Billionaires and big companies poured cash into political parties last year in a boost led by mining magnate Clive Palmer, who dominated campaign finance by giving $117 million to his own party to secure a single seat in the Senate at the last election.
Palmer’s spending on the United Australia Party surpassed the donations made to each of the major political parties in the election year, intensifying a debate over caps on donations ahead of government reforms to campaign finance law expected this year.
Corporate donors appeared to have increased their support for Labor ahead of last year’s election, taking the party’s total receipts to $124.2 million – a figure that includes other payments as well as donations – according to annual disclosures from the Australian Electoral Commission.
The Liberal Party collected total receipts of $105.7 million – compared to $165 million in the financial year of the 2019 election – while the Nationals gained $11.6 million, although the final figures remain subject to doubt because of the complexity of the paper-based AEC system and the way it combines receipts such as public funding with the private donations. The total receipts for the Greens reached $22.2 million.
In a sign of the power of prominent business figures, some of the biggest donations came from packaging billionaire Anthony Pratt, software tycoons Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquar, gold mining investor Sally Zou, power station owner Trevor St Baker, gambling expert Duncan Turpie and property investor Isaac Wakil.
Pratt gave $1.962 million to Labor through his family company, Pratt Holdings, and the same amount to the Liberals and Nationals in the year ended June 30. That represented a significant turnaround from his donations the previous year, when his company gave $1.3 million to the Liberals and Nationals but only $10,000 to Labor.
Wakil, who built a property portfolio over decades with his wife Susan, gave $1 million to the Liberals through his company Sugolena, but this was about a quarter of the amount given to the same party at the 2019 election.
The nation’s top billionaire, mining magnate Gina Rinehart, also backed a side at the election but did so with a modest $24,500 contribution to the Liberal Party through her company Hancock Prospecting.
The Greens also gained help from wealthy individuals including Duncan Turpie, a reclusive mathematician and gambler who made sure his donations added up to $555,555. All of this went to the Greens except for a $10,000 payment to The Local Party in Tasmania, a group that contests local elections on issues such as salmon farming, energy and justice.
Graeme Wood, the founder of travel site Wotif and a big supporter of the Greens in the past, made a relatively small donation of $20,000 to The Local Party and nothing to other parties. He made headlines by giving the Greens $1.7 million in 2010 but has not backed them in recent years, expressing frustration with the party’s direction.
St Baker, whose company sold the Vales Point coal-fired power station last year, gave $60,500 to Labor through his family trust and a similar amount to the Liberals and Nationals. He also donated $3750 to the Liberal Democratic Party.
Zou, a regular donor to the Liberals in the past through her company Aus Gold Mining, donated $550,000 to the party last year through a company called Australian Romance.
Oryxium Investments, a Sydney company managed by Anton Lever, donated $550,000 to the Liberals.
Half of the six biggest political donors were backers of the teal independent movement that won six lower house seats, all previously held by inner-suburban Liberals, and one Senate position, won by the ACT’s David Pocock.
Climate 200, the fundraising vehicle convened by Simon Holmes a Court, donated $1.86 million to candidates. Atlassian co-owners Farquhar and Cannon-Brooks (through his charity Boundless Earth) donated $1.5 million and $1.16 million, respectively. The tech billionaires donated to Climate 200 and the campaign of David Pocock.
Businesses owned by Sydney pub baron Justin Hemmes donated $400,000 to Liberal Party divisions.
Other significant donations to the Liberal divisions or Queensland’s Liberal National Party included: $30,000 from Network 10;$52,000 from Responsible Wagering Australia; $60,000 from Sportsbet; and $144,000 from the Sydney Mining Club.
On the Labor side, the Plumbers Union donated $1.43 million to the party while the Rail, Train and Bus Union donated $278,000 and the Australian Workers Union $171,000. Other Labor-aligned organisations that made large donations included $386,000 from law firm Maurice Blackburn, and $179,000 from lobbying firm Anacta Strategies.
Alcohol and gambling companies and groups that lobby on their behalf donated $2.15 million to the major parties. This is according to an analysis by the Alliance for Gambling Reform and Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education lobby groups. The money was split almost evenly between the Coalition and Labor.
Tobacco company Philip Morris gave $55,000 each to the National Party and pro-vaping Liberal Democrats.
Fossil fuel companies were among the biggest corporate donors during the year, donating nearly $2 million. Adani Mining gave $107,000 to the Liberal National Party and nothing to other parties while it seeks support for a vast coal mine in Queensland.
Gas exporter Woodside, which has clashed with the government over rules to keep more gas for the local market, gave $68,150 to Labor and $41,780 to the Liberals and Nationals.
Santos, which is seeking political support from both major parties to develop the Narrabri gas field in northern NSW but is being fiercely opposed by the Greens, gave $83,360 to Labor and $70,300 to the Liberals and Nationals.
Gas exporter Chevron paid $45,470 to Labor and $47,620 to the Liberals and Nationals. Whitehaven Coal, one of the county’s biggest coal exporters, donated $34,500 to the Liberals and Nationals.
The Minerals Council of Australia, a major force in political lobbying with its campaign against the mining tax in 2010 and support for coal and other resources, recorded $103,800 in payments to Labor and $129,000 to the Liberals and Nationals, but many of its payments were for dinners and networking events rather than donations.
Big consulting firms – which receive hundreds of millions of dollars doing projects, reports and audits for all levels of government – donated about $900,000. PricewaterhouseCoopers (which marginally favoured the Coalition), Deloitte (which gave about 50 per cent more to the Coalition than Labor), and KPMG (which gave nearly an even split) all donated more than $240,000. Ernst and Young donated $130,000, the vast proportion of which went to Labor, while McKinsey donated $24,200 to Labor.
Political parties and donors have often contested the idea that payments recorded as “receipts” in the AEC records are outright donations when some of the money is paid to join forums, attend events and pay for dinners. The disclosure threshold for the 2021–22 financial year returns was $14,500.
Separate from donations, the CFMEU spent more than $4 million during the federal election and six of the top-10 outfits that spent money intending to influence the election were unions. Left-wing group GetUp spent about $4 million while the conservative group Advance Australian spent $3.6 million. The Climate 200 spent almost $13 million in its campaign to elect independent MPs.
The new data comes after the Centre for Public Integrity released a detailed analysis of funding over the past two decades showing that the top 5 per cent of donors made up 76.4 per cent of all donations by dollar value.
The main political parties received about $1.3 billion in donations from 1999 to 2021 and the top 5 per cent of donors contributed $996.7 million of the total, with the figures adjusted for inflation and presented in today’s dollars.
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