How much does it cost to run a federal election campaign?

Answer: how much have you got?

The federal branches of the Labor Party and the Liberal Party (with some assistance from the Nationals) don’t operate in a vacuum; they fund, and receive funding from, state and territory branches as each branch goes through its own electoral cycle.

And as we saw in the New South Wales Liberal Party, federal structures are also used to subvert state laws. But Australian Electoral Commission data on the federal parties’ incomings and, at least in broad detail, their outgoings, give us a rough guide to how much the parties spend on campaigns.

In recent years, the federal branches of the Labor and Liberal parties have spent around $6 million to $8 million in non-election years. In election years, they’ve spent what they’ve been able to raise, throwing every cent at winning government, and going into debt as well.

In October last year, the federal ALP was carrying around $4 million in debt, and the NSW branch was an additional $3 million in the whole.

The Liberals were carrying around $4.7 million in debt; the NSW branch had a whopping $10.6 million in debt, courtesy of the NSW Election Commission declining to pay its public funding in the wake of the 2015 state election.

In 2010-11, both the federal Liberal Party and federal Labor spent around $36 million, meaning the election campaign cost them both, as best we can judge around, $26 million to $28 million. In 2014-15, the Liberals spent a total for the year of around $45.6 million and Labor $33.6 million, reflecting the ability of Tony Abbott and his team to raise funds while Labor, expected to lose the election, struggled (in contrast, consider 2007-08, when Labor was able to spend over $60 million compared to just $35.6 million for the Liberals).

What does the money go on? The biggest chunk is advertising. In 2010, the ABC calculated Labor spent around $14 million on TV ads and the Coalition just under $13 million. Then there are cheaper ads — print, radio, outdoor and online, especially local advertising in marginal seats.

But advertising has to be backed up by research — focus groups and polling by UMR for Labor, and Crosby Textor for the Liberals, as well as campaign design by creatives. There are also campaign HQs to be run, even if much of the labour is voluntary and equipment and offices are provided as in-kind donations.

Who pays for all this? Which powerful union or plutocrat stumps up for these rituals of democracy? In Labor’s case, the biggest source of private funding is the Labor/ACTU investment and property company John Curtin House, which has given around $4.9 million to federal Labor since 2010-11. There’s also Labor’s Queensland-based investment vehicle Labor Holdings, which primarily funds Queensland Labor, but in 2010-11 it transferred $1.9 million to federal Labor, and it gave the federal party $600,000 in 2013-14.

The Liberals have the Cormack Foundation, which generates investment returns and also acts as a siphon for donations from Liberal donors (as, it is alleged, Labor’s investment arms do for it). The Cormack Foundation gave $1.5 million to the federal Liberal branch in 2013-14, and of course there’s the notorious Free Enterprise Foundation, which gave $1.25 million that year.

Then, for Labor, there are the unions. And the king of federal Labor donors is the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA), which has given over $1.1 million to the federal party alone since 2010, including nearly $700,000 in 2013-14. The CFMEU gave a monster $1.02 million donation to federal Labor in 2010-11 but has since been lower-profile in its contributions. United Voice (and its predecessor unions) is also a major contributor, with just under $900,000 since 2010, including $500,000 in 2013-14, while the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union has provided over $400,000 since 2010.

Remember, though, that these are only donations to the federal branch. Unions, especially at the state branch level, make big donations to Labor’s state branches as well. The NSW branch of the Electrical Trades Union gave NSW Labor nearly $400,000 in 2010-11 (think electricity privatisation) and a loan of another $500,000.

The NSW branch of the SDA gave NSW Labor just under $200,000 that year; its Newcastle branch gave another $43,000; the NSW branch of the Transport Workers Union gave a $25,000 donation and a million-dollar loan.

These are all relevant because money flows back and forth between the federal and state branches of parties; money received by the federal branch might make its way to a state branch, perhaps even under the guise of being for a federal campaign in that state to avoid legal impediments like state bans on property developer donations.

Both major political parties have done well from property developers. Since 2010, the federal Liberals have received just under $1.5 million from property developers, while federal Labor has receive around $900,000. But the property sector is small fry in federal donations. The big player is the finance industry, led by the big banks. That sector has given the Liberals just under $4.1 million since 2010, and just under $3 million to Labor.

That’s even bigger than the mining sector, which has pumped a total of $3 million into the federal Liberals since 2010 and just $170,000 to Labor — although the sector’s contributions fell away to nearly zero in 2014-15 with the end of the commodities boom.

Clive Palmer is not merely a big donor to himself but, before his falling out with them, was a big donor to the Coalition. Queensland Nickel gave $500,000 to the federal Liberals in 2010 as well as $180,000 to the Queensland LNP that year.

The energy sector is produces big donors to the Coalition; they’ve given around $2.7 million to the federal Liberals since 2010, compared to $1.4 million to Labor. The Liberals also do very well from the private health sector, receiving nearly a million dollars in the last five years from private health companies and entrepreneurs. If you include the donations of the late healthcare mogul Paul Ramsay, that figure increases to over $2 million.

And both sides have benefited from extraordinary donations from foreign companies. Chinese property tycoon Chau Chak Wing, for example, has funnelled more than $1 million into the three major political parties and some of their state branches since 2010 via HK Kingson Investments, on top of at least another million dollars poured in (primarily to Labor) in previous years.

But there’s one donor who dwarfs all of these. Big unions, investment companies, property tycoons, the finance industry — none of them can match the extraordinary spending of one key source: you.

Currently, you pay political parties $2.62259 for each eligible vote they receive at each election, and the amount is indexed. In 2013-14, the Liberal Party received over $25 million from the AEC, the Labor Party around $21.6 million.

Taxpayers also pay for the campaigning expenses of current MPs via their expenses until the official party launches, meaning you’re paying for posters, mail and fliers used by MPs to spruik their wares up until the last weeks of the campaign — unless they’ve already maxed out their stationery allowance.

This means that taxpayers are pumping tens of millions of dollars every three years into the coffers of Australia’s media companies, not to mention a favoured few polling organisations and marketing creatives. So you might as well enjoy the election — you’re paying for it.

Peter Fray

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