Amy Coopes writes:
Australia’s opaque, lumbering political donations system is not only bad for our democracy; delving into party coffers reveals a slew of vested interests who, through their deep-pocketed overtures to power, pose a risk to our health.
Even a cursory scroll through the Australian Electoral Commission’s Periodic Disclosures register, which last week published its annual returns data for the 2017-18 financial year, offers some telling insights into the policy priorities of our major parties.
Mining and resources companies; gambling and alcohol; tobacco and pharmaceutical interests; private health firms and insurers and the major banks feature prominently as donors to Australia’s political parties. It’s little mystery why – federal policy-making and regulation has the potential to make or break their business.
Perhaps even more troubling is what’s known as “dark money” – donations that, due to being below the $13,500 declarable threshold, do not have to be disclosed. This rule applies even if contributions are made in a series of small sums that, when tallied, far exceed the threshold, a practice known as “donation splitting”.
According to Grattan Institute analysis, such donations account for around half of all money flowing into Liberal-National Party coffers, and one-third of funds gifted to the Australian Labor Party. Large sums also make their way to the major parties via specially constituted trusts, foundations and entities which obscure the true source of funds – the single largest contribution ($2.3 million) to the Liberal Party and in the year overall, for example, came from a party fundraising vehicle called Vapold Pty Ltd.
The other issue is the lag time between donations and reports, with data coming in six months after the end of the financial year in question and covering a period stretching back more than 18 months. This is despite reforms in a majority of Australian states requiring much shorter disclosure turnarounds – a month or in some cases a week.
In practice, this means that donations to parties ahead of this year’s Federal Election won’t be revealed until well after the event.
As the Grattan team rightly observe:
With most states now operating far more transparent regimes, the only conceivable explanation for the current Commonwealth system is that our political leaders don’t want us to see where the money is coming from…
Today’s donations data release will only fuel people’s cynicism about the role of money in politics. If political parties want to start to rebuild the public’s trust, making donations releases timelier and more transparent would be a good place to start.”
The Greens are pressing for donations reform, urging: a ban on endowments from miners, property developers, and the tobacco, alcohol and gambling industries; compulsory disclosure of every gift over $1,000 in real-time; and a donations cap. Labor has committed to a $1,000 disclosure threshold if elected, and to exploring the possibility of real-time reporting.
So, who are the donors and cui bono – who benefits? Read on for a breakdown of the major players, with thanks to Nick Evershed at The Guardian for compiling this fantastic, user-friendly database of reports.
Gaming, liquor and tobacco
The largesse of Tasmania’s gambling lobby dominated headlines when the donations data dropped last week, with at least half a million dollars gifted to the state branch of the Liberals during last year’s successful campaign, which had a heavy focus on Labor’s promise to phase out pokies. Analysts said at the time that the Liberal advertising blitz was the most expensive in the state’s history, and the origins of the cash are now clear.
The Australian Hotels Association gave more than a million dollars to the Liberal, National and Labor parties in 2017-18, with other prominent donors including ClubsNSW, Clubs Australia, beverages giant Lion, Crown Resorts, Star Entertainment Group, Tabcorp Holdings, ALH Group and Spirits and Cocktails Australia. Donations from these outfits to the major parties totalled some $930,000.
Tobacco giant Philip Morris pledged almost $100,000 – $56,500 to the National Party and $40,000 to the Liberal Democrats, whose representative in the Senate, David Leyonhjelm, has been an outspoken critic of effective tobacco control measures such as tobacco excise increases.
Mining and energy
While the Coalition and Labor continue to shuffle deckchairs on climate change, they profit handsomely from resources giants including Woodside, Caltex, Chevron, Santos, Glencore, Whitehaven and BlueScope Steel, with total donations from the sector totalling some $1.3 million dollars.
Indian coal giant Adani gifted $50,000 as part of lobbying efforts for its mammoth Carmichael mine: $35,000 to the Liberal Party’s ACT branch and $15,000 to One Nation, the single largest reportable donation to Pauline Hanson’s party. Most recently, Hanson was in the news for a bizarre rant urging people to overload the grid during load shedding to prove how much Australia needs coal.
Pharma and private health
Giving the resources sector a run for its money in pure dollar terms are health donors, especially pharmaceutical and private health corporations and funds, with some $1.3 million coming in over the reporting period.
Some of the major donors include:
- Australian Private Hospitals Association ($18,000)
- Bayer Australia ($83,000)
- Bristol-Myers Squibb ($60,000)
- Healthscope ($35,000)
- Johnson & Johnson ($52,000)
- Medicines Australia ($178,000)
- Medtronic ($26,000)
- Members Health Fund Alliance ($54,000)
- MSD ($54,000)
- nib ($14,000)
- Novartis ($97,000)
- Pathology Australia ($53,000)
- Pharmacy Guild of Australia ($220,000)
- Pfizer ($44,000)
- Primary Health Care Limited ($64,000)
- Ramsay Health Care ($66,000)
- Roche ($41,000).
For more detail on how these funds above were distributed, see this breakdown.
A shrinking public sector and the banking Royal Commission
Also exceeding the million dollar mark were the financial services and consultancy sectors, with the latter benefitting from a shrinking public service and the former feeling the heat of the Financial Services Royal Commission, which handed down its final report and recommendations this week. Michelle Grattan has a neat summary over at The Conversation.
Editor’s note: This article was updated on 6 February.