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Image: Getty

The annual farce that is our federal political donations disclosure process occurred this morning, with donations from as far back as July 1 2017 being finally revealed by the Australian Electoral Commission.

Without a federal election, or elections in NSW or Victoria, the overall sums involved were markedly down on 2016-17. The Liberal Party’s various branches managed around $60 million in fundraising and spending, compared to $95-100 million in 2016-17, while Labor’s branches reported $60 million in receipts and around $50 million in spending, compared to $70-75 million the previous year. Yet again, Labor and the Greens reported all contributions above $1000, in contrast to the Liberals, who only reported above the statutory threshold of $13,000.

The interesting details are therefore at the state level. It’s clear that in Queensland, the LNP went into the November 2017 election with a much smaller war chest than in previous elections. Whereas Campbell Newman ended up spending nearly $20 million, from a war chest of over $21 million, in losing an unlosable election in 2015, the LNP had only $15 million to spend in 2017, and ended up borrowing to fund spending of $16.8 million. Queensland Labor had an extra $1 million in receipts to deploy for the year and spent nearly $2 million more than in 2015 to secure majority government.

It was a better story for the Liberals in Tasmania for the March 2018 election there, however: the data confirms that pokies industry funding helped the Tasmanian Liberals blow Labor away. Tasmanian Labor received and spent around $1 million, but the Tasmanian Liberals had four times that to deploy, courtesy of big donations from the likes of Kalis Hospitality ($70,000), EBC Leisure ($44,000), Goodstone ($50,ooo) and the Tasmanian Hospitality Association ($160,000) — federal-sized sums for a small state-sized campaigns.

Elsewhere, individual donors provide an insight into the changing priorities of some companies. Adani not merely gave $35,000 to the Liberal Party (via its ACT branch) but $15,000 to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, permanently linking the controversial Indian multinational to Australia’s racist right. Another resources company, APA group, also gave $15,000 to One Nation. Resources giant Glencore gave $20,000 to Bob Katter’s KAP, while Philip Morris gave $40,000 to the Liberal Democrats and more than $50,000 to the Nationals, the last major party that will accept tobacco donations.

The banks were more circumspect and even-handed: ANZ gave $100,000 to both sides; CBA gave $65,000 to both sides and $11,000 to the Nationals. Westpac’s contributions were limited to event and subscription payments rather than donations. NAB no longer makes any donations and AMP, perhaps wisely, also kept its chequebook hidden. Macquarie Bank, after a couple of years of favouring the Liberals, seems to have returned to a more even distribution of its contributions, which are via events and fora contributions rather than donations. The data is littered with the figure of $27,500 (federal Labor’s return is dominated by that repeating sum), which is a $25,000 subscription to major party fundraising fora — effectively a large contribution covering a year’s worth of events in which frontbenchers can be accessed, plus GST.

In fact most corporate contributions were event and fora-related, rather than donations — Nine, for example, gave $27,500 to both sides. Notable exceptions were Village Roadshow, which always tips heavily for the protection it receives from the major parties on copyright — it gave $50,000 to Labor and around $110,000 to the Liberals; Manildra, as usual, gave heavily to the Nationals — over $160,000; Woodside gave $110,000 to both sides.

Almost entirely absent from both parties’ returns were the massive six-figure donations from Chinese donors of previous years, presumably scared off by the relentless focus on links between both sides and Communist Party-linked donors. However, Kenny Zhang’s Waratah Group, which has well-established Liberal Party links, gave a thumping quarter million to the NSW Liberals in July 2017. Pacific Blue Capital, run by Scott Morrison’s close friend Scott Briggs, also emerged as a significant donor, giving $20,000 to the LNP and over $30,000 to the NSW Liberals. Pacific Blue has been a tenderer for major government contracts and lobbies politicians, even though it isn’t on the lobbying register.

More stories will emerge in coming days as (hopefully) journalists go through the data. It’s clear that the trend of recent years of companies reporting all contributions, regardless of whether they are required to or not, is continuing — many corporations, at least, feel the need for greater transparency. It’s a pity our political parties do not.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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