The biggest revelation to come out of Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s appearance at the royal commission into trade unions yesterday was that he had failed to disclose a $40,000 donation from labour hire company Unibilt in the lead-up to the 2007 election. Shorten only got round to telling the AEC about the donation last week.

Shorten’s misplaced $40,000 is a drop in the ocean — Australia’s major political parties secured over a quarter of a billion dollars in funding from various sources in 2013-14, according to the Australian Electoral Commission. Parties are required to disclose their donations for each financial year by October, with the AEC releasing the information the following February. These are the latest figures as of February this year. Some state branches do file amendments to their disclosure documents after the deadline (for example, the Queensland LNP disclosed an additional $15,000 donation in March this year for the 2013-14 financial year); for the up-to-date figures, visit the AEC’s website.

Revenue for Labor, the Liberals, the Nationals, the Greens and the Palmer United Party totalled $266.6 million across all state and territory divisions, the returns show. The 2013-14 figures are significantly skewed by the federal election of September 2013 and the South Australian election of March 2014, which poured tens of millions of dollars in public funding into party coffers as well as spiking fundraising efforts. Even so, the Liberal Party was absolutely dominant, securing over $126 million across the country, compared to just $78.2 million for Labor, even though, at $43 million and $40 million respectively, the two federal parties were evenly matched. Clive Palmer spent around $28 million on the Palmer United Party.

However, the source of only around two-thirds of that $266 million has been identified by the parties under the applicable Commonwealth electoral laws. That’s a big improvement on 2012-13, but it’s primarily driven by a number of vagaries, rather than a sudden burst of transparency by political parties. The Liberal Party across the country has accounted for the sources of around 63% of its money. The federal party reported $40 million out of its $43 million; at the other end of the scale, the South Australian branch reported just $2.4 million out of its $10.2 million; the NSW Liberals $10 million of $19.6 million and Victorian Liberals $12 million out of $18.2 million.

The federal Liberals’ transparency was increased by receiving over $25 million in public funding from the Australian Electoral Commission after the 2013 election, as well as the sheer scale of many of their donations, which were simply too big to be kept hidden even under current electoral laws, particularly from Chinese donors: $50,000 from Chinese mining company CST, $300,000 from Hong Kong Kingson Investments, $200,000 from Kingold, not to mention $400,000 from Bob Oatley’s Balmoral Pastoral, $100,000 from Harold Mitchell, $250,000 from controversial mining company New Hope, and $200,000 from Villa Roadshow (also a big Labor donor).

Federal Labor, strangely, failed to declare the $20 million-plus in public funding it received from the AEC, meaning it ended up reporting only a quarter of its $40 million in revenue; adding in the public funding, the ALP report around two-thirds of its funding. The biggest federal donors to Labor were Kingold, which gave a monster $600,000 to Labor, and a staggering $850,000 from Chinese investor Zi Chun Wang, as well as $200,000 from Hong Kong company Rich Global Holdings, $200,000 from Village Roadshow and $400,000 from a NSW-based Chinese trading firm, demonstrating that when it comes to tapping into Chinese donations (which would have been banned under John Faulkner’s defeated changes to political donations in 2009), Labor still holds the edge.

The figures demonstrate just how badly outgunned Labor was in the 2013 election. With Julia Gillard expected to lose, the federal party had struggled to raise money in the months leading up to the election, and actually started discounting tickets to its fundraising events. The Liberals, on the other hand, cashed in on expectations Tony Abbott would surge to victory, with Abbott devoting significant time to raising funds for local candidates and state branches. But the figures also demonstrate that money isn’t everything. The LNP in Queensland scored a remarkable $18.6 million in 2013-14, up from $17.6 million the year before. Queensland Labor, in contrast, generated just $8.4 million, which was actually down from $11 million in 2012-13. Both parties would have squeezed similar amounts again from donors in the second half of 2014, but the LNP’s massive financial advantage went for naught in the hands of Campbell Newman and his dash for a holiday election win.

Note the South Australian and Victorian returns, too — SA Labor went into last March’s election badly outgunned financially, but managed to hang on, while the Liberals’ significant financial advantage over Labor in Victoria up until June last year counted for little in November. It seems even money isn’t enough to counteract the toxic impact of Tony Abbott.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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