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A tangled web of donations and grants. Business’ top lobby, DFAT and the AEC

by Zacharias Szumer | Feb 12, 2024 | Business, Latest Posts

Australia’s leading business lobby, Business Council of Australia, glosses over its tax avoiding members while cashing taxpayer cheques. Zacharias Szumer delves into the latest donation disclosures from the AEC.

It’s getting to be a bit of a slog trawling through the Australian Electoral Commission’s (AEC) annual disclosures – the not-so-user-friendly trove of data that gives only a partial glimpse into the money funding political parties, independents and politically engaged organisations.

The AEC’s 2022-23 disclosures, released on February 1, largely revealed the usual players – the main shifts in recent years being the increasingly large sums being thrown to groups such as Climate 200 and Advance.

While sliding into spreadsheet-induced torpor in search of an original angle, your correspondent had a look at two of Australia’s most powerful private-sector lobby groups: the Business Council of Australia (BCA) and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI).

The BCA and ACCI are both networking and lobbying outfits, although the BCA is a tad more elite. While the ACCI represents businesses of all shapes and sizes, the BCA’s membership is restricted to Australia’s largest companies – or, more specifically, their CEOs.

For the AEC’s purposes, however, both are – or at least have previously been (more on that later) – classified as ‘significant third parties’. This means they spend enough money trying to influence elections that they must disclose details of any payments made to them above the AEC threshold – currently around $15,000.

Biggest political donors revealed amid calls for reform

DFAT grants over $1.5M to BCA

Most of the BCA’s sources of funding were from the usual suspects – AGL, Amazon, Atlassian, and AstraZeneca (all before we get to the second letter of the alphabet).

As one would expect, these are the companies that pay the BCA to lobby for lowered company tax rates and against increased transparency rules that would stymie multinational tax evasion.

Nonetheless, the BCA is happy to receive public money for its own multinational networking services – as revealed by several payments from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT).

In 2022-23, DFAT made two payments totalling $220,000 to the BCA to provide services and support for the Australia-India CEO Forum.

Those payments were part of a $1.34 million grant DFAT awarded to the BCA to strengthen the Australia-India business relationship “by supporting the Business Champions and revitalised CEO Forum to regularly meet, to identify opportunities and address challenges in the economic relationship.”

The department paid out another $75,000 to the BCA to support a similar initiative between Australia and New Zealand – part of a grant worth a total of $325,000.

As a member-funded lobby group for Australia’s most powerful corporations, one could ask whether the BCA should be receiving any public money at all, let alone over $1.5 million, to help facilitate international corporate networking.

But we’ll leave those judgements to those more qualified to make them.

Capitulation Complete: Government caves in to multinational tax avoiders

The ACCI has bowed out of electoral politics

When it came to the ACCI’s financial benefactors, however, MWM was unable to see anything at all; while the ACCI declared over $6 million in receipts, it didn’t provide any detail about any of those transactions. 

Similarly, in the 2021-22 financial year, the ACCI declared $7,456,323 in total receipts but didn’t provide info on any of that either. 

That stands in contrast to the details they published in the two years prior: 2019-20 and 2020-21. 

This disclosure discrepancy has seemingly arisen because the ACCI has exited electoral politics, declaring $0 in ‘electoral expenditure’ since 2020-2021. It thus no longer qualifies as a significant third party – although the AEC’s website still lists it as one. 

In contrast, the ACCI declared a cumulative $52,084 in ‘electoral expenditure’ in the 2019-2021 period. 

Readers may wonder how such a body, which regularly and loudly lobbies government and the public, didn’t spend any money on shaping electoral preferences.  

The answer is that, for the AEC’s purposes, ‘electoral expenditure’ means money spent for the “dominant purpose of influencing the way electors vote in a federal election” – a definition narrow enough to exclude advocating for certain policies that just happen to be more closely aligned with one side of politics. 

MWM hasn’t seen any indication that the ACCI clearly sought to sway voters in the 2022-23 period, but if any readers have info, we’d be more than happy to receive it.

The BCA, fake pub-tests and the impending propaganda blitz

Zacharias Szumer is a freelance writer from Melbourne. In addition to Michael West Media, he has written for The Monthly, Overland, Jacobin, The Quietus, The South China Morning Post and other outlets.

He was also responsible for our War Power Reforms series.

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