Politics News

'Dark money' still distorts Australian democracy

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Gina Rinehart has been a prolific donor to the Coalition (image via YouTube)

We know some of the companies and individuals who paid big money to political parties, but we don’t know them all, reports Alan Austin.

GIANT MULTINATIONAL financial consultancy group KPMG is having a tough time in Australia. The Australian Taxation Office’s corporate 'Transparency Report' shows total income at $203.8 million in 2021, but it could not generate a profit nor pay any tax.

It managed, however, to scrape together $320,579 for the Liberal Party before last year’s Federal Election. It gave slightly less to Labor.

We know this from the political funding data released last week by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).

Foreign-owned mining company Adani has also failed to turn a profit and pay company tax despite revenue over the last two years of $990 million. It found $107,700 for political donations last year, all to the Liberal National Party.

Other large corporations which failed to pay any company tax but which rewarded their preferred political parties handsomely include Santos, Bluescope Steel, Whitehaven Coal, QBE Insurance Group and Macquarie Telecom.

Dark money still dominates

Large retailers like Coles may not want customers in poor suburbs who vote Labor to know they are strong backers of the Liberal Party. Instead of making direct donations, which would require filing a disclosure notice, they can pay the Liberal Party’s fundraising arm, the Cormack Foundation. This discloses its sources in obscure fine print on the AEC website.

Coles made no direct political donations last year but it gave $166,715 indirectly to the Liberals via Cormack.

Woolworths declared donations of $12,000 to Labor and $12,500 to the Liberals last year. They also slipped Cormack $47,000.

This is one of the multiple ways donors hide their identity.

Another is simply splitting large donations into multiple payments below the disclosure threshold. A lobby group wanting to conceal half a million dollars given to a candidate simply gets 34 employees, family and friends to send $15,000 each, below the current $15,200 threshold. No records are needed.

The big political parties invite corporate executives to join business forums, such as the Liberals’ Australian Business Network. Membership fees are steep, but access to parliamentarians and party officials is virtually guaranteed. Fees are not disclosed.

Some donors simply defy the rules and get away with it, as detection and penalties are unlikely.

The Queensland LNP has shown sources for only $3.98 million of its $14.37 million in funding. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation revealed the donors of just $501,558 of its $3.2 million income. Jacqui Lambie raised $446,258 last year, without identifying any benefactors.

These are just some of the lurks. There are others. Estimates of the quantum of dark money range from $90 million to $119 million, but could be higher. We do not know.

Big spenders

The registered political parties recorded spending $418 million on electioneering last year. The hundreds of independents who contested Senate and House seats spent millions more.

Mining magnate Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party spent the most, at a staggering $123.5 million. He won one Senate seat in Victoria.

The next highest was the Liberal Party with $117.3 million in outlays. Labor spent $115.9 million and the Greens a relatively modest $24.8 million. The Nationals spent $13.6 million, which brought total Coalition outlays to $130.9 million.

Then followed Pauline Hanson's One Nation with $3.4 million, the Jacqui Lambie Network’s $924,000 and Katter's Australian Party’s $593,000. All other minor parties and groups spent a combined $15.9 million.

The big bankrollers

Of the donors identified, the largest by far was Clive Palmer’s Mineralogy which gave $117.1 million, all to Palmer’s United Australia Party except for $250,000 to the Liberal Democratic Party.

Anthony Pratt’s Pratt Holdings gave $1.96 million to the Coalition and the same to Labor.

Unions, as always, strongly supported Labor. Those perturbed by this misunderstand that the Party was formed by the union movement to advance the interests of working Australians.

Most Coalition funding came from big business and corporate lobby groups. The Liberals’ Cormack Foundation gave $5.8 million, Sugolena Holdings, owned by businessman Isaac Wakil, gave $1,000,000 and Jefferson Investments contributed $908,750.

The big four banks and the Australian Banking Association gave more than a million dollars directly to the Coalition parties and slightly less to Labor. They contributed an additional $1,431,483 to the Liberals through Cormack.

Some donors were conspicuous by their parsimony. Gina Hancock’s mining company, whose total income last year was $8.4 billion, contributed $24,500 to the Liberal Party in 2021-22. That’s down from $58,000 given to the Nationals in 2017. Hard not to see that as a calculated insult.

Two former prime ministers have made donations over the disclosure threshold in the last decade: Malcolm Turnbull gave the federal Liberals $1.75 million in 2016, but nothing since; Kevin Rudd gave Labor $18,603 last year.

Climate 200

The political fundraising company Climate 200 was a major player last year. Established in 2019 to support “meaningful action on climate change”, it raised $8,229,595 in 2021-22.

Sources included: $1,500,000 from Scott Farquhar, $1,202,000 from Robert Keldoulis, $1,115,000 from Michael Cannon-Brookes’ Boundless Earth, and $500,000 from William Taylor Nominees. The rest, just over $3.9 million, came from around sixty smaller donors.

Climate 200 supported 19 independent candidates, including Andrew Wilkie, Helen Haines, Zali Steggall, David Pocock, Kim Rubenstein, the Centre Alliance and The Local Party.

Reform is possible

Both Labor and the Liberals now refuse money from big tobacco. The AEC shows Philip Morris paid $55,000 to the Liberal Democratic Party and $55,000 to the Nationals last year. The Coalition still benefits.

To its credit, Labor now voluntarily declares donations above $1,000, rather than only those above $15,200. This is in advance of intended legislation to make this compulsory for all candidates. 

Then let’s hope further reforms finally end political donations, which, stripped of the veneer, are often just "political bribes".

We noted that KPMG has given more than $630,000 to the big political parties since the 2019 Election. We should also mention that the Morrison Coalition Government paid the big foreign consultancy group more than $288 million in 2020/21.

Alan Austin is an Independent Australia columnist and freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @alanaustin001.

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