr Baumann.
Mr Doggett, who was unsuccessful and admitted being ‘‘green’’ in his first campaign, said getting into bed with such a powerful team ‘‘initially sounded good’’.
The deal involved swapping preferences and an offer by Robert MacKenzie to ‘‘pay for some shirts, help out with printing how-to-vote cards and general support’’.
But the agreement was abandoned when Mr Doggett spoke with other members in his group.
‘‘At the end of the day I wasn’t comfortable with the whole scenario and we opted out,’’ he said.
‘‘We wanted to be truly independent and if you tend to go that way, then you are not truly independent.’’
Mr Baumann admitted being at the meeting, but denied spruiking for Cr MacKenzie. He said the number one rule in politics, ‘‘at the big boys’ level”, was not to ‘‘publicly back anyone’’.
‘‘Darrell and Robert and I were in the same establishment having a drink [but] I wasn’t campaigning, I wasn’t running around trying to find candidates for Bruce,” he said.
The bitter division between Cr MacKenzie and his main political rival, Cr Dingle, deepened during the campaign and both accused each other of mud-slinging and circulating dirt sheets.
Cr Dingle said he had “no doubt” the Liberal Party had ‘‘engineered’’ the election and voters should feel ‘‘wronged’’.
He said it was “worth noting” how close he came to winning the top job, with only 899 votes in it after preferences, despite the fact that so many aligned groups were handing out how-to-vote cards that supported Cr MacKenzie for popularly elected mayor.
‘‘They made no bones about the fact that they would get there on the strength of their dollars and leave everyone else in their dust,’’ he said.
‘‘I don’t think people had any idea just how calculated it was. The majority of people don’t take a great deal of notice of election material and the preferencing system is far too complicated.’’
Cr Dingle said he had no doubt ‘‘dummy candidates’’ were used to channel votes, but Cr MacKenzie said he knew ‘‘nothing’’ about it. Attempts to contact several candidates to discuss their nominations were repeatedly ignored.
Dummies are candidates who have no serious intention of winning an election. Instead, they use their nomination to distribute preferences to their preferred candidate.
Former mayor Ron Swan, who unsuccessfully led a group of four candidates in East Ward, initially told the Herald he was visited the night before nominations closed and had his ‘‘arm twisted’’ to run as a favour for an undisclosed party.
But he later said that he had instead run as a favour to himself in an effort to take his mind off family problems. Mr Swan could not recall any details about his campaign expenditure, but said he paid the full cost, $4838, himself.
Asked if Cr MacKenzie contributed to his campaign, Mr Swan responded: “I really don’t know and I really don’t care. I just went with the flow and I didn’t get into it that much”.
ALP stalwart Frank Ward, who ran number three on a ticket against the MacKenzie faction, said the community should feel ‘‘duped’’.
‘‘The problem with all of this is that the public did not know, it was concealed until the last minute,’’ he said.
‘‘We didn’t get the full ramifications of it until the last few days of the campaign and we were heavily involved in it. I have no problem with any group getting organised as long as they are upfront about it. This was subterfuge.’’
Nigel Waters, the registered officer for the Greens during the election, said the voting system should be overhauled so people know where their votes are going.
‘‘It’s pretty clear the majority of people had no idea what was going on and that really stinks,’’ he said
‘‘The public should know who were the real candidates, if they were aligned and who were simply stooges designed to divert preferences.’’
Local Government Minister Don Page’s spokesman would not confirm or deny ‘‘complaints about local councils or individual council officials’’.
He said the results of a NSW parliamentary inquiry into the conduct of the 2012 election was due this month.
Cr Jordan, who campaigned publicly for Cr MacKenzie, distanced himself from the ‘‘master plan’’ approach.
‘‘In hindsight I would not have done it [supported MacKenzie] because of the headache it has caused ...,’’ he said.
‘‘Look, if Steve Tucker had a master plan, all power to him, but I can tell you when it comes to an election, I’m worried about Ken Jordan.’’
Cr Paul Le Mottee said he wouldn’t go ‘‘so far’’ as to describe the approach as ‘‘organised’’, but rather a ‘‘strategy’’.
‘‘There was no great big meeting ...,’’ he said. ‘‘If you looked at what the other candidates did, it was the same, but with less success.’’
BRUCE MACKENZIE: Became the first popularly elected mayor of Port Stephens in 2012. MacKenzie was first elected to council in 1968, commencing an unbroken 32-year stint which came to an end in 2000. He returned to council in 2008, serving as mayor twice. He holds the dubious honour of being the first, and then the second, councillor in NSW suspended by a pecuniary interest tribunal. A former member of the National Country and Liberal parties.
JOHN MORELLO: A first-time councillor, Morello declined numerous attempts to speak about the election. He directed preferences to two failed east ward candidates with links to MacKenzie, as well as deputy mayor Sally Dover. Council ally Steve Tucker describes him as ‘‘sympathetic’’ to the Liberal Party.
