Crucial Liberal candidate to be investigated over electoral disclosure

The Liberal Party’s candidate for the country’s most marginal electorate will be investigated over the integrity of an electoral disclosure she submitted regarding her relationship with the property sector.

Macquarie candidate and Hawkesbury councillor Sarah Richards declared to the NSW Electoral Commission last year she was not closely linked to a property developer despite her partner, Matthew Bennett, co-owning a company that spruiked an “end to end” role in the industry.

Hawkesbury councillor Sarah Richards and her partner, BCM Property director Matthew Bennett.Credit:Facebook

A spokesman for NSW Local Government Minister Wendy Tuckerman confirmed Cr Richards’ declaration in the lead-up to the December council elections would be investigated after a commitment was secured from senior bureaucrat Michael Cassel in a parliamentary hearing.

“We have said if we are made aware that something has been done untoward, we will investigate. We have been made aware today. Documents have been tabled,” Mr Cassel, secretary of the Department of Property and Environment, said during NSW budget estimates last week.

The commitment came after Greens MLC David Shoebridge, who will make a tilt for a Senate seat in the federal election, questioned Ms Tuckerman about whether there was an investigation into Cr Richards’ declaration, to which she said she didn’t know.

Ms Tuckerman’s spokesman said the Office of Local Government “will review the tabled documents”.

This masthead reported the possible discrepancy in November and Cr Richards did not respond to a request for comment at the time.

Cr Richards, who was accompanied by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in the flood-ravaged Hawkesbury area on Saturday, said on Sunday that the timing of the “unfounded attack” reflected poorly on Labor and the Greens as she had to take time off from her Rural Fire Service duties to address the “hurtful smear”.

“My partner is not a property developer. He is a real estate agent and, like many agents, he consults to a range of property owners about what they can do on their land. He is not the applicant for any developments and he currently does not own any land or have shares in any land,” she said.

The controversy comes less than a month after a trio of federal Liberal MPs called for cross-party collaboration to work out a compromise proposal for an integrity commission, after the federal government’s 2019 election promise was all-but shelved.

Labor’s Susan Templeman holds Macquarie by a 0.2 per cent margin, a buffer whittled down by Cr Richards during the 2019 campaign in the swing seat.

Sarah Richards with the Prime Minister at an event in December 2021.Credit:Jessica Hromas

The business run by Mr Bennett, who helped manage Cr Richards’ 2019 federal election campaign, is named BCM Property Group, with the website specifying that it is a real estate agency that sells and leases properties, but “is not a property development company.”

However, in November, the website was titled BCM Real Estate and Development and offered “End to End Property Development Services” that included access to “targeted expertise in specific aspects of commercial or residential property development.”

In late 2017, BCM – named on council documentation as Bennett Cooney Mackman Real Estate –lodged a development application for the staged $4.9 million subdivision of a block of land in Riverstone, in Sydney’s north-west, to create 103 residential lots.

According to documentation submitted to Blacktown Council, Bennett Cooney Mackman was also acting as an agent for another entity, Elite International Developments, for a linked 2018 development application for $10 million shop-top apartments nearby, as part of a proposed precinct renewal.

Sarah Richards behind Scott Morrison on Saturday when he addressed media outside Windsor police station, in the flood-raved Hawkesbury area.Credit:Rhett Wyman

Cr Richards said Mr Bennett was incorrectly listed as an applicant and was one of a team of consultants on the project during 2017 and 2018. She said he had terminated his consultancy services for Elite in 2018 and was not a shareholder or landowner.

Mr Bennett’s BCM email address was also lodged as a point of contact for a proposed $11 million subdivision for seniors’ living on land owned by his parents in documentation submitted to Hawkesbury Council in February 2021.

Cr Richards said, “of course, he helped his elderly parents and no money changed hands. He wanted to make sure that his daughter’s final resting place, which is located on the property, was preserved and respected.”

NSW Labor MLC Mark Buttigieg, who tabled documents relating to Cr Richards and BCM, said during the same parliamentary session the latter was “clearly involved in residential property development”.

Electoral funding legislation includes spouses and those involved in partnerships or joint ventures with property developers as being under the definition of “close associates”.

While it is legal for property developers and those associated with them to sit on councils in NSW – something that the government has undertaken to review – they are forbidden from donating under state electoral laws.

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