“Rob, what the hell is happening with this Ritz Carlton? We’re making fools of ourselves.”
On 6 August the broadcaster Alan Jones was writing to the New South Wales minister for planning and public spaces, Rob Stokes.
“We’re turning Sydney into a joke. Queensland/ Brisbane are wiping the floor with us. You must rethink and this is the time for Government to make big decisions. Stop pandering to minorities.
“Kindest regards. With Best Wishes, Alan.”
Jones, the top rating talkback breakfast presenter in Sydney, is more than just a radio personality on 2GB. He has been a force in NSW politics for two decades, leveraging his top-rating show and his audience of tradies and older voters to win the attention of decision-makers in business and politics.
He demands to be heard and responded to. And politicians, from prime ministers down, seem unwilling to ignore him even when there is clearly no love lost, as was the case with Malcolm Turnbull.
Jones has had more than his fair share of controversies, which have led to defamation payouts, advertiser boycotts and demands from his employer, Macquarie Radio, for on-air apologies. The most recent was his remark that the prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, should have “a sock shoved down her throat”, for which Jones was swiftly forced to apologise.
A prodigious letter writer, Jones keeps up a steady dialogue with state and federal politicians.
Some of this correspondence can be revealed thanks to freedom of information requests to 10 NSW ministers and five federal ministers, covering the six months after the Berejiklian government was re-elected in March.
Sometimes it’s flattery, sometimes fatherly advice, a kind word, or a request for help for one of his listeners. But often Jones’s views are delivered with menace: that a failure to heed his views will lead to unspecified political pain and suffering for the individual and their party.
The responses also reveal much about how politics is transacted in NSW.
‘A disgraceful abdication and a betrayal’
In August, Jones returned to the airwaves after a short break and immediately took up the cause of the plan to build a tower on top of the Star casino in the inner Sydney suburb of Pyrmont. The 237m glass edifice is planned to house a six-star Ritz Carlton hotel and apartments to rival Crown casino’s Barangaroo tower on the other side of Darling Harbour. The only trouble was the NSW planning department had recommended against the Star’s plans.
On 6 August, Jones delivered a full-throated on-air attack on Gladys Berejiklian’s government for its shortsightedness.
“We’re an embarrassment, Gladys. Make a decision. Take a stand. Give the thing a go ahead and get on with it,” he said on 2GB. His remarks were quickly picked up by the Daily Telegraph, which has also been an unwavering supporter of the Star’s proposal.
After he came off air, Jones wrote to Stokes to underscore his displeasure.
But what Jones did not disclose to Stokes is that the Star is an advertiser on Macquarie’s 2GB or that it was about to part-fund Jones’s trip to Tokyo to the Rugby World Cup in late September.
Perhaps Stokes was aware of the connection between the broadcaster and the casino. The Star is disclosed on Macquarie Radio’s website as an advertiser, as required under the legislation colloquially known as the cash for comment rules.
But Jones made no specific disclosures when berating the government on air about the Star’s planned tower or when he wrote to the minister.
Stokes initially pushed back, replying quite accurately that a decision on the Star tower had not been made. But eventually action was taken to clear the way for the Star’s plans.
“Thanks for your email,” Stokes wrote. “On the Star proposal, please note that a decision has not been made. The department has produced an assessment of the proposal that recommends refusal, which you can see here. The proposal has been referred to the Independent Planning Commission for a decision.
“I’d be happy to speak with you on this if you’d like some further background.”
But that didn’t placate Jones.
On 7 August, Jones took to the airwaves again to castigate the minister for not immediately approving “this outstanding proposal” and for the fact that its fate now rested with an independent panel.
Independent panels had been set up by the Berejiklian government to address the corruption risk, amply demonstrated by the previous Labor government, when the minister was the final consent authority on major projects.
“I’m sorry Rob Stokes, any minister so delinquent in his role should be sacked, and I’m sorry Gladys, where the hell are you?” Jones fumed on air.
Two days later he wrote again.
“Rob, this is immensely damaging. You’ve approved of this and been witness to it all the way. This should go ahead, I cannot believe that Government are telling Star that they can’t get involved. Why did we elect people on March 18. This is a disgraceful abdication and a betrayal. And your constituency won’t cop betrayal.”
The transcript of his on-air comments was enclosed.
