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Jan 29, 2016

Mayne: top 10 political donations of all time

As "donation day" approaches, Stephen Mayne reveals his 10 favourite tales about election campaign finance.



The Australian Electoral Commission will do its annual dump of all state and federal political donations data for 2014-15 at 9am on Monday, February 1.

Despite what should be a multi-pronged media story each year, this Crikey piece is the first preview of the big day and it will probably have run out of puff as a story by Tuesday morning.

This year, the journalists are getting plenty of notice and there aren’t too many other political distractions going around.

So, to set the scene, here are 10 favourite campaign finance stories or disclosures from years past, not all of which were immediately picked up in the annual February 1 dump, which the AEC has been running for over 20 years.

The $1 million Lord Ashcroft drop

Political parties rarely get on the front foot, but, in 2006, the Liberals gave The Australian’s Dennis Shanahan the drop about British Lord Michael Ashcroft donating $1 million because he liked John Howard. It ran on page 1 on the morning of the disclosures, and this even prompted a rare February 1 piece on The World Today, which traditionally is too slow to get a story to air with a three-hour turn around.

Sydney-based casino developer’s mum pays up

James Packer wanted to develop a monster casino hotel on the Barangaroo site in Sydney but the corrupt legacy of Eddie Obeid had led to a ban on donations from developers in NSW. What to do? Simple: James Packer’s mum, Ros Packer, donated $570,000 to the Federal Liberal Party in November 2012, the same month that David Murray was appointed by the relatively new NSW government to assess the Packer proposal. By the time this huge donation was disclosed on February 1, 2014, Packer had already been given the nod to proceed.

NSW pokies fund Kevin Andrews

Why would Clubs NSW donate directly to the personal re-election fund of a conservative Victorian MP? Was it because Kevin Andrews was the Liberal Party spokesman who led the charge against Julia Gillard and Andrew Wilkie’s proposed reforms in 2011 and then devised policies to wind back anti-gambling measures, which the Abbott government duly introduced? It wasn’t a February 1 disclosure, but The Age splashed with it anyway in July last year.

Big donor collapses: no refund offered

HIH Insurance was a big supporter of the Liberal Party until it collapsed in March 2001. CEO Ray Williams oversaw payments of $592,700 between 1994 and 2000, with the Liberals collecting a very tidy $457,700. Few corporate donors ever have to explain themselves, but Williams was challenged at the HIH royal commission and rationalised the generosity on the grounds that he felt the Liberals would “best look after Australia’s interests, and insurance”.

Parrot takes on the billionaire

Partisan billionaire Robert Millner is the only chairman who has written to his public company shareholders urging them to vote a particular way. Then again, this was New Hope Coal in 2010 and it was still upset about Julia Gillard’s massively pared back mining tax. Millner doesn’t like giving media interviews but has funnelled more than $2 million to the Liberal Party, making him arguably Australia’s most one-sided corporate donor. This didn’t save him from Alan Jones, who ferociously attacked Campbell Newman 12 months ago for taking six-figure donations from New Hope and then breaking a promise to block the Acland coal mine near where the Parrot grew up on the Darling Downs. This was a rare example of a shock jock actually taking the governance high ground on campaign finance issues for a sustained period. And look what happened to Campbell Newman.

Tobacco: do we or don’t we?

Along with ending parliamentary superannuation rorts, getting the Labor Party out of tobacco donations was one of Mark Latham’s great achievements as leader in 2004. The Liberals pocketed almost $1 million from big tobacco over the following decade, but Tony Abbott finally quit in 2013, at precisely the same time the Liberals were rolling in cash from the gaming and mining industries.

Mining tax cashes up the Liberal Party

While pokies reform led to a $1 million-plus pro-Liberal disparity in donations from the gambling industry, this was nothing compared with the cash pocketed by the Liberals from infuriated miners after Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan ambushed them with the Resources Super Profits Tax proposal in 2010. And that’s before you included the $22 million spent on the advertising campaign that helped topple Rudd.

Clive splashes the Chinese cash on politics

It was only 12 months ago that we found out that Clive Palmer spent more than $28 million getting himself and three senators into the federal Parliament. This was the biggest individual spend by a donor in Australian political history and followed on from more than $5 million in donations to various divisions of the Liberal Party over the previous few years after he landed that famous $400 million Chinese pay day in 2006 and 2008.

A rare Murdoch front page on donations

The Australian’s Sharri Markson might have written 30 stories bagging ICAC, but the Murdoch press rarely fire up over campaign finance reform in Australia. Faster and more comprehensive disclosure in an easier-to-follow format makes sense, but they don’t seem to care. One rare example of a Murdoch tabloid going the knuckle happened in March 2015 when the Herald Sun splashed with Tony Abbott using his government jet to fly to Melbourne for the birthday party of Rich Lister Paul Marks, who had contributed $750,000 to the 2013 federal Liberal campaign. The decision to use the RAAF jet on this occasion was one of his 100 biggest mistakes in office.

Graeme Wood splashes out on the Greens

The Greens, particularly the NSW division, had long campaigned against corporate donations, so the decision by Wotif founder Graeme Wood to donate $1.6 million to bankroll a solid 2010 television ad campaign for the Greens was always going to be controversial. However, just like Palmer’s $28 million, it proved crucial in giving the Greens Senate balance of power in their own right after the 2010 cliff-hanger election.


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6 thoughts on “Mayne: top 10 political donations of all time

  1. Norman Hanscombe

    When the details do come out, let’s hope it will be dealt with by the Crikey Commissariat as news, rather than an excuse to regurgitate its stale prejudices.

  2. mikeb

    I green & the rest Liberal recipients. Did I read that right?

  3. Lee Tinson

    “Sydney based developer’s mum…” I’m always mildly surprised at how little a sleazy state government pollie ( or any other sort … oh wait! There is no other sort) will roll over for. Political donations seem to be at the top of the list of investments with the best returns.

  4. AR

    And in other news, water is wet.

  5. felicity_biggins@hotmail.com

    Stephen, love your work, but this is not a fair comment – “and this even prompted a rare February 1 piece on The World Today, which traditionally is too slow to get a story to air with a three-hour turn around”. I worked on TWT for years a lifetime ago and that’s precisely what the program is for – to turn the big news stories of the morning around in three hour. Among other things. I still have the scars from the stress! But it was fun.

  6. John Newton

    It wasn’t a corporate donation. It was from an individual, Graeme Wood


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