Simon Johanson and Clay Lucas
A little-known consortium that Victorian Finance Minister Robin Scott has awarded “preferred bidder” status to for a huge tract of public land in Werribee is backed by property figures with strong links to the Church of Scientology.
And since the Australian Education City consortium was named preferred bidder for the land, three Chinese investment firms have bought into the planned project – lifting the consortium’s value from almost nothing to more than a quarter of a billion dollars.
Australian Education City last month beat off three of Australia’s largest property development companies to begin negotiation with the Andrews government on 400 hectares of public land in East Werribee.
The consortium’s plans include 50-level skyscrapers. Photo: Image supplied
The consortium has promised a 1.5 million-square-metre city on the site with soaring residential towers and Australian and overseas universities providing an employment mecca it says will eventually provide 58,000 jobs.
The company is led by Bill Zheng, a Chinese-born businessman who once worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers, and who has made a fortune investing in property and other areas via his firm, Investors Direct Financial Group.
Mr Zheng, along with several other shareholders in the winning consortium, has strong links to the Church of Scientology, a pseudo-religious cult invented by founder L. Ron Hubbard.
The property developer is believed to be a “patron” of Scientology, having given the American-based sect a $50,000 donation three years ago. Ross Martiensen, another director and part owner of Australian Education City, is also understood to have donated a similar amount at the same time. Other investors in the consortium are also linked to Scientology.
Australian Education City’s plans include local and international universities. Photo: Image supplied
Mr Zheng has also given an endorsement to a recruitment company called Performia International which uses Scientology to help companies “hire only productive people”. Mr Zheng’s companies have not used Performia since 2011.
Australian Education City was given preferred bidder status to build a massive education-led precinct on the site ahead of Singapore-controlled Frasers Property (the privatised and rebranded former Australand), Melbourne-based MAB Corporation and another property giant, Mirvac.
But concerns about precisely who Australian Education City is, their lack of previous major infrastructure delivery experience and possible connections to the Chinese government prompted authorities to give the firm three months to prove it is capable of delivering on its massive proposal.
It has until February next year to show the government it has an achievable plan for the Werribee land.
Company extracts obtained by Fairfax Media show that on November 20, three companies owned by six Chinese investors tipped $4.25 million into the business for a 1.7 per cent share, giving it an imputed value of $254 million.
Two weeks earlier, prior to Mr Scott naming Australian Education City the preferred bidder, the company had a value of around $16,000.
The Metropolitan Planning Authority, which has run the tender process for the sale of the East Werribee land, has vetted Australian Education City for possible financial or other issues and been convinced of its suitability to develop the land.
The Australian Education City consortium has also been told it will need approval from the Foreign Investment Review Board if it is to bring tens of millions of dollars of investor money into the country to pay for the land.
The state government wants bidders on the Werribee land to deliver, over a time frame of 20 to 30 years, a precinct that is more than just broad-acre housing such as the nearby Point Cook. The government wants to see an innovation and research hub built, that will bring with it high-skill, high-wage jobs.