How much money could you donate to a political party in secret, without breaking the law? The straightforward answer for this year would be $15,200.
But there’s nothing straightforward about Australia’s political funding laws. If you wanted to give more, you could donate separately to the various state, federal and associated entities of the party of your choice.
How many of those are there? In the case of the Coalition, there are 83, as identified by Simon Holmes a Court, the founder of the Climate 200 group and financier of teal independents.
So if you gave $15,200 to each of the 83, you could actually donate $1.261 million to the Coalition. And if you did that in each of the three years in the election cycle, suddenly you’d be giving $3.552 million.
But if you were rich enough, and serious enough, you could also make donations in the names of, say, your spouse, your two kids and your family trust as well. Now you’re giving $17.762 million to the Coalition in a single three-year election cycle. Legally. “And,” says Holmes a Court, “nobody would ever know”. Except for the grateful recipients, of course.
If $14,000 can buy you access to the prime minister over a small private dinner, as it did with Scott Morrison last year, and $8000 gets you access to the opposition leader at a similarly intimate pre-election gathering, as it did with Anthony Albanese last year, we can only speculate what $18 million might get you in the Australian political marketplace.
“Payment for access is a kind of corruption,” according to retired judge Anthony Whealy, chair of the Centre for Public Integrity. And most donations are never disclosed. They remain “dark money”.
Holmes a Court gives an example of where “dark money” came into play. Josh Frydenberg received more than $3 million over the course of two election cycles without having to disclose the source of any of it.
As the constitutional lawyer George Williams of UNSW said a few years ago: “We have donations laws you could drive a truck through”.
And sure enough, the truck just got bigger. Clive Palmer didn’t worry about secrecy. On the contrary, he’s there for the attention. As this week’s returns from the Australian Electoral Commission show, Palmer’s company donated $117 million in the 2021-22 financial year, and he’s out and proud about it.
And why bother with the Coalition or Labor if you have your own political party? His company’s donation, by far the single biggest in the nation’s history, allowed Palmer’s party to outspend Labor and Liberal in last year’s federal election campaign.
That’s right – Palmer’s party became the biggest spender in Australian political history. Where Labor spent $116 million and the Liberals $118 million, Palmer’s United Australia Party altogether spent $123.5 million.
Palmer boasted before the election that he’d spend over $100 million in 2022: “It’s only a couple of months’ work for me,” he explained to a reporter in between launching attacks on COVID vaccinations. Perhaps we should qualify his use of the word “work” here; so-called work, perhaps. China’s CITIC pays Palmer’s company $600 million a year in mining royalties.
Palmer spent $88 million on his party’s campaign at the 2019 election. He and his party won precisely zero seats in spite of this enormous outlay. Yet he seemed happy with the result. His main achievement was helping Scott Morrison defeat Bill Shorten by running strident anti-Shorten ads.
Now Palmer planned to outdo himself in the 2022 election. Sitting on his $100 million yacht in Sydney Harbour, he explained how he liked to run his campaigns: “I get up at 2am,” he told John Stensholt of , “and spent my first hour thinking about all the nasty things I can do to the Liberal Party or the Labor Party. Then from 3 to 4am I actually do it, writing the ads and other things.”
You’d have seen his campaign ads, in a distinctive yellow livery approximately the colour of sick, with their compelling punchline: “Freedom freedom freedom.” Perhaps he should have tried an extra hour or two’s sleep.
Despite fielding candidates in all 151 federal electorates, and despite outspending the Labor and Liberal campaigns, the Palmer United Party won no seats in the House of Representatives and just one seat in the Senate.
As a senior Liberal observes: “Money is very important in an election but, while it’s necessary, it’s not sufficient. You need campaigning skill and a good product with policies and personnel.”
After Palmer’s $88 million splurge in 2019 helped return Scott Morrison to The Lodge, I asked a member of the Liberals’ leadership group whether there needed to be any limits on the size of donations. No, he assured me, the system was working as it should. In other words, it worked for him.
But next time, I ventured, a pro-climate billionaire might emerge as a new force with a vast war chest and put you out of power. Would you still have the same opinion? Yes, the system works well, he replied.
A pro-climate billionaire didn’t emerge the next time. At least two did, Atlassian co-owners Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes, and they donated to the independent teals. None of the rich pro-climate donors gave more than $1.5 million apiece. More importantly, they were part of a movement to remove the Morrison government and install independents who supported climate action, integrity and justice for women.
Rather than ape Palmer’s swaggering ineptitude, the wealthy businessman Holmes a Court and his Climate 200 coordinated a series of well-crafted community-based campaigns. “I think most people were offended by what Palmer did,” Holmes a Court tells me. “There was no coherent ideology or community – it was one man’s folly.”
After Palmer, Climate 200 was the single biggest disclosed donor. Its total outlay was $13 million, all to teal independents. Of that, Holmes a Court gave just $250,000.
Yet this group managed to power the campaigns that put six new teals in the House and David Pocock in the Senate. Every one of them took a seat from the Liberal Party, including some of their most prized traditional heartland seats.
“I started Climate 200 with a very different model,” says Holmes a Court. “We don’t select candidates.” The communities in the individual electorates chose their own. “Why have we had so few independents in parliament before now? Partly it’s because it’s almost impossible to run a credible campaign against the major machines.
“We were there very early in the campaigns. We ran matching challenges” – such as giving a dollar for every local dollar raised – “and helped them get their finances in shape. We provided less than half – 30 to 40 per cent – of the funding” for the teal independents.
Among those offended by Palmer’s campaigns was the man charged with reforming the system, the Albanese government’s Special Minister of State Don Farrell, who also serves as trade minister.
“We have to be careful that rich people can’t simply buy election results that ordinary Australians can’t,” he tells me. I think it’s opportune to look at how much money is being spent by individual rich people.
“The risk is that, if you don’t fix it, it just snowballs and, next time, another rich person says ‘all right, I’ll do the same but with more’.” Of Palmer, Farrell doesn’t try to disguise his distaste: “He doesn’t make his redundancy payments, but he spends $117 million to buy a single Senate seat – how shocking is that?”
Palmer’s Queensland Nickel went into voluntary administration in 2016 without paying its 800 workers their entitlements. The Queensland government stepped in to pay them. Palmer later settled a lawsuit by agreeing to repay $66 million to the state to compensate Queensland taxpayers.
Does the Liberal Party still think the system is working as it should? Now that it worked against them, senior Liberals say they are open to reform. Farrell has other changes in mind, too. Labor earlier promised to introduce real-time disclosure of donations and to reduce the disclosure threshold from $15,200 to $1000.
The Liberals are open to negotiating with Labor over the changes, provided they create a level playing field for both parties. Holmes a Court worries that they will create new barriers to independents who want to break into the system; he’s keeping Climate 200 running. Farrell hopes to have the changes legislated by the end of the year.
One thing is for sure. Clive Palmer won’t be happy.
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