By Shane Scanlan
A City of Melbourne councillor believes the council has bought political favour with powerful media interests with a $230,000 donation.
Finance chair Cr Stephen Mayne says the decision, made behind closed doors last December, to sponsor the Good Friday Kids’ Day Out, was effectively a donation to News Corporation.
Lord Mayor Robert Doyle is understood to have championed the sponsorship request at the confidential council meeting on December 15.
Reports to the meeting and the successful motions have only just been made public.
They reveal that council officers recommended rejecting the funding request from Royal Children’s Hospital Appeal Limited, a private company run by senior Herald Sun and Channel Seven executives.
The council’s city economy and activation director Martin Cutter advised councillors there was no suitable funding mechanism.
“Any allocation of funding outside the Triennial Sponsorship Program (TSP) funding cycle would potentially give rise to arguable positions of inconsistent treatment of former applicants or potential applicants,” Mr Cutter warned.
Cr Mayne said: “I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of a powerful media company like News Corp confidentially putting its hand out for $200,000 from City of Melbourne rate-payers going into an election campaign where it will help determine who wins.”
“Coincidentally, the Lord Mayor received the benefit of a very favourable profile in the Herald Sun on Easter Sunday, but it certainly wasn’t clear that council as a whole got much benefit from its $200,000 spend on an event that was still clearly marketed as a Herald Sun, 3AW and Channel Seven endeavour.”
“In hindsight it looks like an effective piece of government rent-seeking by News Corp whereby its political power was leveraged to extract a commercial benefit.”
Officers assessed the sponsorship value offered by the applicants at $200,000 but there is general disquiet within the council that the full value was delivered.
One councillor put the estimated value of what was returned at “a little more than half.”
Among expected benefits to the council were: promotional spots on Channel 7; live and pre-recorded promotional spots on 3AW/Nova/Smooth; editorial and advertorial exposure with the Herald Sun; and signage at the event.
Officially, the council is waiting for a formal acquittal process to be completed before before commenting on the value derived from the Good Friday event.
But, privately, councillors are far from happy with the level of exposure the Kids Day Out generated. At the same time, they don’t want to be seen to be critical of the event or the cause and, no doubt, are potentially nervous about offending powerful media interests.
Cr Rohan Leppert said it was widely believed that the council didn’t get a good deal and it needed to look very carefully at the value returned.
But only Cr Mayne has drawn a connection between the $230,000 spent and favourable media coverage.
A City of Melbourne spokesperson said: “Like any sponsorship, the event organiser will have to demonstrate that they have met all the agreed KPIs. This final acquittal occurs in June and at that point council will be in a position to know whether it wishes to fund it again.”
Good Friday Appeal director Ann Randall pointed out that 80,000 attended the day, thanks to the council’s support.
A Herald Sun spokesperson said Cr Mayne’s comments were offensive.
“To suggest the city’s support for Kids’ Day Out was designed to commercially benefit News Corp is an outrageous slur, not befitting any person in public office,” the spokesperson said.
“Mayne’s comments are offensive to the thousands of volunteers, generous community donors and corporate supporters who have collectively raised more than $300 million for the Royal Children’s Hospital.”
“The City of Melbourne’s support for a major city event, attracting about 80,000 people with the express purpose of raising funds to help Victoria’s sick children, helped the Good Friday Appeal achieve a record outcome of $17.4 million.”
“It was perfectly proper, and appropriate support for an event which continues to grow in the city each year.”
“Not one cent of that $300 million has gone anywhere but to benefit the hospital and the children since HWT founded the appeal in 1931. Mayne should be ashamed of his pathetic conspiracy theory.”