The lack of elections and the growing reluctance of business to donate to political parties saw a big fall in political donations in 2016-17, with public funding the biggest source of revenue for the major parties, according to today’s annual political donation data release.

The data, released under the Commonwealth’s antiquated donation disclosure laws, shows just 205 donors contributed to political parties in 2016-17 — the lowest number since the Howard government lifted the reporting threshold to reduce transparency in the mid-2000s, and nearly half the 396 donors in 2015-16. With only the West Australian election falling fully within the reporting year (the 2016 federal election was held on July 2; the ACT also had an election), the parties were more focused on paying off previous election debts with taxpayer funding. And foreign donors almost entirely disappeared, with only longstanding donor Chau Chak Wing’s Hong Kong Kingson making an appearance.

The ALP, across its federal state and territory branches, pulled in $70.8 million and cleared away nearly $30 million in debt from its federal election campaign. The Liberals raked in $95 million across all its branches and cleared $24 million of debt, having scored just over $24 million in public funding for the 2016 election and, via its NSW branch, over $7 million from the NSW Electoral Commission following the 2015 NSW state election. That compares to $23 million for federal Labor’s campaign and around $3 million in NSW.

The Nationals managed just $12.2 million in revenue, and as usual that was dominated by the NSW branch, which picked up nearly $3 million from taxpayers there. The Greens (who report their taxpayer funding by state branch) drew $16 million in revenue.

The biggest donor, individual or corporate, was Malcolm Turnbull, with final, official confirmation of what we knew over a year ago — that he guaranteed to give the party $1.75 million to lift spending in the last days of an increasingly desperate election, eventually paying it in October and December that year. Ros Packer repeated her $500,000 donation to the Liberal Party in 2016, Sally Zhou’s Ausgold Mining gave $366,000 to the Liberals, while Burnewang Pastoral gave the Coalition $200,000. ANZ gave both sides $150,000, while the parasites of the National Automotive Leasing and Salary Packaging Association — which presides over the outrageous novated lease tax rort — demonstrated why Labor hasn’t returned to its 2013 policy of ending it: it gave $128,000 to Labor and $150,000 to the Liberals.

Apart from ANZ, bodies like Woodside, Caltex, Optus, the Financial Services Council, Insurance Australia Group, QBE and Suncorp all donated similar amounts to Liberal and Labor or, more often, attended one or more fundraising events. Others like Wesfarmers let their colours show: they gave $150,000 to the Liberals and $48,000 to Labor; Macquarie Bank gave around $90,000 to Labor and over $150,000 to the Coalition. Allianz, Genworth, the Minerals Council and Santos all favoured the Coalition with their contributions; Chevron, Clubs NSW and Primary Healthcare all lent toward Labor. The Greens did well from deceased estates, picking up nearly $95,000 from the estate of West Australian Ian Rudd (sent by Kevin Rudd, presumably no relation), and $100,000 from the estate of Cecily Dignan.

Unions, of course, were the big contributors to Labor even in an off-year, with the CFMEU — one of the two funding powerhouses of the ALP with the Shoppies — giving the federal branch $51,000. In Western Australia, where Labor won the 2017 state election in a landslide, the branch racked up nearly $9 million in receipts. The Shoppies and the CFMEU were both massive contributors, with nearly a quarter of a million dollars and $132,000 respectively, but both were dwarfed by United Voice, which delivered over $370,000 to the state branch.

As always, the usual caveats apply: Labor and the Greens, and an increasing number of companies, are reporting all donations and other contributions over $1,000; the Coalition parties continue to report only donations or other revenue over the disclosure threshold of $13,500. A decreasing proportion of contributions are reported as donations and instead are paid as subscriptions of purchases of attendance at fundraising events — federal Labor has just 16 donations listed in its hundreds of contributions. And of course we’re only finding out about many of these donations 18 months after they were made. And currently, the government has no plans to fix this disgrace.

Peter Fray

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