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Guide Dogs scandal deepens with donations to Liberal Party revealed

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Guide Dogs Victoria charity boss Paul Wheelton lined the Liberal Party's pockets prior to receiving millions in grant money (Image by Dan Jensen)

Guide Dogs Victoria’s “capital fundraising” boss Paul Wheelton made over $87,000 in donations to the Liberal Party before the Federal Coalition gave millions of dollars of taxpayer funds to his charity.

At least $2.5 million of the taxpayer funds went directly to the charity’s “campus redevelopment” fundraising campaign, for which Wheelton was directly responsible as Guide Dogs Victoria’s capital campaign chair.

Wheelton, a Melbourne businessman who owns one of the nation’s biggest Budget Rent-a-Car franchises, became ‘capital campaign chair for the $23 million dollar development’ in May 2017, his LinkedIn bio states.

Between October 2017 and June 2018, Wheelton made $60,000 of payments to the Liberal Party, Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) disclosures show.

Between October 2018 and June 2019, Wheelton Investments, one of his private companies, made a further $27,617 in “donations” to the Liberal Party. 

They are the only donations made by Wheelton or Wheelton Investments recorded in the AEC’s database.

In June 2018, the Federal Coalition announced a major grant to Guide Dogs Victoria for a new “project” that ‘aims to reduce social isolation’ (its value was not disclosed).

In April 2020, the Federal Coalition announced a $2.5 million grant specifically for the Guide Dogs Victoria “campus redevelopment” for which Wheelton was in charge of raising the funds.

The taxpayer funds were directed to the charity by then Federal Treasurer and Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, Josh Frydenberg.

Frydenberg announced in April 2020:

‘The Federal Liberal and National Government has today announced $2.5 million in funding for Guide Dogs Victoria which will see the current facilities upgraded to become the world’s first state-of-the-art sensory campus.’

Cash flows:

Responding to written questions regarding why he had made the donations, Wheelton said: 

‘Because I can. It is my right and their policies aligned with my view being an owner of an SME [small-to-medium-enterprise] for 37 years.’

Guide Dogs Victoria capital campaign chair Paul Edwards calls for donors (Source: Guide Dogs Victoria)

When asked whether, in return for the payments to the Liberal Party, he had sought to facilitate grants or other funding for Guide Dogs Victoria from the Federal Government, Wheelton wrote: ‘No, I did not.’

Wheelton went on to say:

‘I have had no dealings with any federal person or body. This was all in place with the CEO who had the relationship.’

The CEO was Karen Hayes, who was “stood down” and then last month “resigned”, after it emerged in April she had appeared in advertisements spruiking then Federal Treasurer Frydenberg for re-election.

It is illegal for charities to advocate politicians or political parties.

Asked when he first made the executive of Guide Dogs Victoria aware of the donations to the Liberal Party, Wheelton said he had never had a “conversation” about it with Hayes.

Wheelton said:

‘I have never had a conversation about this with the CEO. However, anyone who knows me knows I am a supporter of conservative politics.’

AEC filings show Wheelton made eight payments to the Liberal Party between October 2017 and June 2018 totalling $87,617, including two payments of $25,000 each to the Liberal Party’s Victorian branch.

Between October 2018 and June 2019, Wheelton Investments made five payments to the Liberal Party, totalling $27,617. (In all, $65,234 to the Liberal Party and $50,000 to the Liberal Party’s Victorian branch.)

“Donations” by Wheelton and his company Wheelton Investments (Source: Australian Electoral Commission)

Hayes and Frydenberg have both repeatedly declined to respond to questions.

A series of written questions was put to the Guide Dogs Victoria board, includingwhether it was aware of Wheelton’s $87,617 payments to the Liberal Party (and if so, when it had become aware of those payments) given the payments presented a potentially substantial conflict of interest.

The board, including acting chair David Cochrane and long-time director and former chair Charles Thompson, refused to provide a response.

When asked if he had made the Guide Dogs Victoria board aware of his Liberal Party donations, Wheelton replied:

‘I did not make the board aware. 

 

It is not their business and I have had no dealings with the Federal Government on any part of the campaign.

 

I was aware the Federal Liberal Party had previously donated to GDV for the kennel redevelopment.’

Asked when, to his knowledge, the board first became aware of his Liberal Party donations, Wheelton replied: ‘Not aware they knew.’

Taxpayers being slugged four times more than ten years ago while total services have slumped over 25 per cent. The charity supplied just 35 guide dogs last year (Source: Guide Dogs Victoria. Graphics: The Klaxon. Advertisement: Josh Frydenberg)

As previously revealed, the charity, based in inner Melbourne’s Kew, has received millions of dollars in government grants and other taxpayer funding in recent years despite substantially deteriorating performance.

