Australia’s media proprietors have given the major political parties around $1.6m in donations in the last two years — with an almost uncanny industry-wide knack of splitting donations exactly between parties.

An analysis of Australian Electoral Commission and NSW Electoral Commission financial disclosure returns shows that companies like the Ten Network, which gave $75,000 to both sides in 2007-08, are in the minority. Instead, the industry is split between donors who favour one side or the other. Many of the contributions were provided in non-donation form, either as airtime or purchases of access to politicians and attendance at party events, which do not have to be declared by the donors under Commonwealth electoral law.

Donors who contributed more heavily to the ALP were PBL, Austereo, Telstra, and Village Roadshow. Indeed, were it not for the largesse of Village Roadshow, owned by the Kirby brothers and managing director Graham Burke, the ALP would be far behind the Coalition in media donations: the company gave nearly $300,000 to the ALP in 2007-08 — $100,000 more than it gave to the Liberals. Labor also got more than $200,000 from the company in 2006-07 — $150,000 more than the Liberals got from the entertainment company. Village Roadshow owns more than half of radio company Austereo, which also favoured Labor, though less strongly, in its donations of airtime.

The Liberals received strong support from Prime Television owner Paul Ramsay (he also has extensive health interests via Ramsay Healthcare), who donated $75,000 in 2006-07 and more than $100,000 prior to the 2007 election. While Fairfax Media (now a radio as well as newspaper group) was a small donor to both sides, John B. Fairfax is a strong Liberal supporter, having given nearly $90,000 in the last five years, along with Alan Jones, who gave $20,000 to the Liberals via his production company in 2006-07 and who is a regular MC at Liberal events. Media matriarchs Elisabeth Murdoch and Ros Packer are also Liberal backers, giving $26,000 and $11,000 respectively prior to the election.

Foxtel co-owner Telstra, however, made clear its feelings about the Howard Government, giving more money to the Nationals ($2750), who openly despise the telco, than the Liberals ($1,500) prior to the election, while handing over $11,500 to Labor in 2006-07 and another $5000 in 2007-08. Telstra also gave the ALP $40,000 in July last year, as the national broadband network tender process was ramping up — Optus, too gave donations after the election.

Labor Coalition
2006-07 2007-08 2008-09 2006-07 2007-08 2008-09
Austereo $21,000 $121,687 $100,771
Village Roadshow $203,700 $290,091 $50,000 $197,700
Ten $75,000 $20,000 $75,000
Ramsay $0 $75,000 $107,145
Optus $34,000 $28,775 $39,370 $22,000
PBL $55,000 $20,000
News Ltd $4975 $11,500
Seven $30,000 $7,200
Prime TV $10,000
Telstra $11,500 $5000 $40,000 $2500 $4250 $2830
Fairfax $1000 $5000
John B Fairfax $20,000 $20,000
Alan Jones $20,000
$270,200 $576,553 $40,000 $261,845 $580,566 $2,830

Unlike newspapers, radio and television are both highly-regulated industries with incumbents protected by an extensive anti-competitive legislative framework where it pays to keep both sides of politics relatively happy — a lesson Optus and Telstra were well aware of as the new Government developed its plans for a national broadband network. On that front, however, the Government is now looking for altogether bigger donations from both telcos.