SALLY DOVER: A councillor since 2004, Dover is a long-time campaigner. In 1995 she first ran, unsuccessfully, for council. The same year she ran for the state parliament, as she would again do in 1999 and 2003 respectively for the Call to Australia Party, the Christian Democrats and the Liberal Party. In 2006 she challenged Craig Baumann - now the Port Stephens state MP - for Liberal Party preselection. In 2012 she ran third in the race for mayor. She directed her preferences to MacKenzie and at the first meeting of the new council was elected deputy mayor.
JOHN NELL: A Labor party member. Nell was first elected to council in 1983 and stood until 1987. He was then re-elected in 1991 and was mayor from September 2002 to April 2004. In 2012 he preferenced, and benefitted from the preferences of, the Greens.
CHRIS DOOHAN: A first-time councillor who openly ran as a member of MacKenzie’s team. He is not a member of a political party. As he and MacKenzie ran on the same ticket, when MacKenzie became mayor, he stepped straight into a council seat.
STEVE TUCKER: President of the Port Stephens Liberal Party branch. Like Dover he ran for Liberal Party preselection for the 2007 state election but lost against eventual winner and current MP Craig Baumann. Was thanked by Baumann in his inaugural speech to parliament in 2007.
GEOFF DINGLE: A Labor Party member. It’s well known that Dingle and MacKenzie have a particular high opinion of one another. Dingle ran unsuccessfully against MacKenzie in 2012, but their mutual animosity pre-dates that event. Dingle directed his council preferences to the Greens, but didn’t preference in the mayoral race.
PETER KAFER: A Labor Party member and former Newcastle City councillor. Kafer directed preferences to his west ward colleagues and MacKenzie alliance members Ken Jordan and Paul Le Mottee.
KEN JORDAN: A Liberal Party member, Jordan has been on council since 2004, and was deputy mayor from 2011 to 2012. Another in the current council’s ranks who gained thanks from Port Stephens MP Craig Baumann in his inaugural speech to parliament in 2007. At the election he preferenced Paul Le Mottee first and Peter Kafer second.
PAUL LE MOTTEE: A Liberal Party member, Le Mottee was personally thanked by Port Stephens Liberal state MP Craig Baumann in his inaugural speech in 2007 for his role as part of Baumann’s election campaign committee. Named as part of MacKenzie’s “team to achieve”, Le Mottee has served as a councillor since 2012. At the election he directed preferences to Ken Jordan first and Peter Kafer second.
Candidates at the last council election with ‘‘Team MacKenzie’’ in bold
1. Geoff Dingle – 13,048 votes
2. Bruce Mackenzie (preferenced Dover) – 13,667
3. Sally Dover (preferenced MacKenzie) – 11,001
After preferences MacKenzie wins 16,132 to Dingle 15,233
Group A (Greens)
1. Nathan Warburton
2. Anne Pinney
3. Jenny Field
1. John Morello (elected)
2. Allan Hay
3. Ben McClelland
1. John Nell (elected)
2. Gail Armstrong
3. Melissa Pond
1. Geoff Brown
2. Lean Anderson
3. Bob Westbury
1. Sally Dover, knew nothing of alliance but preferenced MacKenzie team, (elected)
2. Robyn Bradbury
3. Roger Reeder
1. Ron Swan
2. Katie Martynov
3. Peter Sherriff
4. Chris Cromarty
1. Colin Howard
2. Diana Townsend
3. Frank Ward
4. Margaret Wilkinson
1. Darrell Doggett
2. Jan Douglas
3. Ray Stewart
1. Steve Tucker (elected)
2. John Robinson
3. Doreen Bradley
1. Geoff Dingle (elected)
2. Fran Corner
3. Anthony Anderson
4. Patrick Byron
5. John Donahoo
6. Peter Davis
7. Jill Taylor
1. Bruce MacKenzie (elected)
2. Chris Doohan (elected)
3. Karen Lee Low
4. Gregory David Patton
5. Keith Jones
1. Shirley O’Brien
2. Paul Charleton
1. Steve Hufnagl
2. Belinda Rooney
3. Ray Evans
Group G (Greens)
1. Caitlin Spiller
2. Leslie Pinney
3. Rhonda Philip
1. Peter Kafer (elected)
2. Caroline De Lyall
3. Anthony Lewis
4. Stephanie De Lyall
1. Ken Jordan (elected)
2. James Love
3. Robert Foot
1. Paul Le Mottee (elected)
2. Anthony Malone
3. Lea Smith
1. Peter Francis
2. Ray Stanton
3. Amy Gordon
Group E (Greens)
1. Liz Stephens
2. Michael Collins
3. Monica Jut
Team MacKenzie Links