The biggest party donor you’ve never heard of
This is a love story.
It ends, at least to public view, at a dinner party in a glass-fronted room above the botanic gardens in Sydney. The venue was the American Club, now closed.
Susan and Isaac Wakil had invited their closest friends. The couple were famous for their hospitality. They were reclusive and shy, but almost always they were described as elegant.
“Nobody knew it was their last dinner party, they didn’t tell anyone,” a long-time friend says.
“Susan was ill, but after that she didn’t want anyone to see her, so she decided she no longer wanted to go out. So, Isaac closed the doors to their home and they never left. He became her sole carer.”
Several years later, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, Susan died. It was May 2018. That Christmas, Isaac made his first significant donation to the Liberal Party. By the following May, two days before the election, he had given $4.1 million – the largest individual political donation in Australian history.
The money was notable for its scale. More than that, however, it was unusual for the fact there were no other terms: no quid pro quo, no favours asked or given, none wanted.
“It is incredibly rare and unusual in politics to receive a donation that significant, especially when they don’t want anything in return,” a veteran of Coalition campaigns told The Saturday Paper.
“And I wasn’t aware they were involved in politics at all. I’ve not seen them at any of the high-end Liberal events I’ve been to – ever.”
A friend of the Wakil family, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to Isaac’s fierce desire for privacy, said that Wakil, now 92, had “got it into his head that he wanted Scott Morrison to be the prime minister”.
By all accounts it was Susan who had the knack for property.
She had fled to Australia as a child, after being held in a Soviet concentration camp while her father was imprisoned in a gulag. Her mother died and she was brought here by an aunt.
Isaac had come from Iraq as a young boy, after increasing violence against the country’s Jewish population.
The couple became engaged in 1953.
They worked in the rag trade and begun purchasing empty or rundown commercial properties in Surry Hills and Pyrmont, then unfashionable suburbs with apparently few prospects for revitalisation.
Eventually, they owned the enormous Griffiths Teas building on Wentworth Avenue, as well as Key College House, the Terminus Hotel on Harris Street, and a string of other properties and warehouses.
They left the buildings unoccupied, neither leasing them nor selling them for decades. When developers called, they were told to speak to Mrs Wakil. The answer was always the same: it was too much trouble.
The couple developed an eccentric reputation. Their empty buildings became a source of speculation. While they rarely spoke to journalists or appeared in public, their cream Rolls-Royce was often seen parked in the driveway of their offices in Pyrmont.
By the turn of the last decade their portfolio was worth $75 million. Then Sydney property prices exploded, and so did their net worth. In 2014, they began selling buildings, raising more than $200 million.
Unravelling the details of the Wakil donation, declared in party returns filed with the Australian Electoral Commission and released on Monday, is an exercise in cold leads and dead ends.
In a series of on- and off-record conversations with friends and acquaintances, The Saturday Paper has pieced together the story, which is bound up in Isaac’s great love for his wife and in the grief that followed her death.
A friend says Wakil had a particular desire to see the Liberals win Wentworth, where he and his wife had lived for more than four decades in the same grand Vaucluse home: “Dave Sharma, especially, he wanted to see elected. I know for a fact that quite a lot of that money went to Sharma.”
Although Wakil spread his $4.1 million donation across the country, several sources close to the deal say he was clear the New South Wales Liberals should make sure Sharma won back Malcolm Turnbull’s former seat, which had been lost to Kerryn Phelps in a byelection.
The pattern of Wakil’s donations is interesting in itself. The first significant donation was for $1.5 million, made to the federal Liberal Party secretariat on Christmas Eve 2018.
From there, he made a smattering of other big gifts to the same national branch – in February, March, April and May, including a final $400,000 just two days before the May 18 poll.
Wakil also donated $70,000 to the Victorian Liberals, in two transactions in January and February last year. There was $60,000 to the Tasmanian branch through donations in January and April, and $50,000 each to the South Australian Liberals and the Queensland Liberal National Party in late January and early February respectively.
Second to the federal secretariat, however, his greatest donation – just over $500,000 in total – was for the NSW branch. Most of these 26 transactions were made in January and February, with a late flurry worth more than $80,000 in April.
