energy political donations
(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Recently released Australian Electoral Commission data shows that donations from the energy sector surged in 2017-18. As the government attempted to resolve its internal climate crisis and address concerns about price-gouging, companies sought to directly influence policymakers.

Energy sector donations to the major parties increased 45% on 2016-17 and nearly 50% compared to 2015-16, despite the lack of a major election. Indeed, last year was the biggest year for energy sector donations since 2013, when US company Peabody Energy (which later sought bankruptcy protection), Caltex, Chevron and now-shuttered Linc Energy threw hundreds of thousands of dollars at the Coalition.

This time, however, the donations were almost evenly split; $450,000 flowed to the Coalition across all state branches, and $428,000 went to Labor. That’s a similar split to 2016-17 and 2015-16, when the Coalition secured a bit more than 50%. Alinta Energy was a new donor. It handed over $50,000 and nearly $68,000 to the Coalition and Labor respectively (primarily the WA branches of the parties, reflecting its home base in Perth). Mid-cap oil and gas producer Senex was also a new entrant, handing $20,000 to SA Labor and just over $15,000 to the LNP — the two states where it operates.

However, the traditional energy sector donors also stepped up their efforts during the year. Caltex more than doubled its donations to around $97,000, slightly favouring the Coalition. Chevron, traditionally a big donor to both sides in the earlier part of this decade, bumped up its donations to over $100,000. Santos, which was right at the heart of the energy debate with its LNG exports, had its biggest donations year since 2013, nearly doubling donations to over $180,000 to federal and state Labor and Liberal branches and the Nationals. Origin, always a big donor, spent more than $100,000, taking out $25,000 in fundraising subscriptions with both federal parties and giving smaller donations, favouring the Coalition slightly, to state branches.

Only Woodside, which had only a marginal role in policy debates, had a quiet year, giving $110,000 to both sides’ federal branches and some loose change to other branches. If there’s a company more locked into Australia’s governing class than Woodside — which hands hundreds of thousands of dollars to both sides of politics and in return has a bipartisan foreign policy run for its commercial benefit — we don’t know who it is.

The surge in energy company donations more than offset the fall in mining donations. The miners had their quietest year since 2014-15 (they’d given the Coalition more than three-quarters of a million dollars for the 2013 election, so closed their wallets the following year), and handed just $450,000 to the Coalition. As always, mining donations to Labor are less than a tenth of those to their opponents; the only donor in 2017-18 was the Minerals Council, which gave around $41,000 to Labor fundraisers.