Even before accounting for the millions of dollars in grants for the “campus redevelopment”, government funding to Guide Dogs Victoria for its continuing operations alone has surged four-fold — from $1 million in 2010-11 to $3.9 million last financial year.

In 2020-21, it delivered just 35 guide dogs, the same number as a decade earlier.

The total number of hours of “client services” it delivers each year – which includes both its guide dog and “non-dog related” activities – has slumped by over 25 per cent over the past ten years.

The latest revelations come as Frydenberg has come under scrutiny over fake reports in The Australian newspaper.

Earlier this month, the paper reported Frydenberg had been ‘inundated with private sector offers’ since losing his seat at May’s Federal Election and ‘was recently approached as a potential replacement for outgoing AFL chief Gillon McLachlan.

Recently, Australian Financial Review columnist Joe Aston revealed it was Frydenberg ‘who approached the AFL Commission expressing his interest in being considered for the CEO position, not the other way around’.

‘The whole stunt was unmistakable. It was so Frydenberg and so embarrassing,’ writes Aston.

Secret deal

It has been revealed that CEO Hayes had an alleged deal with the Federal Coalition Government – whose finances were controlled by Frydenberg – whereby it would match any funds the Victorian Government gave towards the charity’s “campus redevelopment”.

Wheelton said:

‘I was… informed by the CEO that the Feds would match any donation from the State Government, as is the case with many capital projects.

 

My dealings were with the [Victorian] Premier Daniel Andrews regarding the state funding part of the redevelopment.’

On 14 September 2018, the Andrews Government committed $5 million to Guide Dogs Victoria’s The Future is in Sight redevelopment.

When asked whether the Coalition had followed through and similarly paid $5 million to The Future is in Sight redevelopment, Wheelton responded: ‘Yes.’

Yet the Federal Coalition Government has only publicly identified $2.5 million in funds towards the campus redevelopment — that’s the $2.5 million grant it announced for the project in April 2020.

Frydenberg’s statement announcing the June 2018 grant makes no mention of Guide Dogs Victoria’s The Future is in Sight campus redevelopment.

The size of the grant is not stated, only that it was ‘one of 147 projects receiving a total investment of $57 million’.

Frydenberg said:

‘The Federal Government is funding the project through the Information, Linkages and Capacity Building (ILC) component of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).’

The purpose of the funds is similarly unclear.

The project ‘aims to reduce social isolation and improve access to information online for people with vision loss,’ Frydenberg wrote of his 5 June 2018 visit to the charity’s Kew headquarters.

(Earlier this month, the statement was deleted from Frydenberg’s website, so this articlehas linked to an archived version.)

On 30 April 2019, just over two weeks before the 2019 Federal Election, Frydenberg posted on social media about the project:

‘In 2018, Guide Dogs received an NDIS ILC grant that I supported.’

The Coalition’s other major announcement regarding grants to Guide Dogs Victoria announcement was the day before the 2013 Federal Election, when the Liberal Party announced that if elected, it would donate $2 million, mainly for new dog kennels.

Frydenberg announced the completion of those kennels on a visit in March 2016, ahead of that year’s Federal Election.

The Victorian Electoral Commission’s database, which contains published donations since 2019, does not record any donations having been made by Wheelton.

No political agenda’

The lack of clarity around how much public money was directed to Guide Dogs Victoria’s “campus redevelopment” is despite the two biggest funders being the Federal and Victorian Governments.

The charity’s 2020-21 accounts state:

‘The current campus redevelopment plans will be funded fully through State and Federal Government and philanthropic funding.’

Wheelton said his chief role as Guide Dogs Victoria’s Capital Campaign Chair was to ‘work with HNI [high net-worth individuals] and the philanthropic community’.

He said ‘with the exception of [my] personal meeting with the Premier’ of Victoria, the ‘political arena’ was ‘left with the CEO’.

Wheelton continued:

‘With the exception of the personal meeting with the Premier, the political arena was left with the CEO as GDV [Guide Dogs Victoria] had a relationship with all levels of Government.

 

I have personally donated in excess of $1 million to the GDV campaign.

 

As campaign chair, I lead by example.’

Wheelton said he had ‘donated in excess of $10 million to charitable causes in the last ten years’.

‘I have no political agenda or desire to be involved in politics,’ he added.

Donations to local councils are not captured by the AEC.

Wheelton said he had donated ‘$50,000 to Robert Doyle’s campaign for the City of Melbourne [council].

He had provided this money because:

‘I wanted to see his vision for his next term fulfilled.’

Anthony Klan is an investigative journalist and editor of The Klaxon. You can follow him on Twitter @Anthony_Klan. This article was originally published on The Klaxon and has been republished with permission.

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