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EXCLUSIVE: Optus political 'donations' made under Berejiklian sketchy

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(Cartoon by Mark David | @MDavidCartoons)

An AEC form reveals Optus made questionable political "donations" after Gladys Berejiklian was appointed a senior executive to the foreign-owned telco last year. Anthony Klan reports.

OVER 90% OF the “donations” Singaporean Government-owned telco Optus made to Australian political parties last financial year were made under former NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian

It can also be revealed the vast majority of the $69,900 “donations” – made despite it being illegal for foreign donors to donate $100 or more – were made just weeks before last year’s Federal Election. 

A form lodged by Optus with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) shows $63,300 of the “donations” – just over 90% – were made after Berejiklian was appointed a senior executive in February last year. 

Of the $69,900, the vast majority of the money was “donated” to the political parties just weeks before the May Federal Election. 

As recently revealed by The Klaxon, Optus claims it is not a “foreign donor” under Australia’s political donations laws — despite being majority owned and controlled by the Singaporean Government. Optus is refusing to provide any evidence to back its claim. 

Berejiklian – who was appointed to the company on 11 February while the subject of an ongoing state corruption probe – has repeatedly refused to comment when asked about the "donations" or their legality.

She resigned as NSW Premier in October 2021 after the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) announced she was one of the two subjects of its multi-year Operation Keppel investigation. The investigation is yet to report. 

Berejiklian was appointed to the “newly created role” of Managing Director, Enterprise, Business and Institutional by Optus Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Kelly Bayer Rosmarin, under Optus chair Paul O’Sullivan. A key aspect of the role is to obtain business from Australian governments. 

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) filings show that in the year to 30 June 2022, Optus “donated” $41,400 to the Liberal and National parties and $28,500 to the ALP. 

The two biggest donations – $30,000 to the Liberal Party and $27,500 to the ALP – were made on the same day: 22 April last year. 

The Federal Election was held on 21 May. 

On 19 May, two days earlier, Optus “donated” a further $3,300 to the National Party, disclosures show.

The AEC disclosure, signed by Optus Vice President Regulatory and Public Affairs Andrew Sheridan, was lodged in November and made public last month. 

Under political donor laws introduced in 2019 – in a bid to curb foreign interference – it is illegal for foreign donors to give $100 or more to politicians or political parties in any financial year. 

Following the revelations, Optus has said it is not a “foreign donor”. 

Sheridan told The Klaxon:

'Optus does not fall within the definition of a foreign donor under the "Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918".'

Yet, Berejiklian, Sheridan, Optus and Singtel — including Singtel chair Lee Theng Kiat and Group CEO Yuen Kuan Moon — have all repeatedly refused to provide any evidence to back the claim.

A company is a foreign donor under Australian law if a foreign government owns 'more than 50%' of the company. It is also a foreign donor if a foreign government is 'in a position to exercise control over the company'

Optus is both majority-owned and controlled by the Singaporean Government. It is 100%-owned by Singtel, which is 52%-owned by Singaporean Government investment arm Temasek.

When asked whether Optus disputes being over 50%-owned by a foreign government — or whether it disputes a foreign government is “in a position to influence” it — the group has repeatedly refused to comment. 

In September last year, Optus was subject to the nation’s then-biggest data breach, with personal details of over 9.8 million Australians posted to the dark web. 

Seven months later, Optus CEO Kelly Bayer Rosmarin continues to claim it was a result of a 'sophisticated attack', despite providing no evidence. 

Australia’s security and intelligence agencies, Cyber Security Minister Clare O’Neil and many private sector experts reject Bayer Rosmarin’s claims and say it was a simple security breach due to Optus’ negligence. Optus’ data and disclosure breaches have added to serious concerns over the telco, given it controls key Australian Defence Force satellite infrastructure.

The Mandarin, a specialist public service publication, writes that the 'Singaporean ownership structure' of Optus 'has never been uncontroversial in national security circles'. But since the mass breach, there has been an 'overt loss of government faith' in Optus, with 'political trust in the company spiralling to a new low'

StatesThe Mandarin:

'There is… a strong precedent for Defence shredding contracts over information security breaches and disclosure failures.'

In 2019 it was revealed Optus had breached criminal laws by failing to disclose thousands of dollars of political donations when submitting planning applications to undertake projects at the Perisher and Thredbo ski resorts. 

Optus made thousands of dollars in “donations” to the Liberal and Labor parties in 2014-15, which it disclosed to the AEC but did not disclose in multiple planning applications, as required by law. 

Optus reportedly failed to disclose six donations totalling $5,585 — $4,805 to the Liberal Party and $1,500 to Labor — across four different planning applications.

Optus pleaded guilty in the NSW Land and Environment Court, stating it was an “administrative error”. It received four convictions and was fined $25,000. 

Reported The Sydney Morning Herald:

'In a letter of apology to the court, Optus vice president of regulatory and public affairs Andrew Sheridan said the donations "in no way sought to exert any political influence over our planning applications".'

Anthony Klan is an investigative journalist and editor of ''The Klaxon'. You can follow him on Twitter @Anthony_Klan.

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