Sunday, October 14, 2012

Kevin Louey: The man behind the mask who holds the Keys to Town Hall

October 14, 2012

by Royce Millar and Melissa Fyfe

AT THE Shark Fin Inn last Monday night, Kevin Louey was in his element. It was an election dinner hosted by the Chinatown precinct, where he is respected and appreciated.

His father, an elder statesman of Melbourne's Chinese community, had booked a table with his friends. At one point, Robert Doyle rose and called Cr Louey ''my friend''.

But Kevin Louey is not just the lord mayor's friend. He's the No. 1 councillor on Cr Doyle's ticket for Town Hall re-election. Four years ago, he stood with the other side of politics as No. 1 councillor for Labor man Peter McMullin. With 11 years at Town Hall - seven as chief-of-staff to former lord mayor John So and four as a councillor - he has been around council longer than most.

So who is Kevin Louey?

Finding the answer is not straightforward. This is partly because, when The Age asked to interview Cr Louey, the lord mayor's Collins Street campaign managers went into something of a panic. After initially agreeing to an interview, Cr Louey consulted the spin experts at the Civic Group and now refuses to return  The Sunday Age's phone calls or answer written questions emailed to him.

Perhaps the most curious thing about Kevin Louey is that many people in and around Town Hall - even fellow councillors who have sat beside and worked with him for four years - remain uncertain about how he makes a living.

''After all these years, I have no idea what he does,'' one councillor told The Sunday Age, declining to go on the record. Cr Louey, on his personal website, says he has worked extensively in China and has ''an understanding of the cultural and business etiquette of operating successfully in China''.

In his council work advocating for Chinatown and in his portfolio of Docklands, leaders speak highly of him. ''Kevin's been very supportive of Docklands,'' says Stephen Clement, Docklands Chamber of Commerce president. ''He's always been a key advocate behind initiatives such as the free shuttle bus. He was a key supporter of that and helped push it through.''

In the upside-down world of Melbourne's Town Hall politics - where Carlton ''lefties'', such as Labor member Jackie Watts, find themselves on tickets with right-wing Liberal heavies such as John Elliott - teams tend to be cobbled together for purely electoral, rather than policy, reasons.
Labor member Will Fowles, who ran for lord mayor in 2008, says Cr Doyle would have chosen Cr Louey to top his ticket because of a strong perception that the Chinese business vote is important, ''both numerically and in terms of perception''.

''Kevin,'' says Mr Fowles, ''is seen as the gatekeeper to that vote.''

In years past Cr Louey has said he advised the Chinese government and companies in their dealings with Australia and was a director of a company that built residential and commercial developments for the Chinese market. His business activities were temporarily suspended in 1996, when the Australian Securities and Investment Commission banned him from being a director for four years. Cr Louey declined to comment publicly about why.

During the early 1990s, Cr Louey went into business with an affable entrepreneur named Geoffrey Bond who, as The Sunday Age reported at the time, attracted the Department of Justice's attention for a questionable charity he founded.

In 1994, Mr Bond announced to a Melbourne newspaper that the company he ran with Louey, The Red Group, planned to import Asian women to dance nude at a Chinatown club for Asian businessmen. The paper reported the company as Red Design, but as Mr Bond confirmed to The Sunday Age, it was the same company he ran with Cr Louey. Another Red Group director, former Tasmanian deputy premier Neil Batt, told The Sunday Age he immediately resigned as a director as soon as the article was brought to his attention.

Like a few other business deals Cr Louey and Mr Bond hatched, the club never eventuated.

A senior council source no longer at Town Hall said Cr Louey often brought Chinese property industry figures to meet them. ''Kevin's job is linking people in from China to here. That's all he does, he's a networker and a broker. To say that he can access the lord mayor is very significant in Chinese terms,'' the source says.

In the past four years, of all the Melbourne councillors, Cr Louey has also made the most council business trips to China, with his three jaunts costing ratepayers a total of $22,715.

If, as his fellow councillors suggest, Cr Louey has business interests in China, he is not alone at Town Hall. Councillor Brian Shanahan, a lord mayor candidate and migration agent, has visited China three times in the past four years giving talks to university students. Cr Carl Jetter - Cr Doyle's No. 1 candidate in the 2008 election and handpicked to run on his ticket again this year - built a publishing business around connections with China since getting a seat on council eight years ago.

As Cr Jetter acknowledged to The Sunday Age, being a Melbourne city councillor is an advantage when doing business in China. Unlike Australia, local government in China has real power and local office carries high status. One councillor highlights this by pointing to the way John So was treated on visits there. On one trip to Melbourne's sister city Tianjin, Mr So was given a police escort from the airport and waved through every traffic light on his route through the city.

But supporters insist it is back home in the streets of Chinatown that Kevin Louey does his best work. ''He always has a kind word for people,'' says Eng Lim, secretary of the Chinatown Precinct Association. ''He always says: 'I'll see what I can do'. He always follows through. He doesn't make empty promises.''

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