Fossil fuel companies and climate denialists have pumped at least $57 million into Australian politics in the last twenty years using our lax political donation laws, and the figure is likely significantly higher.
The Australian Electoral Commission’s recently overhauled register of donation disclosures now allows compilation of donations data back to 1998-99, although data for 2018-19, which covers last year’s election, won’t be available until February.
The available data is only a subset of financial contributions made to political parties: under Commonwealth law, financial contributions made in exchange for goods or services — such as a seat at a table to lobby a minister at a party fundraiser — do not need to be disclosed by donors.
And in 2005, the Howard government moved to hide millions of dollars in corporate donations from public view by dramatically increasing the threshold for reporting donations to $10,000; it is now $14,000.
Moreover, donations are not cumulative; a donor could conceivably give $14,000 to every state and territory branch of a major party without reporting what would total over $100,000 in contributions.
The largest fossil fuel donor has been coal miner Clive Palmer: while once a major donor to the Queensland LNP, Palmer’s real role as a major political funder of denialism came with the establishment of his own Palmer United Party (PUP, now the United Australia Party).
The AEC’s records show Palmer’s companies, including Queensland Nickel, pumped over $36 million into the PUP (though it should be acknowledged that PUP has scrupulously reported every donation, no matter how small).
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Palmer, who continues to push the development of mammoth coal mines in Queensland’s Galilee Basin via Waratah Coal, rejects climate science and claims climate change is 97% natural, and his senators collaborated with the Abbott government to shut down Australia’s carbon pricing system in 2014.
After the failure of PUP, Palmer spent tens of millions campaigning against Labor at the last election, details of which will only be available when the 2018-19 data is released.
Other fossil fuel interests and climate denialists have handed over $21 million to the major parties since 1998, with over $16 million of that directed to the Liberal, Liberal National and National parties. Those donors include energy companies, coal mining companies, gas companies and mining industry peak bodies, but exclude non-coal resource companies, such as the dozens of iron ore mining companies that heavily donated to the Coalition in the wake of the Rudd government’s proposed mining tax.
Those donors include energy companies, coal mining companies, gas companies and mining industry peak bodies, but exclude non-coal resource companies, such as the dozens of iron ore mining companies that heavily donated to the Coalition in the wake of the Rudd government’s proposed mining tax.
Donations aren’t the only mechanism by which fossil fuel companies influence policymaking. Let’s take a closer look at the gas company Santos, one of Australia’s biggest emissions producers via its extensive natural gas operations.
Santos is also the biggest fossil fuel political donor after Palmer, handing $2.48 million in disclosed donations to the major parties (Santos also discloses all donations, even those below the disclosure threshold). It also has strong political links at the highest levels.
Brad Burke, a key Malcolm Turnbull staffer while both in opposition and during the prime ministership, is a former Santos executive now with Shell. Santos has employed SAS Group, run by former Howard government minister Larry Anthony and bipartisan lobbying firm Bespoke Approach (which itself has employed former Santos executives) as well as former Labor minister Craig Emerson as a consultant.
The Australia Institute has identified a number of senior political staff and former public servants employed by LNG companies in Queensland, home of Santos’ massive Gladstone LNG project. They include Mitch Grayson, a former journalist who shuttled between then-premier Campbell Newman’s office and Santos.
In NSW, similarly, staff have moved between Santos and the premier’s office.
Santos is by no means unusual in this regard: other fossil fuel companies and mining companies similarly employ former staffers and politicians, either directly or as lobbyists.
A study by the Grattan Institute showed that the mining sector is one of the country’s dominant political donors and in Queensland, where greater transparency requirements provide a better guide to lobbying and contacts between corporations and ministers, mining and energy companies are the most active lobbyists of government.
At the Commonwealth level, there’s no equivalent to the Queensland meeting diary requirements, so no similar analysis can be made of what’s happening in the ministerial wing of Parliament House in Canberra.
Unusually, however, Santos enjoyed the rare privilege of having government ministers lobby for it, when then-prime minister Tony Abbott and a number of his ministers lined up to attack Australian National University for divesting in the company in 2014.
Taken together, these suggest less an effort by fossil fuel companies to influence policymaking than a wholesale co-option of the policymaking process, in which key staff move between fossil fuel corporations, premiers’ offices and the PMO; former ministers lobby for fossil fuel interests and current ministers conduct PR for companies while accepting millions in donations.
Call it the carbon-industrial complex, a seamless union of corporate interest and policymaking that has left Australia on the edge of a climate nightmare.