Nationals Interest: the party president who runs a lobbying firm

A lobbying firm run by National Party president Larry Anthony is pushing the interests of energy firms as the Coalition grapples with looming gas shortfalls and bitter infighting over renewable energy policy.

Santos and Delta Electricity this year joined the client list of SAS Consulting Group, the government relations firm founded and co-owned by its executive director, Mr Anthony.

"Through our extensive networks we create powerful, purposeful connections for businesses and organisations," the SAS Group website says.

The first line of Mr Anthony's SAS Group biography refers to his presidency of the Nationals, "one half of the ruling Coalition government".

A leading expert on lobbying said the party president's absence from the public register of lobbyists "so undermines the intent of the lobbyist code of conduct as to make it nearly useless".

But Mr Anthony, a member of party policy, campaign and fundraising groups, said he was "not directly a lobbyist" and had no conflicts of interest.

A Howard government minister and third-generation parliamentarian, Mr Anthony lost his NSW seat of Richmond in 2004 and founded the SAS Group in 2009 with former Labor minister Con Sciacca.

Today, a number of SAS Group clients have large financial interests in contentious areas of government policy.

One company, Indue, operates the cashless welfare card being trialled in several states in an attempt to reduce gambling and alcohol spending.

Indue has won government contracts worth tens of millions of dollars since 2009 and a group of Nationals MPs is pushing for a widespread rollout of the welfare card.

Mr Anthony, a former minister responsible for Centrelink, served as deputy chairman of Indue until 2013.

Another client, Santos, was among the energy providers that met Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull this week to strike a deal on domestic gas reservation.

Mr Turnbull and National Party leader Barnaby Joyce called on the NSW government to expedite a major coal seam gas project Santos hopes to build at Narrabri, National Party heartland in the state's north.

Meanwhile, Delta Electricity plans to build a solar farm but also expand its coal-fired power generation, arguing that Mr Turnbull should pressure banks to lend money for the extension of coal-fired plants.

The government is struggling to devise a clean energy policy that would keep the peace between Liberal Party factions while also satisfying the National Party.

After a federal conference debate moderated by Mr Joyce and Mr Anthony this month, the Nationals passed a motion urging the government to freeze and then phase out renewable energy subsidies.

Opening the conference, Mr Anthony thanked corporate sponsors, saying they and regional Australia backed the party "because we are focused and we deliver, we are transparent, and non-factionalised, we are loyal to our leaders, and ministers of the day".

"This is what sets us apart from other major political parties," he said.

When he became party president in 2015, Mr Anthony was criticised for lobbying for the Shenhua Watermark mining project. At the time, he said he had removed himself from lobbyist registers and had no conflict of interest.

"We do a lot of things aside from government relations - media, communications, stakeholder relations, et cetera," he said. "But executive director? Yes, I might have to come off that."

Two years later, he remains an executive director.

The SAS Group website has promoted the fact Mr Anthony attended the Liberal National Party's Queensland convention in July. Asked whether his party presidency helped to attract clients, Mr Anthony said: "I don't know about that, but my name is synonymous with the National Party."

His father, Doug, served as party leader from 1971 to 1984 and his grandfather, Larry snr, was a Country Party minister.

Until this year, SAS Group listed its Canberra office as in the same building as National Party headquarters, John McEwen House, a low-rise office building a few streets from Parliament House.

Mr Anthony said that in 2014 SAS was one of a number of companies that rented space in the building, at commercial rates, but it moved out the next year. Fairfax Media could find no former lease for SAS on the historical title deed.

The proprietor of the building, John McEwen House Pty Ltd, also acts as a fundraising vehicle for the party, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

Trading as the National Policy Forum, the company advertises seats at National Party events in corporate membership packages that cost up to $55,000.

Mr Anthony sits on the fundraiser's board, while SAS Group clients Santos and National Trunk Rail have attended its events.

When SAS Group chief executive Peter Costantini attended one he was photographed separately with Mr Anthony and Nationals MP Luke Hartsuyker.

"When I took on the National Party job a couple of years ago I came off the lobby registry, so I'm not directly a lobbyist, although I am still clearly an owner of the company," Mr Anthony told Fairfax Media.

He said he managed staff and provided general advice to clients, but advisers handled "direct engagement with government".

As for the Nationals' policy committee meetings, he said he could not remember attending any.

"I don't blend the two," he said of his political and commercial work. "We do take [the lobbyist code of conduct] very seriously and we comply with it to the letter."

The code prohibits lobbyists from being a member of a party executive. It also requires anyone who lobbies or employs lobbyists to register on a public database.

University of Melbourne politics lecturer George Rennie said even if Mr Anthony had not technically breached the code, his failure to appear as a registered lobbyist "so undermines the intent of the code, as to make it nearly useless".

"Being a part-owner and director of a lobbying firm, while concurrently serving as president of the National Party, creates a clear conflict of interest," Mr Rennie said.

When asked whether Mr Anthony may be conflicted, a spokesman for the parliamentary leader Mr Joyce said "not at all because Mr Anthony isn't involved in any way with the decisions of government or cabinet".

"The policy committee is just that," the spokesman said. "They are not government. They do not craft or have any input into cabinet submissions upon which ministers make decisions."

Delta Electricity spokesman Steve Gurney said: "We're not making any comment about SAS."

Santos and Indue did not answer directly when asked whether Mr Anthony had facilitated access to government representatives or provided other lobbying services.

"We draw on SAS's energy sector experience, so we've had very little interaction with Mr Anthony," a spokeswoman said.

"We have supported the Nationals' National Policy Forum for a number of years, and we are even-handed when it comes to supporting the policy forums of political parties that support gas development."

An Indue spokeswoman said the company had employed SAS Group since 2014 and the firm had facilitated meetings with federal government representatives from time to time.

"Indue is not a member of any Australian political party or associated policy forums," she said.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, which administers the lobbyist register, did not respond to specific questions about Mr Anthony but said in general it would investigate evidence or allegations of code breaches.

Do you know more? Email patrick.begley@fairfaxmedia.com.au

This story Nationals Interest: the party president who runs a lobbying firm first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.