Companies which benefit enormously from government policy are also members of both the major political parties. A surprising data investigation by Stephanie Tran shows Woodside, Wesfarmers, PwC and ASX are Platinum members of the Liberal and Labor parties, and membership fees are identical. In the first part of our State Capture series we reveal Platinum, Gold and Silver members of both parties and what access they get.
Australia’s biggest companies are hiding millions of dollars in donations to the major political parties by buying Platinum, Gold and Silver corporate memberships. And it all flies under the radar because none of the money is officially disclosed as political donations.
The company doesn’t have to disclose the membership contributions while the political parties declare the memberships vaguely as “other receipts”.
Platinum membership costs a cool $110,000, gold $55,000 and silver $25,000. Amazingly, both the Liberal Party’s “Australian Business Network” and the Labor Party’s “Federal Labor Business Forum” charge identical fees for each of their membership tiers. (A cartel operation, Rod Sims?)
So companies that stand to benefit enormously from government policy are also members of the major political parties.
Take PwC (accountancy firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers). It is one of the biggest beneficiaries of government contracts in the country, sharing $800 million a year in consultancy fees with its Big Four peers KPMG, EY (formerly Ernst and Young) and Deloitte. It is a Platinum member of both parties.
Similarly, Platinum member ASX enjoys the protection of being a virtual monopoly in Australian financial markets. As for Platinum member Wesfarmers, its Bunnings retail chain was allowed to trade through last year’s Covid-19 lockdown.
Last but not least there is oil and gas giant Woodside, which recently picked up a $130 million government commission to clean up the mess left by its own oil and gas platform after the company sold the rig to a $2 company.
Woodside also stood to benefit handsomely from the illegal bugging of East Timor government offices during oil negotiations between that country and Australia, which has culminated in the prosecution of whistleblower Witness K and his lawyer Bernard Collaery.
Dozens of the most powerful corporations and lobby groups in the country, including coal peak body the Minerals Council of Australia, and gambling and private healthcare lobby groups, are in fact members of both the Liberal and Labor parties.
According to analysis by the Centre for Public Integrity, some $49.5 million (some 29.47%) of income received by the political parties in the 2019-20 financial year came from undisclosed sources. In fact, nearly $1.5 billion was donated from undisclosed sources to the nation’s political parties in the two decades between 1998-99 and 2019-20.
Political parties declared $168 million of income in the most recent disclosures for the 2019-20 financial year. Some $38.9 million was categorised as “other receipt”, with $49.5 million of income “unexplained”. Specific donations accounted for just $14.6 million (8.7%) of party income.
An astounding $88.4 million (52%) of political party income is shrouded in secrecy (unexplained and other receipt).
The numbers didn’t lie
Following the release of the political donation figures by the Australian Electoral Commission early last month, Michael West Media delved deep into the figures and was struck by extraordinary anomalies.
We repeatedly came across the same amount of money in the donation documents under the heading of “other receipt”. In particular, the amounts of $110,000, $55,000 and $27,500 repeatedly came up. Such figures were too precise to be just random amounts donated by the various companies to the political parties.
Our investigation found a strong correlation between amounts classified as “other receipt” and the membership fees of major party business forums.
For example, amounts of $110,000, $55,000 and $27,500 classified as “other receipt” correlate with the platinum, gold and silver membership fees paid by companies to become members of the business forums of the political parties.
Our analysis shows the Labor Party received $2.06 million in membership fees while the Liberal Party received $1.95 million in the 2019-20 financial year.
We assumed the amounts represented membership fees because of the sheer correlation in the numbers.
So we put questions to every company we suspected was a member of a political party business forum based on the uniformity of the amount donated under the “other receipt” column. Of the companies we contacted, 34 confirmed that they were members of either one or both business forums of the major political parties.
When Michael West Media contacted the Australian Stock Exchange, a spokesman said:
“You are right – ASX is a member of the business forums of each of the two major parties. Our payments are for those memberships ($110,000 including GST). ASX makes no other financial contribution to any political party.”
The full responses from all the companies are included at the end of this story.
In what could be best called the Captured State, our investigation reinforces the fact that private interests have an enormous influence over the political scene in Australia.
The graphic below tells the story. Both major parties received $110,000 from the same four institutions: PwC, Wesfarmers, ASX and Woodside. Furthermore, 29 companies confirmed they are members of either one or both political parties.
There were also strong correlations in gold and silver memberships of the political parties.
Moreover, these membership contributions are often made in addition to political donations.
It appears little is known about the corporate memberships because of the appalling disclosure regime pertaining to political parties. The political access afforded to those with the means to contribute to political parties is increasingly viewed by observers as a stain on Australia’s democracy.
