Harry Triguboff and Meriton

Jan 28, 2021 | Secret Rich List

Prolific property developer and political donor Harry Triguboff owns the Meriton Group which contains one Dark Company exempt from lodging financial accounts with ASIC.

Top 200 Rich List (2020)No. of Dark Companies: 1
Political Donations since FY 1998-99
Rank: 7Meriton Apartments Pty LtdLabor Party: $1,177,019
Wealth: $14.42bCoalition: $2,191,934
Wealth (2019): $13.54bIndependent: $5,000
YoY wealth change: 6.5%Total: $3,373,953

The son of Russian Jewish parents, Harry Triguboff was born in Liaoning, the Republic of China in 1933. He spent his childhood in a Jewish community in Tianjin before moving to Australia in 1947. Here he attended the Scots College, an affluent private school in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs.

After studying textiles at the University of Leeds in England, Triguboff returned to Australia in 1950, gaining citizenship in 1961. He founded Meriton in 1963.

His business has grown to become the largest apartment developer and residential builder in Australia. It also operates the Meriton Suites brand in Sydney, Brisbane and the Gold Coast for serviced apartment accommodation. The organisation reportedly made 30 sales in the first week of 2021.

The Meriton empire is named after Triguboff’s second development of a block of 18 units on Meriton Street in Gladesville, Sydney which was completed in 1968.

Triguboff is no slouch when it comes to political donations, gifting over $3 million to the major parties since 1998. Some states and territories have banned political donations from property developers. The NSW government introduced legislation in December 2009, Queensland in 2018 and the ACT which comes into effect on 1 July, 2021.

Yet this has not deterred arguably the largest property developer in Australia. Despite the 2009 laws in NSW, AEC data shows Triguboff donated $180,000 to the NSW Liberal Party and $30,000 to the NSW Labor Party between financial years 2013/14 to 2018/19. This despite Labor’s condemnation of the NSW Nationals allegedly accepting donations from fellow property developers the Stack family.

The Group also made significant donations during the 2019 federal election issuing $60,000 to Labor and $380,000 to the Liberals.

What’s more, federal parliament reached a bipartisan agreement on legislation introduced in October last year to weaken these political donations laws. The new federal law “allows property developers to ignore state laws banning them from making political donations where the donation is for ‘federal purposes’”. It also raises the donations disclosure threshold in NSW and QLD from $1,000 to $14,300.

The Coalition has previously attempted to override these state anti-corruption laws in 2018, although was opposed by Labor and the Greens and struck down by the High Court the following year.

In recognition of his service to the construction industry and work as a philanthropist, Triguboff was given an Order of Australia on 26 January 1990.

His philanthropic achievements have been conducted through the Harry Triguboff Foundation. According to the Australian Charities and No-for-profits Commission (ACNC), the foundation “invests in financial assets to generate income to support philanthropic activities. It also holds real property assets to support these organisations.” It has funded projects for organisations such as the Shorashim Centre to assist immigrants applying for admission into Israel.

According to Meriton, the Group “has made a significant impact on the Australian landscape. The private company has designed, developed and built more than 75,000 apartments and some of the tallest residential towers across the east coast of Australia.”

They have also been at the centre of attempted ratings manipulation through TripAdvisor. In 2014. Meriton was accused of offering reimbursements as well as directly contacting guests to change their ratings on TripAdvisor to a more positive review. In 2018, the Federal Court fined Meriton $3 million “after finding it engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct”.

In 2013, Triguboff purchased a 31,500 sqm site in Mascot for $100 million using his Dark Company Meriton Apartments Pty Ltd.

ATO tax transparency data shows Meriton Properties Pty Limited (parent of Meriton Apartments) declared an income of $10.2 billion between financial years 2013/14 to 2018/19. Over this time, their tax payable was $678.5 million, representing a tax rate of just 10% of taxable income.


How we compiled this list

What are they trying to hide? This is the driving question behind our ‘Secret Rich List’ project at Michael West Media.

Our aim is to shine the spotlight on the 1,119 large proprietary companies that continue to enjoy a privileged exemption from having to lodge financial reports to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC).

