Smoking Row: Fixer on the inside track was in pole position to help the Tories

Australian businessman Ronald J Walker has proved to be a skilled political operator, capable of driving a hard bargain. Kim Sengupta looks at the career of a man said to have helped raise millions for the Tories.
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Ron Walker is in many ways the ideal man to tread softly through the delicate world of international political fund-raising where discretion is the key, and donors often do not want their generosity publicised.

The millionaire entrepreneur from Melbourne, who has made his fortune from property development, is the federal treasurer of Australia's Liberal Party and a leading figure behind the scene. He has, say his colleagues, the ability to move smoothly between the world of politics and big business.

It was this sort of access and contacts with major political and commercial players which enabled him to help pull off one of the major coups in Australian sporting history, hijacking the Australian Grand Prix from Adelaide to Melbourne in l993.

His partners in the coup were Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone and the Liberal Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett. The full details of the controversial deal have never been disclosed, but informed sources put Mr Ecclestone's fees at pounds 40m over a 10-year period. It was an offer, said the billionaire Ecclestone, that even he found difficult to refuse.

The Liberal Party stated that Mr Ecclestone had made no contributions to its coffers. Under Victoria state law, parties have to divulge donations above $1,500 (around pounds 625).

Mr Walker became the chairman of the Australian Grand Prix, and then made the headlines over an acrimonious exchange with Formula One driver Michael Schumacher. The tycoon called him "an overpaid, good-looking prima donna". He added: "I expect better from a sportsman of Schumacher's calibre who is getting in excess of pounds 20m a year."

By now, Mr Walker was combining international sport with international politics. He hosted a dinner party for the then Conservative Party chairman, Brian Mawhinney, during a visit to Australia, and, it is claimed, organised fund-raising drives for the Tories in Britain among Australian sympathisers.

He and Andrew Robb, the Federal Director of the Liberals, came over to Britain during the run-up to the last election to try to help John Major's campaign. Tory party sources say their assistance was much appreciated.

According to Conservative sources, Mr Walker also gave valuable advice on how to build up a network for party donations, and forged close links with the "gang of five" treasurers at Smith Square.