Political parties aren’t required to disclose their membership lists (or their financial statements) and companies aren’t required to declare membership fees to the AEC, so the true revenue from political memberships is unknown. This constitutes yet another gaping hole in political funding disclosure.
The top tier members of the Labor Party’s Federal Labor Business Forum include the ASX, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Wesfarmers and Woodside. Each paid $110,000 for their membership.
The Liberal Party’s Australian Business Network had the same top tier members with the addition of Transcendent Australia, a company established in 2019 by Chinese mining magnate Sally Zou.
Benefits of being a party member
Although there is no publicly available information on how these business forums operate, Senate documents offer a glimpse into the access granted to members.
In 2017 Woodside Energy Ltd was asked to give evidence to the Senate Select Committee into the influence of political donations. Woodside disclosed the number and nature of events that its top-tier membership of both parties provided. For example, Woodside’s membership package with the Liberal Party’s Australian Business Network includes federal parliamentary briefings with MPs from each Australian state and territory, boardroom policy forums in nine federal government portfolios and dinner with the Prime Minister.
Similarly, Woodside’s membership package with Labor’s Federal Labor Business Network included policy briefing sessions, meetings with shadow ministers and drinks with the Leader of the Opposition.
We approached both parties numerous times for comment. Neither was prepared to provide any response to questions. This was not entirely unexpected given that the business forums of both parties are secret affairs. There is no publicly available information on either of the business forums. There are no websites, pamphlets, inquiry forms. Nothing. It’s as if they don’t exist. This raises the question: What exactly are the political parties hiding?
More than “a gift”
In 2017, the Senate conducted an inquiry into the political influence of donations. It recommended “the Australian Government amend the definition of ‘gift’ under the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to include payments made in return for membership subscriptions and attendance at events and fundraisers of candidates, political parties and associated entities”. This was in fact the first recommendation listed in the Senate report.
Private Healthcare Australia
The answer to your question is yes
In representing the Australian research-based medicines industry, Medicines Australia interacts with the broad Australian political system. At times we engage across the political spectrum, at state and federal levels, to raise awareness and understanding of the research-based medicines industry’s contribution to Australians health, to innovation and to the economy. An example of this includes annual political expenditure on membership fees to groups such as the Federal Labor Business Forum, Liberal Party (The Australian Business Network), and Nationals (The Nationals Policy Forum).
Medicines Australia also adheres to its own established policy that outlines the framework for ethical, legal, and transparent public policy engagement. As an industry association, Medicines Australia believes it’s critical to participate in legitimate and reasonable opportunities to engage with political, government and other relevant stakeholders to discuss and develop health and industry policy settings that allow for timely access to life-saving medicines, diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines for all Australians. For more information on our policy click here.
Minerals Council of Australia
MCA CEO Tania Constable:
‘Donations to political parties by the Minerals Council of Australia are a matter of public record.
‘As the 2019-20 return shows, the MCA donated $27,500 to the Liberal Party’s Australian Business Network group. Similar amounts were donated to other political party business network groups, including the ALP and the Nationals.’
NIB from time-to-time participates in events and attends functions hosted by Australia’s major political parties including as a member of the Federal Labor Business Forum. The intent of participation is to support where appropriate both major parties, and to have a voice in the development of public policy and national health relevant to the business of nib, its members and other stakeholders. As noted, the cost to attend these events and functions are appropriately disclosed to the Australian Electoral Commission by nib.
You are right – ASX is a member of the business forums of each of the two major parties. Our payments are for those memberships ($110,000 including GST). ASX makes no other financial contribution to any political party. Payments to political parties are disclosed in our annual report. Please see page 42 under the heading Payments to political parties – section pasted below for ease:
ASX has a responsibility to its shareholders and stakeholders to articulate the opportunities and challenges facing its business, communicate its position on relevant public policy issues and contribute to well-informed decision-making by government. ASX actively engages with government and political decision-makers about our role, the investments we are making to build world-class infrastructure, and the dynamic and globally competitive market environment in which ASX operates. Similar to previous years, in FY20, ASX paid $100,000 in membership fees to each of the Liberal Party Australian Business Network and the Federal Labor Business Forum. ASX’s membership of these business networks provides an opportunity to engage with a wide range of policy and decision-makers. The Board sets the policy regarding payments to political parties, including limits on the amounts paid. Payments within these limits are approved by the CEO and the General Counsel. All payments to political parties are disclosed by ASX.
ASX participates alongside other businesses in a wide range of luncheons and dinners, conferences and briefings.