Stokes replied on 10 August to reveal he and the premier had met the Star, and wrote: “Existing laws do not allow me to intervene in an assessment report, nor to seek to influence the Independent Planning Commission to favour a particular applicant or development application.
“I can however, look to review and update planning rules that might unnecessarily restrict appropriate development.”
Jones had been given a scoop, but didn’t realise it.
Stokes went on to tell Jones that he and the premier had agreed to a snap review of Pyrmont’s planning controls by the Greater Sydney Planning Commission of the entire Pyrmont precinct.
On 19 August, Berejiklian announced the review. Pyrmont would become “a vibrant residential, entertainment and innovation hub”, she said.
The Greater Sydney Planning Commission got the job done in just six weeks, confirming that Pyrmont should no longer be a heritage village but home to an expansion of the CBD. On 5 October, the government announced that Pyrmont was “the next frontier” for high rise development.
Asked about the exchange, Jones told Guardian Australia: “I have said no more about Star than I’ve said about development generally.
“I have been through the Ritz-Carlton proposal every which way. I have seen what they have done at the Gold Coast and are doing in Brisbane. I have been a persistent advocate whether it be lockout laws or major projects, that we have to wake up and become an international city.”
Nine, which now owns Macquarie Radio, said: “Alan is a passionate advocate on the issues he believes are important to Sydney. There is no link between his genuinely held opinions on development in Pyrmont and the Star’s commercial arrangements with 2GB.”
The Star said it had a longstanding commercial relationship with Macquarie Media, but “no direct agreement of any kind with Alan Jones nor any requirement for him personally to advocate for the Star”.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority said it was “looking into the issues raised”.
‘Thanks for the blunt reply’
Berejiklian herself is not on Jones’s mailing list. The premier’s office said she had not received any correspondence or emails from the broadcaster in the six months covered by the request. The treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, the corrections minister, Anthony Roberts (who used to be known as “the minister for Alan Jones” when he was a staffer for John Howard) and the police minister, David Elliott, also said they had not received any.
But some have very warm relations indeed.
Stuart Ayres, the former sports minister, and his wife, the federal foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, are part of the Jones in-crowd.
Jones, Ayres and Payne share a common bond: they all own racehorses.
On 25 February, in the lead-up to the March state election, Jones wrote to Ayres asking him to support grants for Australian Sailing for its new training and administration centre at Neutral Bay on Sydney harbour. The exchange demonstrates how Jones uses his influence to smooth troubled waters.
“Happy New Year. I don’t think we’ve spoken … I’m sure you know this is our most successful Olympic sport,” Jones wrote to Ayres.
“And yet this is an outfit that’s cash poor. Surely to God you can manage $1.3 million over four years. Hope the electorate is going well. Yell if I can help. Kindest regards. With Best Wishes, Alan.”
Ayres wrote a lengthy reply. “To be frank, I’ve found the behaviour of Sailing Australia (sic) appalling,” he confided to Jones. “In my view, it has done the sport an incredible disservice in NSW.”
Australian Sailing had failed to follow his advice and apply for various grants and had then turned on him in the media, Ayres wrote.
“I play politics as hard as the best of them but I’ve seen more professionalism at the Cambridge Park under 8s Rugby League team,” he wrote. “As you can see I’m quite frustrated with their behaviour and lack [of] willingness to follow any advice we provided them.”
Australian Sailing said it had no comment other than to note that it enjoyed a strong relationship with the NSW government.
In the face of Jones’s interest, Ayres said he would “talk to Matt Allen [president of Australian Sailing, who retired recently] about the steps they should take to repair the situation and be better placed to secure funding for their facilities and events.
“I’ll keep you informed of how I go with Matt. Regards, Stuart.”
“Thanks for the blunt reply,” Jones wrote back. “That’s why you are a very good minister. And you are on top of things. Keep me informed. I won’t say anything to Matt Allen until I hear back from you. Is everything okay in the electorate? Yell out if I can help. Kindest regards. With best wishes, Alan.”
Jones is also close to Payne, Ayres’s partner. Her office told the Guardian that any correspondence that might have existed was not covered by federal freedom of information laws.
That means any letters she may have received or written to Jones are personal, not ministerial, and will not be released. The Guardian has appealed against the FOI decision.
‘What a whole heap of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo’
The state’s water minister, Melinda Pavey, does not get such an easy run.
