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The love story behind Australia’s biggest political donation

Feb 12, 2020 • 13m 57s

Scott Morrison received the biggest individual political donation in Australian history. Behind it was a love story – and a man who asked for nothing in return.

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The love story behind Australia’s biggest political donation

161 • Feb 12, 2020

The love story behind Australia’s biggest political donation

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

Last week it was revealed that Scott Morrison’s re-election campaign received a huge boost from one of Sydney’s most reclusive families. So what prompted a 92-year-old man to donate 4.1 million dollars to the Liberal Party?

Today - Rick Morton on the Wakil family and the biggest individual political donation in Australian history.

[Theme music ends]

RUBY:

Rick, is this a love story?

RICK:

It's a really enduring love story.

[Music starts]

RICK:

You know, it's about two people, Isaac and Susan Wakil, and they never stopped loving each other across seven decades. And it's also a story about the largest ever individual donation in Australian political party history.

RUBY:

Rick Morton is a senior reporter for The Saturday Paper.

RICK:

And from a couple that few people had actually ever heard of, despite the fact that they dominated the social pages in Sydney society in the 70s and 80s. They were quite enigmatic in there, in their final decades and almost reclusive. So it's just kind of, mysterious couple who were so, so in love.

[Music ends]

RUBY:

Rick when was the last time that the Wakils were seen out in public?

RICK:

When Susan was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, they decided to host their last party. She didn't want her friends to see her suffering. So without telling their friends and acquaintances that this would be the last whenever they hosted this fabulous dinner at The American club. And The American club was this bastion of Sydney society in the CBD, but its windows, its floor to ceiling windows, overlooked the gardens across towards Mrs Macquarie's chair and out onto the Harbour. And the food was glorious. And when it was all done. They all went home to their separate homes and Isaac and Susan went back to their home in Vaucluse and they shut the doors. And that was essentially the last time they were seen in public. And Isaac became Susan’s sole carer. He would not leave her side.

RUBY:

So, can you tell me a little bit about Isaac and Susan's early life?

RICK:

Well, they're both immigrants. So, you know, Susan came here from what was then a Romanian territory and, you know, watched her father kidnapped by state forces and he was imprisoned in a gulag and she fled here with her auntie. And Isaac similarly came from Iraq. So they were both essentially in Australia, trying to make a life for themselves. And not only did they do that, but they did that quite successfully.

I went looking through the old archives for stories about Isaac and Susan. And they are in the social pages almost every month in the Australian Women’s Weekly. She's hosting a cocktail party for Madam Sukarno. She wears almost exclusively French designers; so Lavin, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent. So they were very, you know, refined in terms of their taste. But also by all accounts, you know, this wasn't just about looking good for them, this was about raising lots and lots of money. She was a fundraiser for the Black and White Charity Committee and put a lot of effort into it, according to friends that I spoke to for this story. So it was kind of the two things were, were their life.

RUBY:

So how did the Wakils amass their fortune?

RICK:

It's quite interesting, actually. So together they kind of started a clothing company, they were in the rag trade. But it was Susan, by all accounts, that was really good at, you know, business and particularly with property.

She was the one that suggested they buy up all these tracts of mostly commercial real estate, but also some residential real estate in Surry Hills, Pyrmont, in the edge of the CBD, which at the time, you know, in the 80s, nobody would touch.

I mean, these areas were still working class. There was not even a hint of gentrification on the horizon. And that was decades away. And so they made these really, what in hindsight, are really clever purchases.

And then they did nothing with them. They sat on the property. And this is quite a bone of contention in Sydney history, because these buildings, like the Griffith Tea Building in Surry Hills and the Terminus Hotel in Pyrmont, which is this gorgeous, gorgeous pub that was unoccupied for 33 years and was just sitting there in disrepair, all of these buildings were in disrepair. And, you know, very occasionally, property developers would pluck up the courage to once again try the impossible, which was to get the Wakils to sell them one of these properties. And Susan always said to them, it's too much trouble. Like, I'm not going to bother going through the paperwork to offload them.

And so they just had them.

RUBY:

So when did they start to sell off those properties?

RICK:

Mm hmm. After that final, that final dinner when Susan became ill, they began divesting themselves of all of these properties and essentially in four years, that holding was worth 200 million dollars and that money went into their foundation.

RUBY:

What did they do with the money?

RICK:

For almost a year or two, nothing. And you won't get the impression that they were figuring out what matters most to them as a couple. But the first kind of toe they dipped into the waters of philanthropy was this 10, almost 11 million dollar donation to the University of Sydney to establish 12 ongoing nursing scholarships. And at that point in 2015, that was an incredibly significant donation.

And then the following year, as if they decided they hadn't gone nearly far enough. They decided to donate another 35 million dollars to the University of Sydney. So this is about 46 million dollars in total for the nursing scholarships and then to build a health sciences building under which all of the health sciences could be brought together at the university. And that is the largest donation to University of Sydney in its entire history. There has never been a bigger one.

And then they donated 20 million dollars to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which again was the largest donation in the gallery's history.

RUBY:

Can you tell me a bit more about the University of Sydney donation and the building that was put up after that?

RICK:

So the building is due to be opened later on this year, but obviously they've been in the design process and there was a period where they were going through the architectural sketches.

[Music starts]

RICK:

And right across the top of the entire structure was the couple's name, Susan and Isaac Wakil, Health Science Centre. And Isaac saw that and he was mortified. And he called a longtime friend of his and he begged him, begged him to take the name Isaac off the building, he didn't want this to be his legacy; this was Susan's legacy. And he got what he wanted. That building – when it opens later on this year – will only have her name on it. It'll be the Susan Wakil Health Sciences Centre.