Sharma denies any special contribution to his campaign. “Wentworth’s share of the donation was very small and certainly not the vast majority,” he said.
Since winning the seat, he has been coy about the total cost of his campaign. He told well-read local magazine The Beast he didn’t “want to put a dollar figure” on what was spent.
“I don’t know the final figure, but it was, in the course of a closely contested election campaign, a normal sort of figure,” he told the publication last month.
“I think my campaign and the Phelps campaign probably spent similar amounts of money, but I don’t want to put a dollar figure on it, I’d prefer not to.”
Phelps, who briefly held the seat as an independent, scoffs at the suggestion. She says Sharma’s campaign outspent hers five to one.
“They were sending personalised correspondence to every home in Wentworth,” she says. “The mailouts alone would have cost them $300,000. From the early stages in the second Wentworth campaign we knew we were up against a massive budget. It was beyond the wildest dreams of any independent.”
Phelps estimates Sharma’s campaign spent at least $1.5 million. When asked about Wakil, she said she had never heard the name. “It was news to me.”
The quiet isolation of Susan Wakil’s final years must have been a departure from the cacophony of the couple’s early days in Sydney society.
Spread after spread in The Australian Women’s Weekly charts their glamorous rise. By 1969, they were attending the most stylish parties in Sydney – not simply to keep up appearances, although Susan wore almost exclusively Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel, but also for charity.
“Susan wasn’t just a name on the Black and White charity committee,” says a friend, “she was a very hard worker.”
Women’s Weekly called her one of the “most glamorous” attendees at a 1969 banquet held at the Art Gallery of NSW, to raise $1 million needed to rebuild the space.
It was, according to the magazine, “an eight-course dinner prepared from 200-year old recipes … served to 280 guests by footmen and serving-maids in 18th-century costume”.
By 1975, Susan was hosting cocktail parties for significant guests, notably Madame Dewi Sukarno, the widow of Indonesia’s former president Sukarno. She became personal friends with the designer Yves Saint Laurent during her frequent winter trips to Paris.
In their twilight years, the couple created their own foundation – the Susan and Isaac Wakil Foundation – and began to donate enormous sums to the arts and education.
Having divested themselves of most of their long-dormant property portfolio, the couple had more cash than they wanted or needed. They had no children: their closest relative is a nephew.
In 2015, a gift of almost $11 million was made to the University of Sydney to provide 12 annual nursing scholarships, half of them for regional and rural students.
The following year, the couple gave $35 million to the same university for the construction of a health sciences building. It remains the largest donation in the history of the university.
“By this stage Susan had advanced Parkinson’s,” their friend says. “The chancellor put on this great big event to thank them, but Isaac didn’t come. He would not leave Susan’s side. Then when the designs came through, they showed the building with both of their names right there on the structure.”
Isaac rang a friend involved in the process and begged him to have his name removed from the building. He wanted it to be only Susan’s achievement.
Federal Liberal MP Julian Leeser told The Saturday Paper it was Isaac’s abiding love for and deep devotion to his wife that brought forth this flood of money in recent years.
“They were both remarkable migrant success stories,” he says. “They did well for themselves, they loved this country. He loved her and he continues to love her, and I think one way of doing that is to fund things about which she cared deeply.”
While Susan was still alive, they made generous overtures to friends, but were often unable to enjoy these things themselves. When Opera Australia opened La Traviata, they booked the first three rows of the dress circle, but didn’t go.
A year before Susan died, the couple’s foundation made a $20 million donation to the Art Gallery of NSW. It was the largest donation the gallery has ever received, and will allow for the completion of its new wing.
When Susan was laid to rest in 2018, Isaac announced he was entering a period of mourning for one year. It has been almost two, now, and few have seen him.
“The Liberal Party was very important to Susan,” Leeser says, when asked why Isaac would add a political party to his and Susan’s philanthropy. “She was a supporter during her lifetime.”
Numerous accounts suggest nobody asked Isaac Wakil to donate to the Liberals. It was a grieving man, it seems, who made that decision on his own. He wanted Scott Morrison to be prime minister, and he got it.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 8, 2020 as "The biggest party donor you’ve never heard of". Subscribe here.