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Conservatives, conservation, corporates: Lobbyist couple energises debate

Beneath an enormous sperm whale skeleton suspended in the n Museum’s Wild Planet Gallery, politicians and corporate bosses mingled over canapes, discussing sea level rises.
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They had come to the March soiree for an “exclusive” parliamentary screening of Leonardo DiCaprio’s climate change documentary, Before the Flood.

Organiser Kristina Photios pulled quite the crowd.

Photios, a former business strategist, had made headlines three months before when she quit the Liberal Party in despair over federal climate policy.

But there were Liberals aplenty at the museum, such as state Attorney General Mark Speakman and Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton, who gave a speech. Party elder Philip Ruddock attended, as did former premier Nick Greiner, the soon-to-be federal Liberal Party president.

And in the throng stood Photios’ husband Michael, the long-time factional controller of the party’s left, which had helped install a premier and a prime minister in the preceding 18 months.

The success of that night, Kristina said, encouraged her to found an organisation advocating “centre-right” solutions to existential environmental problems: Conservatives for Conservation.

Now, with Ruddock and Greiner as ambassadors, the not-for-profit group is pushing for more renewable energy just as the issue threatens to rend the federal Coalition apart.

Kristina is known for her passion for the environment, describing it to Fairfax Media as “the cause I have dedicated my life to pursuing”.

Conservatives for Conservation has also served as a platform for powerful companies that have recently paid Kristina and Michael as professional lobbyists. That includes the energy generator and retailer AGL, ‘s largest emitter, now pivoting from coal toward solar and wind farms.

A month after the museum event, Kristina told Facebook followers she was working for Clean Energy Strategies, her new lobbying firm specialising in renewable energy and climate policy. Around the same time she rejoined the Liberal Party, in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s local electorate.

Chief scientist Alan Finkel called in June for an increase in renewable energy driven by a “clean energy target”. And Kristina’s clients stand to make a lot of money from the introduction of a target, which could secure hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment in the sector.

But it is a divisive policy for the federal government. Turnbull is mulling how he might introduce a target without enraging elements of his party’s hard right, for whom wind farms are about as popular as Kristina’s left-faction husband.

Two months after the release of Finkel’s review, Kristina’s Conservatives for Conservation brought 90 corporate and political guests together for a “Finkel Report Brief” in a theatre in NSW parliament house.

The event’s host, upper house Liberal member Shayne Mallard would go on to tell parliament of the stimulating debate among the the “fantastic”, “diverse” panel.

Three senior businessmen sat on the four-person panel, representing AGL, the multinational technology company Siemens and the law firm Norton Rose Fullbright.

AGL has pushed for the n government to adopt a clean energy target as the company moves toward non-coal energy investments worth billions.

Siemens is another heavy investor in new energy technology while Norton Rose Fulbright describes itself as a “powerhouse” of energy advice.

What the audience paying $65 a head for the Finkel briefing was not told was that all three businesses were registered clients of the Photios’ lobbying firms.

AGL and Siemens were registered to Kristina’s Clean Energy Strategies while Norton Rose Fulbright was listed against one of Michael’s companies.

Kristina told Fairfax Media there was nothing to disclose.

“There is no commercial connection between Conservatives for Conservation and Clean Energy Strategies,” she said, ruling out any “cross promotion”.

Asked how the companies came to appear on her panel, she said “Conservatives for Conservation, in its infancy, identified leading experts within its network in the energy sector.”

AGL and Siemens distanced themselves from Clean Energy Strategies, claiming they had no commercial relationship with the firm, despite the register disclosures.

AGL said its involvement finished before the Finkel brief, while Siemens said its contract was with Michael’s sister firm. Norton Rose Fulbright said the invitation to attend came from Kristina, not her husband.

Michael, a former minister who quit NSW parliament in 1999, stepped down in February from from his role as leader of the NSW moderates.

But he still wields considerable influence within the party.

And through a series of lobbying firms he and his business partners represent some of the nation’s biggest companies, including large coal interests such as Coal Energy and the miner Glencore.

The Clean Energy Strategies website promotes Michael as a “managing partner” offering “contemporary and extensive government networks”.

“Michael from time to time provides strategic advice to clients of Clean Energy Strategies,” Kristina said.

But Michael told Fairfax Media he had stepped back from his role.

“I’ve until recently been a partner in the business and over the last few weeks the company has been in transition and Kristina has taken full ownership and responsibility for the company,” he said.

Despite having listed himself as a Clean Energy Strategies lobbyist as a “precaution”, he said “I have not been actively engaged in lobbying on behalf of clients of the company.”

A third Clean Energy Strategies lobbyist, Ian Hancock, also works for Michael’s firm Capital Hill, which represents coal interests, while sitting on the Conservatives for Conservation committee.

Kristina said possible conflicts of interest were managed under a strict policy.

While she is now her firm’s sole shareholder, taking over from Michael and his business partners, Clean Energy Strategies remains close to the other firms, sharing a floor in Sydney’s MLC building.

When Fairfax Media called Clean Energy Strategies’ office, a voice answered “Capital Hill?”

The new outfit was still waiting for its own line.

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