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The Tasmanian Liberal Party has revealed that one of its major political donors is the controversial Careers Australia Group, Australia’s largest privately-owned registered training organisation.

The Tasmanian Liberal Party’s State Secretary, Sam McQuestin, has informed the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) the party’s October 2015 disclosure return inaccurately attributed a $20,000 donation it received to Patrick McKendry.

In the Tasmanian Liberals amended return, publicly released late last week, McQuestin informed the AEC the March 2015 donation actually came from Careers Australia Group, a private training company of which McKendry is Managing Director.

While Careers Australia Group was founded in 2006, for most of its corporate life it made no political donations above the disclosure threshold.

All that changed in the 2014-15 financial year. 

In its first return to the AEC in mid-November 2015 Careers Australia Group disclosed it had donated $33,700 to political parties in the preceding financial year, with the lion’s share of that – $22,200 – to the Tasmanian Liberals. (An initial $2200 was donated to the Tasmanian Liberals in August 2014 with a further two $10,000 contributions on the same day in mid-March 2015.)

In early February this year Careers Australia Group lodged an amended return, revealing it had failed to disclose a further $24,950 in contributions. 

Of the additional donations, Careers Australia Group revealed an extra $1300 had been contributed to the Tasmanian Liberals in early June 2015 as well as $13,750 to the Labor Party in Queensland, $8900 to the Liberal National Party in Queensland and $1000 to the NSW Liberals.

Even after taking into account the additional donations, the Tasmanian Liberals were still the biggest recipient of Careers Australia Group’s largesse.

Bulking up

While Careers Australia Group boasts it runs 150 different courses for about 14,000 domestic and international students from a total of 15 campuses, none of its operations is in Tasmania.

At the heart of the company’s business model is providing training courses in high-growth sectors of the economy including health and nursing, the construction industry and professional services.

While Careers Australia Group is a private company, it is heavily reliant on federal government funding.

In a November 2013 corporate presentation a founder of Careers Australia Group, Vernon Wills, outlined the phenomenal growth of the company from revenues of $18 million in 2009 to $70 million in 2013.

Wills stressed that one of the “take-aways” from his experience at Careers Australia Group was the need (p. 8) for “effective engagement with Government” to “leverage programs that capitalise on Government loans.”

As part of its “engagement with government” Careers Australia Group has hired three heavy-hitting lobbying firms: the Liberal Party’s strategy and polling firm Crosby Textor Research Strategies, former Liberal Senator Santo Santoro and Next Level Holdings .

Since Wills’ presentation the company has kept on growing at a phenomenal rate.

Australian Taxation Office data for the 2013-14 financial year revealed Careers Australia Group had a turnover of over $110 million.

Some of the company’s growth though has been achieved by controversial means. In late February 2015 ABC TV’s 7:30 Report revealed revealed that a Careers Australia Group sub-contractor’s door-to-door salesman targeted low-income suburbs in Tasmania touting benefits for signing up, stretching even to free laptops. While the company does not have a local campus Tasmanian residents can do the company’s online courses or attend interstate venues.)

It was reported it was common for a Careers Australia sales representative to even complete the literacy and numeracy tests required for vocational education and training loans. (Careers Australia declined to be interviewed by 7:30 but insisted in a statement that the sub-contracting company had been suspended.)

Despite the controversy, Careers Australia Group has continued to thrive. Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal in 2015 the company received over $229 million through the VET FEE-HELP student loans scheme.

While Careers Australia Group currently has no campus in Tasmania, there is a Tasmanian connection.

A Tasmanian connection

Back in early July 2014 the then Federal Employment Minister, Eric Abetz, was on hand at Careers Australia Group’s Fortitude Valley Campus to announce an alliance between the private education company and Chandler Macleod, a major recruitment company. “Careers Australia and Chandler Macleod are to be congratulated on this positive initiative,” Abetz said in a media release.

Careers Australia Group’s website also reported “Senator Abetz spent time with nursing students, gaining a better understanding of how Careers Australia’s focus on education outcomes translates into in-demand graduates.”

Careers Australia Group’s donations to the Tasmanian Liberals were made after Abetz’s visit and Tasmanian Times does not suggest the donations have directly or indirectly influenced Mr Abetz’s decision-making. (Abetz’s stint as a Minister came to an end in September 2015 when Prime Minister Tony Abbott was dismissed as leader by his party room and Malcolm Turnbull appointed a new Ministry.)

Tasmanian Times sought comment from Careers Australia Group’s Managing Director Patrick McKendry as to why the company donated to the Tasmanian Liberals and whether it was seeking to establish operations in Tasmania. No response was received from either McKendry or the company’s Assistant Company Secretary, Heidi Rodgers, who filed the company’s return to the AEC.

Tasmanian Times also sought comment from Senator Abetz on whether he knew of Careers Australia Group’s donations to the Tasmanian Liberals and whether he had ever attended a Liberal Party fundraiser at which McKendry or other company representatives were present. Abetz took issue with an error in a preamble to the questions in which his portfolio was inaccurately described as Education rather than Employment but did not respond to the substantive questions.

In its amended return the Tasmanian Liberal Party’s State Secretary McQuestin listed five other donations which had been miscategorised or incorrectly attributed to the parent company rather than its subsidiary.

Despite submitting an amended return the Tasmanian Liberal Party’s latest disclosure is still inaccurate.

While the Tasmanian Liberal Party’s return lists the Careers Australia Group as having donated $20,000, the company’s own returns disclose it contributed $23,500.

McQuestin did not respond to a request from Tasmanian Times seeking clarification on the discrepancy between the Liberals’ returns and that of the company. Nor did McQuestin address why so many errors had occurred in the Tasmanian Liberals reporting of donations.

Bob Burton is a Hobart-based Contributing Editor of Tasmanian Times. His earlier articles on Tasmanian Times are here.

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