Quid pro quo: donations data shows billionaires and corporations fix politicians for another year

by Callum Foote and Stephanie Tran | Feb 1, 2022 | Business

Fossil fuel companies, the Big 4 accountants, billionaires and the usual suspects. The Coalition bag-people came out on top, with more than $15 million more payments given to them than Labor. Callum Foote and Stephanie Tran wrap up 2021’s political payments.

It never ceases to amaze how cheaply politicians, and therefore policy and political protection, can be bought. Released today, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) data for the 2020-21 financial year reveals that $166 million was paid to political parties, with the Liberal Party ranking in $15.4 million more than Labor.

Anthony Pratt’s Pratt Holdings once again tops the political donations league board, donating $1.28 million to the Liberal Party war chest. Pratt Holdings contributed a comparatively meagre $10,000 to the Labor Party.

The world’s largest financial firms, “The Big 4” – PwC, EY, KPMG and Deloitte” picked up $1.74bn in government work over the past 18 months, a fabulous return on their $670,570 “investment”.

Tobacco giant Philip Morris donated $55,000 to the National Party. The amount corresponds to the “Foundation” membership tier of the National Party, likely indicating that Philip Morris Limited is a top tier member of the National Party. 

Mineral Resources, an ASX-listed mining services company based in Western Australia, donated $222,400 among WA branches, with $92,400 going to Labor, $80,000 to Liberal and $50,000 to the Nationals.

Banking, finance and insurance Industry

Major players within Australia’s banking, finance and Insurance industry declared $1.7 million in donations to political parties in 2020-2021, making 8% of all donor disclosed payments. $775,000 went to Coalition and $715,000 to Labor.

The largest single donor was ANZ which donated $244,000 in the 2021 financial year. $121,000 to Labor and $123,000 to the Coalition. 

ANZ made two lump sum donations of $100,000 were made to both Labor and Liberal on the same day, October 22, 2020.

The well-connected Macquarie Group came in second, donating $230,000 again split relatively evenly between the two major parties. $120,000 went to the Coalition, primarily Liberal, and $110,000 to Labor.

A distant third is Commonwealth Bank at $130,000, this time slightly favouring Labor by $20,000.

It seems as though the biggest players within the finance world have been hedging their bets against the possibility of a Labor government, more evenly spreading out their donations between the two majors. No major finance institution donated outside the two major parties.

Fossil fuels

In 2020 the fossil fuels sector trailed second behind finance in terms of total political payments, as it does in the overall tally.

$1.5 million was given to the major political parties overall. Unlike previous years, the balance between the major parties is relatively even with $600,000 to Labor and $700,000 to the Coalition.

Gambling and gaming

The gambling lobby donated just over million dollars in FY2020, almost perfectly split between Labor and Liberals. Across the whole industry Labor received $516,000 and the Coalition $541,587, as disclosed by the donors themselves.

The single biggest donor was the Australian Hotels Association (NSW) at a quarter of a million followed by Tabcorp at $180,000.

A safe bet for the industry which enjoys the highest per capita gambling rate in the world, with very little government opposition to the gambling lobby.

Again, no donations were made industry wide to a minor party.

Health and pharmaceuticals 

Health and pharmaceutical companies donated just shy of $900,000 during the disclosure period, favouring the Coalition by $110,000.

This is in spite of the biggest single health and pharmaceutical donor, the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, heavily favouring the Coalition. Of the nearly $300,000 in donations, $200,000  was given to the current government. No surprise that these donations were made after the outset of the pandemic.

Vaccine manufacturer Pfizer chipped in more than $50,000, slightly favouring Labor, throughout the reporting period. Johnson and Johnson, whose coronavirus vaccine was never brought to Australian shores, donated more than $80,000.

Property and construction

Normally the second largest overall donor, the property and construction industry donated a relatively minor $640,000, though heavily favouring the Coalition with $490,000 being paid to the government parties.

The largest single donor was property developer Meriton donated $285,000 to the Liberal Party, including a $200,000 donation to the NSW branch of the party.

An incomplete picture

The once-a-year data dump of AEC disclosures presents a number of issues. The data released today only covers donations made between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021, meaning that the data is at least seven months old.

Due to the rules around disclosures, if timed “correctly”, donations don’t have to be disclosed for up to 19 months. For example, if a donation was made on July 1, 2021, it won’t have to be disclosed until February 1, 2023, as the donation was made in the 2021-22 financial year. By then governments have been elected and the news cycle has moved on.

Additionally due to the high disclosure threshold, a significant proportion of political donations remain undisclosed. The federal political donations threshold has risen from $11,500 in the 2010-11 financial year to $14,500 in 2021-22.

Donations reform

In a report published on Monday, the Centre for Public Integrity recommended the implementation of real time disclosures for donations over $1000 alongside campaign spending and donation caps.

Callum Foote was a reporter for Michael West Media for four years.

Stephanie is the editor of the Revolving Doors series. She is studying a Bachelor of Communication (Journalism)/Bachelor of Laws at the University of Technology Sydney. She was a finalist for the 2021 Walkley Student Journalist of the Year Award and the winner of the 2021 Democracy's Watchdogs Award for Student Investigative Reporting.

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