Water policy has long been an issue of interest for Jones. He grew up in rural Queensland, ran for preselection for the National party and has regularly taken up issues for farmers.
In May, Pavey faced her first grilling with Jones on breakfast radio since becoming the water minister. The subject was water restrictions for Sydney. She acquitted herself without drawing Jones’s ire. But a few days later, she received a stern letter.
“As I said to you on air this week I think water will be the single most critical issue of this government’s tenure. I want to raise with you an issue brought to my attention by one of my listeners. Welcome Reef Dam.”
Jones argued that the scheme on the Shoalhaven River, abandoned by the former premier Bob Carr in 2002, should be revived.
“Melinda, I just think this is something which requires a simple directive to the bureaucracy. Tell me how this can be done.”
Whether Pavey replied remains a mystery – her office did not produce the reply.
But there was more correspondence between them about dams.
Pavey replied to Jones on 12 June about Cranky Rock and Wyangala dams in the Lachlan Valley, in response to another document that could not be found.
Her reply suggests Jones was advocating for the Cranky Rock dam project to go ahead.
“You’re correct the Lachlan Valley was identified in 2014 as one of four priority catchments for investment and delivery of critical water infrastructure projects over the next decade,” Pavey wrote.
But she explained that Cranky Rock had been ruled out, detailing the geological challenges,including an underlying limestone cave system. “To avoid flooding the caves completely the full supply level of the dam would need to be below the bottom level of the caves,” she said.
Was Jones convinced? No.
On 14 June he wrote back: “What a whole heap of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo. I wouldn’t be listening to these bureaucrats, I can tell you,” he told Pavey.
“All these dam projects should be brought together, Melinda. And you need experts outside the bureaucracy to advise. Then you order the bureaucracy to make it happen.
“I’ll get back to you. Kindest regards. With best wishes, Alan Jones AO.”
‘I wonder whether politicians read?’
Andrew Constance, the transport minister, was also on the receiving end of a Jones reprimand in June over another pet subject: windfarms.
The Crudine windfarm between Mudgee and Bathurst has been a particular thorn in the side of some local landholders, who have fought a vigorous campaign. Jones has taken up their cause on a number of occasions and has interviewed a local farmer, Penny Hundy.
The windfarm has now been approved by both state and federal authorities, though with fewer, bigger turbines. But the company, CWP, recently needed approval to change the route for delivering the larger wind turbines to the site and to remove trees in order to widen a country road.
Jones took up the cause again. The first part of the letter lacks Jones’s usual rhetorical flair and appears to be a cut-and-paste of the information sent by the objectors. But it ends with a classic Jones zinger.
“Andrew, this appears to me to be an absolute disaster. Who can these people turn to? What on earth is going on? These people [CWP] are a law unto themselves. I look forward to hearing from you confirmation that CWP will NOT be able to alter its original route as outlined in the traffic management plan.”
Jones continued: “Andrew, more importantly, why doesn’t someone deny any approval for these wind farms? I wonder whether politicians read?
“Why the hell do we put people in environments where their health is at risk and keep supporting these ridiculous wind farms.”
Either Constance did not reply or his response is lost to history.
The Crudine windfarm got permission from the Independent Planning Commission to widen the road in late June and work is proceeding.
‘Dear Josh, what is this rubbish about?’
The Guardian asked five federal ministers for their correspondence with Jones. Morrison replied on Christmas Eve and produced just one heavily redacted letter. The home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, and the energy minister, Angus Taylor, said they had no correspondence, despite Jones’s on-air interest in their portfolios.
The treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, produced one email exchange, which demonstrates every query from Jones appears to warrant a personal reply from the minister, no matter how small or misguided.
In June, Jones took up the concern of a listener who had been charged a $259 supervisory levy by the Australian Tax Office on their self-managed superannuation fund, even though they had no tax to pay.
“Dear Josh, What is this rubbish about? A supervisory Levy? Come on. Who’s going to pull the Tax Office into line? This is absurd. With Best Wishes, Alan.”
Frydenberg replied personally by email that the levy had been in place since 1991 and set at $259 a year since 2014-15 (for established funds).
“All superannuation funds are subject to a supervisory levy to fund the regulatory costs of ensuring that funds comply with their legislated obligations.” He went on to detail what the charge covered, including advice and call centres.
“If [the owners of the fund] have any further enquiries they can contact [name redacted] in my office on [phone number]. Regards Josh.”