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Pyne raises eyebrows over land tax manoeuvres

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High-profile lobbyist Christopher Pyne says he is still representing business clients who are pushing for further changes to the Marshall Government’s land tax legislation, despite the former MP this week declaring parliament should pass the laws “in order to create a fairer land tax regime”.

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Pyne’s firm GC Advisory, which he runs with founder and former staffer Adam Howard, this month added several development companies to its lobbying register of interests “out of an abundance of caution”.

The companies are all clients of law firm WRP Legal, which engaged GC Advisory in June “to assist some of their clients on [the land tax] issue”, Pyne said at the time.

But it’s understood the former federal minister, moderate powerbroker and long-time confidant of Premier Steven Marshall raised eyebrows with some of those clients with his weekly column published in The Advertiser this week, in which he espoused the benefits of the Government’s land tax reforms, likening the current land tax standoff to the Howard Government’s 1990s efforts to introduce a GST.

“Many of the Liberal Party’s traditional supporters have been vocal in opposing this reform, [asking ‘why not just let sleeping dogs lie’… but political parties get elected to do things,” Pyne wrote in the News Corp paper.

He argued the current Bill – which retains a crackdown on aggregation while reducing the top rate of tax from 3.7 to 2.4 per cent – is “much better than the status quo” and “needs to pass both houses of parliament in order to create a fairer land tax regime than the current arrangements”.

“It would be ‘cutting off our nose to spite our face’ for it now to be defeated,” he wrote, adding that Treasurer Rob Lucas’s consultation had produced “a much better reform that lowers tax for a large number of taxpayers and ensures there is a more accurate estimate for what the revenue numbers are for the SA treasury”.

InDaily has been told some of the clients have questioned their ongoing relationship with GC Advisory over the article.

I haven’t had a meeting with Christopher or anyone to my knowledge from whatever that firm’s name is

Labor frontbencher Tom Koutsantonis says two of the clients have told him the arrangement is worth $25,000 a month to Pyne’s firm.

Asked via text whether he could confirm the $25,000 monthly fee, Pyne replied: “No.”

Pyne did not respond to a question about who within the Marshall Government he directly lobbied on the issue.

However, Lucas told InDaily he had only received one text message from Pyne on the issue several weeks ago.

“I haven’t had a meeting with Christopher or Adam Howard or anyone to my knowledge from whatever that firm’s name is, certainly not in relation to land tax,” he said.

“The people who are lobbying the Government generally on this are not just speaking to me – they’re speaking to ministers, backbenchers, the Premier… but all I can say is, the one text I had was really just passing on some information about an individual.”

The ramifications for Pyne could be broader, with the former minister currently facing an unrelated election process for membership of the elite Adelaide Club.

A club member has confirmed to InDaily they have been urged to “blackball” his nomination over his public posturing on land tax.

It’s understood for every “blackball” vote a nominee receives, they need to garner another six votes in support to cancel it out.

Pyne’s membership ballot is slated for November 4.

He told InDaily he hadn’t heard any suggestion his Advertiser column may affect his Adelaide Club membership application.

WRP Legal director Garry Winter told InDaily Pyne was “entitled to his opinion”, acknowledging “a little’s been made of the article… I’ve had a few calls from a few people”.

“I actually think what he was trying to get across is that the legislation in its current form is a better position than we were in previously,” he said.

“That’s not to say they’re aren’t significant improvements that could be made, but it would be better to not block it… and it would be a worse position to go back to what it currently is – I think that’s the message he was trying to get across.

“It’s been interpreted as just giving in, which is not the case.”

Asked whether any of the clients had discussed reviewing their contract with GC Advisory, Winter said: “I can’t comment on that.”

The group is still spruiking for additional land tax changes, which were not incorporated into the current Bill.

They want SA’s land tax rates and thresholds to be in line with or better than Victoria’s, and for companies to be treated the same as trusts under the legislation.

“I haven’t heard from anyone a sensible explanation as to why a private company should be treated differently to a private trust,” Winter said.

“There should be no distinction.”

The groups also want property developers holding subdivided land for less than two years to be exempt from aggregation provisions.

One of the clients, Mark Fiora from the Fiora Group, told InDaily the current Bill had gone “halfway to real reform” after the “disaster” of the Government’s original land tax proposal.

“We’ve fallen halfway, and that’s disappointing,” he said.

“The current ‘version 2′ proposal of reform is still half-baked and will still be very unpalatable to many… we were more than willing to work with the Government to achieve ‘Land Tax version 3’ that most may accept, so we could all just get on with building the state.”

InDaily understands Pyne told the groups in a meeting that the Government was unwilling to compromise on aggregation and they should focus on pursuing achievable issues.

The SA Lobbyist Register notes that one of the companies GC Advisory added as a client on October 1 – Duke Group, run by the Angelopoulos family – was subsequently removed as a client on October 2.

Pyne wouldn’t elaborate on the reasons why the Duke Group was withdrawn, suggesting InDaily “ask Duke”.

The Duke Group declined to comment.

Winter said the Duke Group was present at some “preliminary discussions” and “didn’t want to be part of the smaller group” going forward.

“That’s their prerogative,” he said.

Pyne told InDaily he was still representing the development companies listed on the lobbyist register and that none had advised that they would end their relationship with GC Advisory over his Advertiser column.

Asked whether the column implied he considered his lobbying efforts complete, he said “no”.

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