queensland bush fire
(Image: AAP/Aleksandar Romanov)

A persistent flaw in political coverage in Australia is the inability or refusal of most journalists to explore the systemic and structural motivations for much of what happens in the political class.

It’s so pervasive that readers probably don’t notice its absence, but it’s as if sports journalists stuck to reporting what happened on the field without bothering to explain the financial position of clubs, the economic health of the game, the role of sponsors, and social changes that affected participation.

Coverage of the dramatic escalation in debate about climate change last week was a classic example. A number of journalists, including some of our best political observers, wrung their hands at the state of climate debate in Australia. Several engaged in a lame moral equivalising, putting climate denialists and angry Greens on the same level; others more openly acknowledged the role of the Coalition in acting to stymie climate action. None explained why; a visitor to Australia wondering why we were yelling at each other last week might have thought it was all the result of some peculiarity in our political psychology.

But the reason is that federal politics is corrupt. Not corrupt in the brown paper bag, ICAC-style sense that we’re so familiar with from NSW Labor, or the persistent corruption of local government by property developers, but pervaded by a soft, entirely lawful corruption that comes from the dominance of political donations in public life, the lack of transparency around donations, and the way they facilitate the influencing of policy by vested interests.

So if you want to know why Australian politics has failed to address climate change for over 20 years, it’s not merely the psychological composition of the old and middle-aged white men who have wielded power for most of that time. It’s the way they were paid to stymie climate action.

Look at the political donations data of recent years. Fossil fuel and energy companies are some of the largest donors in the country; flush with profits from repeated commodity and investment booms, as a sector they rival the big banks (and, in recent years, the four big accounting firms) as the most dominant industry in political donations.

In this decade alone, since 2011, mining and energy companies have given $8.4 million in donations to the Coalition’s state and federal branches, as well as $2.8 million to the ALP’s branches. In comparison, the financial industry gave around $12 million in total to both sides, split roughly $7m/$5m.

That donor list is dominated by major carbon emitters. It is headed by Woodside, one of the most powerful Australian companies, which has been assisted by successive Australian governments, including with the use of ASIS in illegal commercial espionage against Timor-Leste. It has handed over $1 million in donations to the Coalition since 2011 and nearly $900,000 to Labor.

Caltex has handed over $330,000 to the Coalition and another $130,000-odd to Labor; its former parent company Chevron, the 12th-biggest carbon polluter in the world, has given $420,000 to the Coalition and $341,000 to Labor.

Santos — who can forget Abbott government ministers attacking divestment in the company, a few short months before as it lost three-quarters of its market value in 2015 — gave over $670,000 to the Coalition and $508,000 to Labor.

Origin Energy gave $370,000 to the Coalition and $290,000 to Labor. Gina Rinehart’s companies gave $200,000 to the Coalition and another $75,000 to Labor. Coal companies pumped money into the Coalition: the now shuttered Linc Energy gave $170,000, Whitehaven Coal $107,000, White Energy $80,000, Peabody (16th-biggest global polluter) $70,000.

Peak bodies, too: the Minerals Council has given nearly $140,000 to the Coalition and nearly $50,000 to Labor (all since 2016); the NSW Minerals Council gave $95,000 to the Coalition and $19,000 to Labor.

It was generous donations from the banks that encouraged the Liberals to protect them from regulation and investigation; it is generous donations, tilted even more heavily in favour of the conservatives, that encourage the Coalition to protect fossil fuel and energy companies from regulation and investigation, including climate action.

And just as there was a revolving door between the financial services industry and political ranks, with multiple financial services ministers being former bank executives, so too is there a revolving door between fossil fuel industries and political ranks.

On the Labor side, former Woodside executive Gary Gray, and Martin Ferguson, the mining industry’s friend at court now advising the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association.

On the Coalition side, Ian Macfarlane now lobbies for the Queensland Resources Council; Alexander Downer famously worked for Woodside after leaving politics; Scott Morrison’s chief of staff is former Minerals Council and Rio Tinto executive John Kunkel, and former Minerals Council CEO Brendan Pearson also works in the PMO; former Howard staffer Stephen Galilee heads the NSW Minerals Council.

Climate denialism and the unwillingness of Australian politicians to devise effective climate action policies is no fluke, any more than the long-term willingness of the Liberal Party to defend the big banks and enable their misconduct was a fluke. It was the result of millions in donations, the influence of industry figures at both staffer and political levels, and the capacity of mining companies to offer politicians lucrative jobs after they leave public office.

That’s how power works in Australia, and it happens out of sight, courtesy of a near-complete lack of transparency about how influence is wielded — and the strange reluctance of the media to explain it.