THE political furore surrounding Port Stephens mayor Bruce MacKenzie continues to intensify, with the controversial figurehead facing fresh allegations he illegally contributed to rival candidates’ election campaigns in 2012.
Residents and community groups have made formal complaints to the Election Funding Authority and ICAC, requesting a full investigation into the spending of local government election candidates.
The Newcastle Herald reported in November that Cr MacKenzie had helped fund the campaigns of eight of his political rivals at the election, five of whom now sit alongside him as councillors. On Saturday, the Herald revealed Cr MacKenzie had links to almost half of the candidates registered at the poll.
A self-confessed property developer, the mayor is now facing claims he is a “prohibited donor”.
Under NSW legislation, property developers and tobacco, liquor or gambling industry business entities, and close associates of those industries are prohibited donors.
Cr MacKenzie is also the owner of the site of the Raymond Terrace Dan Murphy’s liquor store, which he reportedly bought in 2011 for about $7.5million.
However, he strenuously denied that owning the site constituted a link to the liquor industry.
The Herald can also reveal that just days after it was reported late last year that the big-spending mayor had outlaid $51,000 on his campaign, Cr MacKenzie lodged an amendment with the Election Funding Authority revealing an additional $21,000 of previously undisclosed spending.
The multimillionaire mayor said he had done nothing wrong and welcomed an investigation.
“I contributed to no one’s campaign – all that money has come back,” he said.
“That’s for the Election Funding Authority to hold an inquiry into and that doesn’t concern me at all.”
When pressed for detail about the funding arrangement, Cr MacKenzie said he wasn’t interested in revisiting the past.
“Let them show me where I contributed to other people’s campaigns in real terms,” he said.
Despite Cr MacKenzie initially admitting he had paid one-third of the other candidates’ how-to-vote sheets because he wanted “civic-minded people” on the council, his official campaign agent and daughter-in-law, Angela MacKenzie, later said the mayor had only purchased “advertising space” on the how-to-votes.
Cr Steve Tucker, a key supporter of the mayor, initially told the Herald in November that Cr MacKenzie had paid about $250 towards his how-to-vote cards.
He said Cr MacKenzie had arranged for the forms to be printed “because he wanted them all to look pretty much the same”.
The how-to-votes for eight rival candidates had “authorised by Robert MacKenzie”, the mayor’s son, printed on them.
But last month, Cr Tucker told the Herald he had made a mistake and that the mayor had purchased campaign T-shirts for his team with the $250.
While refusing to comment on specific cases, a spokesman for the Election Funding Authority said the maximum penalty for prohibited groups making political donations was $22,000 for a party or $11,000 for an individual.
The Tomaree Residents and Ratepayers Association is among those to have lodged complaints with the authority.
In a statement, an association spokesman called for greater transparency and scrutiny to ensure wealthy candidates were not able to “unfairly” influence the results of elections.
“We have raised the question whether all the candidates and groups have fully and accurately declared their expenditure and source of funds in their returns to the [Election Funding Authority],” he said. ‘‘These returns show many instances of known expenses not being declared and discrepancies in reporting of donations.”
Former councillor Daniel Maher, who was unexpectedly elected in 2008 on brother-in-law Ken Jordan’s ticket, said transparency in the system was essential.
He said it was “human nature” to expect “return in some way” for any “benefit given”.
“He who pays the piper calls the tune,” he said. “As long as people know who’s paying the piper, I don’t have an issue with it.”
Mr Maher was originally part of Cr MacKenzie’s faction on the last council, dubbed “The Magnificent Seven”. But towards the end of his term, he broke with the group on several key issues. The former police officer and solicitor, who resigned from council in 2010, said there were “a lot of complex relationships” involved at the council.
Mr Maher is believed to have reacted angrily at a council briefing just before his resignation, upset that council staff had become involved in a dispute about road access to the mayor’s lucrative sandmining business. He told the Herald last month that he was concerned general manager Peter Gesling, who quit last month, was being placed under “undue pressure” by the councillors.
“Peter had to do what he was instructed to do by the seven hands in the air,” he said.
In relation to the preference-swapping deals used by Cr MacKenzie’s faction at the last election, Mr Maher said there was no doubt the system had been “played” by those in the know.
He said Port Stephens had simply “caught up” with what had been going on at larger councils and in state and federal politics.
“I’m no great fan of Bruce in his style or his politics, but he certainly gets results and that’s got to be a benefit,” he said. “There are pros and cons.”