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Advance Australia: Truth trucks and dark money claims — where will this controversial group turn up next?

Headshot of Sarah Blake
Sarah Blake
The Nightly
6 Min Read
Far-right political group Advance Australia has been the subject of intense scrutiny. But what are they planning next?
Far-right political group Advance Australia has been the subject of intense scrutiny. But what are they planning next? Credit: The Nightly

The arrival of Advance Australia’s billboarded trucks on the streets of Melbourne’s bayside seat of Dunkley ahead of this month’s byelection was predictably slammed by critics of the controversial right-wing political group.

In its first electoral incursion since taking credit for the No vote in last year’s referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, Advance didn’t campaign directly for the Liberal candidate Nathan Conroy. Instead it squarely targeted Anthony Albanese on the cost of living.

As the group’s “truth trucks” were joined by street posters, pamphlets and a reported $300,000 ad spend, voices from the PM down derided Advance for spreading misinformation and importing “divisive” US-style campaigning.

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In the end, Advance’s presence had a limited impact at Dunkley, where ALP candidate Jodie Belyea won, despite a modest 3.56 per cent swing to the Liberals.

But the bitterness of the campaign provides a glimpse of what Australia faces in the coming months, ahead of the next Federal election.

So just who is behind Advance? And where will they next turn their focus?

In an exclusive interview with The Nightly, key Advance figures reveal for the first time details of the group’s membership and its political ambitions.

While Advance has a strident social media presence — its official pages have 125,000 followers on Facebook, 8.7k on X and 18.7k on Instagram — its leaders rarely grant press access.

Founded as a conservative answer to the Left’s activist outfit Get Up in 2018 by a group which included former ABC chair Maurice Newman, storage business owner Sam Kennard and Dr David Adler from the Australian Jewish Association, Advance has had several leaders.

Current Pharmacy Guild head Gerard Benedet was its initial national director, followed by former Liberal staffer and now Sky News host Liz Storer. She was replaced by the group’s current spokesman Matthew Sheahan, who spoke with The Nightly alongside director Simon Fenwick, a multimillionaire Sydney-based fund manager.

While Advance’s many critics condemn it for emulating former US president Donald Trump’s divisive social media strategy, Mr Fenwick said he was happy for the group’s activities to be compared to the playbook that helped deliver Republicans the White House in 2016.

Mr Fenwick, co-founder of International Value Advisors, said Advance now had 330,000 members whose average donation is $160, a message that he said had been lost amid the criticism of the group’s support from several wealthy donors.

Simon Fenwick at his home in Mosman
Simon Fenwick at his home in Mosman. Credit: Adam Taylor/Adam Taylor

These include retired Perth used car dealer Brian Anderson, whose Hadley Holdings poured $1.025m into the No campaign and Mr Kennard, who donated $115,000. Former PM Tony Abbott is an advisor and its high profile spokespeople on the Voice campaign included Shadow Indigenous Australians Minister Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Warren Mundine.

Australian Electoral Commission figures published in February show Advance received $5.2m in donations last year, with $2.4m from undisclosed donors. Mr Sheahan said the undisclosed donations came from those who gave less than $15,300 in a financial year and that the $160 average figure was calculated by dividing the donations total by the number of donors.

Mr Fenwick said: “Many on the left paint Advance as the ‘group of the billionaires’, which is nonsense, given our median donation is $160”.

“It’s also nonsense because of our campaign items - cost of living, cost of energy, cost of utility vehicles. (These are) hardly the stuff people in Double Bay or Teal electorates talk about,” he said.

Get Up chief Larissa Baldwin-Roberts, who publishes real-time donations on their site that shows more than $6.7m received in the past year, said Advance is funded by “dark money”.

“Advance Australia is a slush fund for the far-right, set up as a campaigning arm for the Liberal party to do Peter Dutton’s bidding,” she said in a statement on the group’s website.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians Senator Jacinta Price address the media during a press conference in Brisbane, Saturday, October 14, 2023. Australians today voted against an Indigenous voice in the country's constitution. (AAP Image/Jono Searle) NO ARCHIVING
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians Senator Jacinta Price on the day of the No Vote. Credit: JONO SEARLE/AAPIMAGE

Mr Fenwick, who last year donated $400,000 to Advance through his family trust Silver River, said the group was doing a better job campaigning than the traditional conservative approach.

“Australian conservatives were slow, reactionary and, quite frankly, often disorganised in their political messaging,” he said.

“One of the key motivations in forming Advance was to have a permanent campaigning capability, as opposed to traditional models, that were often late and lacked cut-through.”

He said that the Albanese government’s mooted plans to ban large campaign donations would be damaging for the country.

“This speaks to the asymmetry in Australia politics,” he said.

“The ALP will aways have money flowing to it from the unions and power from industry funds.

“It is not just the LNP that will be worried, it’s also the Teals that have very large donations in the seats in which they have been electorally active.

“Strategically it would make sense for the ALP to simply suffocate other party’s sources of revenue but to keep their own.”

While Advance has been credited in some quarters for the No vote in last year’s referendum, senior Coalition figures point to their own efforts and seek to distance themselves from the outfit’s more outrageous campaign material.

This included a full-page newspaper ad that featured a cartoon depicting prominent Yes campaigner Thomas Mayo accepting a handout from Wesfarmers chair and Yes advocate Michael Chaney and his daughter, Independent MP Kate Chaney. Several Federal MPs labelled the ad racist.

In the fallout last July, Advance advisory board member and former prime minister Mr Abbott told the ABC he wouldn’t have run the ad, but Advance stood by the imagery and it was publicly defended by Mr Mundine.

“People who say it is racist and sexist don’t know what they’re talking about, quite frankly,” Mr Mundine said of the ad last year.

While Advance boasts strong Liberal connections, it is not officially affiliated with the Federal Opposition and one senior Coalition figure told The Nightly the party’s relationship with the political group was increasingly strained.

“In the same way that Labor now distances itself from Get Up, because they have just gotten too on-the-nose, so the same is happening with Advance and the Liberals. There’s no benefit in being affiliated with them because you can’t control what they do,” the figure said.

Mr Fenwick said the Voice result showed that Australians want to see an end to corporate activism and that this was a lesson becoming more clear in boardrooms.

“Many Australians showed that they didn’t want to be lectured to by the elites during the Voice, whether that be by the government, sporting bodies, the big end of town and CEOs,” he said.

As for its next areas of focus, Mr Fenwick said Advance would continue to ramp up its attacks on the Federal Government’s “absurd and Orwellian” misinformation laws and would focus their cost of living efforts on housing and campaigning against Labor’s new vehicle emissions standards.

In the wash-up of Dunkley, many commentators said Advance had been exposed as ineffective.

Describing the Advance spend in Dunkley as “meaningful, but not large” Mr Fenwick blamed the loss on low turnout and said the group was now focusing on attracting young supporters.

“The message is that young people are being the hardest hit by the radical policies from Labor, Greens, Teals,” he said.

“Australians struggling to afford a home, to pay their bills to start a family - we need to re-energise the next generation, before it is too late.

“In the wealthy enclaves of the major big cities, of course, many young are already involved - often as social justice warriors.

“In one sense, it is good to see young people involved but it is despairing how often these activists are ashamed of their country and its traditions.”

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