Australian Electoral Commission to investigate Liberal party's donation 'mistake'

Christopher Knaus
Photograph: Paul Miller/AAP

The electoral commission has said it will look into the Liberal party’s bizarre declaration and subsequent removal of a $165,000 donation from a Scott Morrison ally who is also vying for a $1bn visa processing contract.

The Liberals still have not explained how they came to mistakenly declare the donation from a largely-inactive company named Southern Strategy, which had never donated to any political party before.

The party’s declaration to the electoral commission included Southern Strategy’s business address, the specific amount donated and the date of the donation, but it now claims the donation did not happen and was mistakenly reported.

Southern Strategy is a dormant political consultancy business set up by Scott Briggs, a friend of Morrison’s and former deputy director of the NSW Liberals, who is part of a consortium bidding for the controversial contract to privatise the Australian visa processing system.

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The Liberals asked to have the donation removed from its disclosure to the AEC following Guardian questions on Tuesday.

Briggs says he never made the donation, and left it to the party to explain why it was listed on its disclosures. The Liberals have also now said he gave them nothing, either via a cash donation or an in-kind gift, which could include the provision of free consultancy services.

On Thursday Labor’s shadow assistant immigration minister, Andrew Giles, wrote to the Australian electoral commissioner, Tom Rogers, requesting an investigation.

It is understood the AEC has told Labor it will look into the matter.

A spokesman said the commission would not provide an “ongoing public commentary” on its handling of the complaint.

“I can confirm that we have received correspondence from Mr Giles regarding this matter, which we are considering,” he said. “Consistent with previous compliance matters, the AEC will not provide an ongoing public commentary.”

Giles described the matter as “serious” and said the Liberals should come clean and explain how a $165,000 donation could have been mistakenly declared.

“The Liberal party have a statutory obligation to report donations correctly – that’s why the AEC should take a look at this,” he said.

The original donation disclosure placed Southern Strategy’s business address at the same office as the consortium bidding for the visa contract, Australian Visa Processing. That consortium includes Briggs’s investment firm, Pacific Blue Capital, contracting giant PwC Australia, software multinational Oracle and the fund manager Ellerston.

Related: Liberal party claims declaration of a $165k donation by Morrison ally was a mistake

The plan to privatise the visa processing system has prompted concern from the Community and Public Sector Union, which has said the plan will put jobs and sensitive personal information at risk.

Labor said the procurement process suffered from unavoidable conflicts of interest – a charge the Coalition denied. Morrison and the immigration minister, David Coleman, a former colleague of Briggs, have reportedly removed themselves from cabinet deliberations on the contract.

The Liberal party’s disclosures to the AEC remained unchanged on Friday. It typically takes some time for the commission to process requests to amend disclosure returns.