We can confirm ACS is a member of the Federal Labor Business Forum as part of our political engagement program. As the peak body representing Australia’s technology professionals, we believe it is necessary to engage with key stakeholders, including governments and the major political parties, as part of giving our 45,000 members a voice to policy makers.
Membership sees ACS invited to Forum roundtables, networking functions and similar business related events.
Commonwealth Bank does not make donations to political parties. We pay to attend some political events aimed at the business community, and we disclose these payments in our Annual Report and to the AEC.
SUEZ is not a member of the Australian Business Network.
These contributions help enable networks and partnerships between industry and government to collaborate on policy, regulation and legislation that can work towards delivering a more prosperous, sustainable future for Brisbane, a city in which SUEZ is proud to operate.
Yes, that is correct.
Yes that is correct
Medibank proactively engages with the major political parties to help inform health policy. Like many major businesses, Medibank is a member of the business forums offered by both the Australian Labor Party and the Federal Coalition.
Insurance Council of Australia
Thanks for your enquiry. The answer to your question is yes.
Thanks for getting in touch – information re political donations made by Genworth is disclosed per the requirements of the AEC.
You are correct – that is for our membership to the Federal Labor Business Forum.
Pharmacy Guild of Australia
No we are not part of the Aust Business Network
These [contributions] are primarily to attend events and participate in political forums
BMS Australia has strict policies relating to any payments to attend activities or functions which become payable to any association or entity which ultimately contribute to the fund of any political parties or candidates. BMS Australia complies with all transparency and reporting requirements with respect to any payments to attend any such activities or functions.
I can confirm AusPayNet is a member of the Liberal Party’s Australian Business Network (Silver Membership) – cost $27,500. They are also a member of the Federal Labor Business Forum – cost $27,500.
Australian Finance Industry Association
We are members of the business networks of the two major political parties. These memberships are equal in value at $25,000 + GST – any variances in the amounts shown in accounts would relate to payment schedules and financial year ends.
APPEA seeks bipartisan support for Australia’s vibrant natural gas industry, and a robust, scientifically-based regulatory environment. APPEA makes political donations periodically as part of its ongoing advocacy activities. These donations comply with and are declared to the Australian Electoral Commission and relevant State/Territory electoral commissions.
Yes, Sanofi Australia is a member of the Federal Labor Business Forum.
Sanofi engages with all major parties. As members of the Federal Labor Business Form we participate in events including a leaders dinner, business exchange functions, and policy briefings where the topics may be of interest to the healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.
Hall and Prior
Thank you for your enquiry. In answer to your question we are not currently a member.
Confirming your interpretation around our donations for the 2019-20 financial year are correct.
On background, Westpac is a member of the Federal Labor Business Forum and the Australian Business Network. We pay a membership fee that allows us to participate in certain events at no cost, or at a discounted rate.
A spokesperson for Study Group said the company provide international education and does not have any party-political affiliation. The payments reflect the company’s membership of established business organisations as is common for a company such as ours.
Yes we are a member of ABN and many other business networks.
Yes, I can confirm Fortescue is a member of the Federal Labor Business Forum.
Bayer is a member of a number of business forums including the Australian Party’s federal Labor business forum. We disclose information regarding our political and policy activities in full compliance with Australian Commonwealth transparency requirements and Bayer’s own Code of Conduct.
Bayer Australia joins policy briefings and other events depending on relevance and availability.
Australian Pathology is a member of the Federal Labor Business Forum. We also support the Liberal party (to an equal amount) and are members of the Tasmania Leader’s Forum.
Meetings with Ministers/ Shadow Ministers/ Leadership of both parties of which we subscribe and includes attendance at conferences, briefings, participation on policy discussions etc. It is complementary to other work Australian Pathology does in its day to day business with all key decision makers, no matter which political persuasion.
Bupa believes in contributing to the public debate about health and care. As such, we regularly engage with political parties through the business forums organised by the Liberal and Labor parties. We are a member of the Australian Business Network as well as the Federal Labor Business Forum. We are also a member of several organisations that discuss policy including CEDA, the Trans-Tasman Business Circle and the Business Council of Australia.
The answer is yes
In a normal year without COVID-19 restrictions Healius executives would usually attend around one event per month with relevant spokesmen or Shadow Ministers. Healius believes engagement with both sides of politics is critical to the development of good health policy for Australia and to the delivery of world leading health care for Australians.
We are a member of the Federal Labor Business Forum.
Slater and Gordon
That is correct. We’re also a member of the Federal Labor Business Forum. Membership of these business forums allows us to attend these forums to engage in economic and policy discussions which are relevant to the industry and in the interest of our customers.
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.