RUBY:

That's really beautiful.

RICK:

I think so. I mean, there are many ways to express our love, but that is quite bold. And he adored her and it shows.

When they were donating the money to the university, they held this big dinner and the chancellor was like, ‘please come, we want to thank you. I mean, this is a huge occasion for us.’ And Susan was too ill to go to the event, so Isaac refused to go.

RUBY:

And it must have been not long after that Susan died.

RICK:

Yeah. So she passed away in May 2018 and he was her sole carer for about five years. and when she died, he was so grace stricken that he essentially publicly announced that he was going into a one year period of mourning. And it's been almost two years now, and he hasn't ventured out. And really, we haven't heard anything from him until last week.

RUBY:

We’ll be back after this.

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RUBY:

So, Rick, can you tell me about Isaac's first donation to the Liberal Party?

RICK:

It was, um, the night before Christmas, actually, in 2018. And he kind of pops in with a 1.5 million dollar donation to the federal secretariat of the Liberal Party. And I mean, already that is an extremely large amount of money. And that was just the first in a flurry of donations that would eventually total $4.1 million.

He outstripped the next closest donation by Duncan Turpy, which was for half a million dollars. The thing that blows this out of the water is that all the people I spoke to across the political spectrum to get the information for this story, not one of them said that he wanted anything. There was no quid pro quo. There were no favors asked for. His business is done. He's got no more interest in making money. And so it kind of becomes obvious why? Why now? Why 4.1 million dollars in the largest donation in Liberal Party history? Certainly political party history if you exclude Clive Palmer and his own personal interest. What motivated that?

RUBY:

So, did he give any instructions about what he wanted done with the money?

RICK:

Very little. He certainly didn't expect anything in return personally. But he was very clear that, you know, him and Susan, when they were young, hosted these parties, these amazing parties in their own home as well in Vaucluse. And they've lived in that home ever since. And that's very firmly in the electorate of Wentworth. And so he was very clear that Dave Sharma should receive some help.

RUBY:

That's, of course, Malcolm Turnbull's old electorate.

RICK:

Of course. Yes. So Malcolm Turnbull's old electorate, which was, you know, kind of caught up in a bit of brouhaha because, you know, Malcolm Turnbull was deposed as prime minister and was told to get out of the country during the by-election. And then indeed. And then they told him that he didn't campaign hard enough for the Liberals.

And then Kerryn Phelps – an Eastern Suburbs doctor GP – won as an Independent for about six months or seven months.

And so when the federal election came back in May 2019, last year, it was Dave Sharma versus Kerryn Phelps. And it was a bit of a, you know, people thought maybe Dave would get in, but it was not a done deal. And so Isaac Wakil was particularly energised about that, that if he wanted Scott Morrison to win, which he did, then Dave Sharma had to win Wentworth.

I spoke to Kerryn Phelps and she reckons she spent about three hundred thousand. And that's an estimate I stress. But she reckons that Dave Sharma would have outspent her fivefold because they were doing things like, you know, personalised correspondence to every single home in Wentworth, which would have alone, according to her, cost three hundred thousand dollars.

RUBY:

So, Rick, this donation possibly changed the course of the election - or at the very least seems to have had a big impact on one key seat. Do we have any idea why Isaac Wakil picked this moment to get involved in politics?

RICK:

I spoke to Julian Leeser, who is a Liberal MP, is, you know, very well known in Sydney circles. He got to know Isaac Wakil particularly. He also met Susan before she died. And it was his theory that Isaac was looking for ways to continue to love his wife. And she'd gone. He's grieving. What are the things that she loved most in this world? And as it happens, it was health sciences. It was the Arts and it was the Liberal Party. And Isaac decided to honour her. So, I mean, it's a weird way for a donation to come about, but it's how they see the world.

[Music starts]

And Isaac doesn't have a view one way or the other himself by the sounds of it. But he knew what his wife wanted. And he's out there trying his best to keep her alive in his memory. And this is the way that he seeks to do it. I think to him that is his way of recreating her in this world when she's not physically here.

RUBY:

Rick, thanks so much for talking to me today.

RICK:

Thanks Ruby, I appreciate it.

[Music ends]

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[Theme music ends]

RUBY:

Also in the news… The High Court has ruled in a 4-3 split decision that Indigenous Australians can’t be considered aliens, granting them special status in constitutional law and preventing them from being deported by the home affairs department. The decision was prompted by the case of two Indigenous men, born overseas, who had their visas revoked after criminal convictions.

And restaurateur George Calombaris’ hospitality group has collapsed just months after employees were back-paid nearly 8 million dollars following an underpayment scandal. 22 of the companies founded by Calombaris have been placed into voluntary administration. Calombaris is facing calls from unions to liquidate his personal holdings to ensure workers receive their entitlements.

I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

RUBY:

Um, I’m, I'm quite moved.

RICK:

I know, so was I when I was doing the interviews.

Description: Scott Morrison’s re-election campaign received a huge boost from one of Sydney’s most reclusive families. So what prompted a 92-year-old man to donate $4.1 million to the Liberal Party? Rick Morton on the Wakil family and the biggest individual political donation in Australian history.

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Background reading:

The biggest party donor you’ve never heard of in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Ruby Jones. The show is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, Elle Marsh and Michelle Macklem. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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161: The love story behind Australia’s biggest political donation