An exemption from any new law or regulation is commonly referred to as ‘grandfathering’. In this case, the exemption from having to lodge audited accounts effectively creates two classes of Australian citizens; large proprietary companies that have to comply with government legislation, and the remaining 1,119 companies that by definition are required to do the same, yet enjoy an antiquated free pass from full public transparency.

What was issued as a “temporary measure” by the government of Paul Keating in 1995 has placed these companies above the law for more than 25 years. We believe it is in the public interest to put an end to this outdated government legislation once and for all.

Although ASIC  defines the companies enjoying the exemption as as grandfathered large proprietary companies, we prefer the term ‘Dark Companies’; it is a more fitting description of old wealth empires whose financial accounts are cloaked by this provision, shadowed from the public eye.

History behind the 1995 grandfathering exemption

This grandfathering regime was issued in response to The First Corporate Law Simplification Act 1995, a 1995 amendment to the Corporations Law at the time.

Before this amendment, whether a company had to prepare and lodge financial accounts with ASIC was determined by whether they were an exempt or non-exempt proprietary company (exempt meant the company did not have to publish accounts).

ASIC defines exempt proprietary companies as:

“companies where there was no direct or indirect public ownership; that is, they were essentially owned by private individuals. The companies were not required to lodge financial reports where those financial reports were subject to audit and sent to members.”

Under the First Corporate Law Simplification Act 1995 the measure of whether a company had to lodge financial accounts with ASIC changed from the reporting entity test (exempt/non-exempt system) to what became known as the ‘small/large test’.If the company was considered a ‘large’ proprietary company, then it must lodge its accounts.

As of the law in 1995, an Australian proprietary company was ‘large’ if it satisfied two of the following three criteria:

  • consolidated gross assets of $5 million or more;
  • consolidated gross revenue of $10 million or more;
  • the company and the entities it controls (if any) have more than 50 employees at the end of the financial year.

The criteria for the small/large test has since been updated.

The new legislation meant that a significant number of previously exempt organisations now had to prepare and lodge their financial accounts.

The explanatory memorandum for the Bill notes: “To avoid disrupting established commercial arrangements, those existing exempt proprietary companies which have their annual accounts audited, which are large and which elect to continue operating under the existing rules, will not need to lodge their accounts with [ASIC].”.

Thus was born the concept of the grandfathered list - or Secret Rich List as we like to call it. In 1995, it was home to more than 2,000 large proprietary companies.

Significant Global Entities

Some 12 of the 1,119 Dark Companies are considered ‘significant global entities’ (SGE). An entity becomes an SGE if it fits at least one of the two following criteria:

  • a 'global parent entity' whose 'annual global income' is A$1 billion or more,
  • a member of a group of entities consolidated (for accounting purposes) where the global parent entity has an annual global income of A$1 billion or more.

These entities must prepare and lodge general purpose financial accounts with ASIC. This requirement is no different for the 12 SGEs on the Secret Rich List as their SGE status overrides the grandfathering exemption.


MWM Methodology

Using both the ASIC and Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) databases we have conducted more than 5,000 searches and counting.

Through the ASIC searches we have been able to collate the necessary information for every company on the grandfathered list, ranging from company directors, shareholders (both persons and organisations), a company’s auditor and much more. This has all been incorporated into our database, which is designed to map out these Dark Companies and tackle our driving question.

We also used the AEC database to generate an extensive list of political donations from these Dark Companies that date from the 1998-99 financial year to the present. We have designed a separate database for these figures, listing political donations from the entity itself, its directors and/or its shareholders. Each donation has been separated into recipient categories to better display the amounts funnelled to the Liberal and Labor parties and their constituencies.

The donations help indicate why the exemption, which ensures such a lack of transparency, has stood the test of time despite numerous attempts over the years from both sides of Parliament, the cross bench, the Greens, Treasury, corporate regulator ASIC and a joint parliamentary inquiry, which have all called for the exemption to be abolished. Both databases created by Michael West Media complement each other to bolster the narrative of the stories that follow.


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