The identities of Australia’s biggest political donors remain under wraps as the major parties continue to rake in tens of millions of dollars from supporters who funnel cash into private trusts and so-called “associated entities”.
The Liberal Party harvested donations of more than $75 million in the year to June 30 last year, but official returns published on Monday by the Australian Electoral Commission revealed details on the sources of barely half the cash.
Much of the $65 million that the Labor Party reaped from donors is also shrouded in secrecy.
The biggest problem with the reporting of political donations under the current system is that it is purposefully designed to conceal the names of people and companies who lobby our politicians and their organisational machines.
Australian electoral laws only require donors to disclose contributions of more than $12,800 to a state or federal branch of the political parties.
That means a donor can readily hide six-figure investments in our politicians by carefully spreading their largesse across the different branches of one or more of the parties.
By making up to nine donations of $12,799 to each state and federal branch of a political party, publicity-shy sponsors can keep voters oblivious to their policy agendas.
This problem has been exacerbated in the last decade by the boom in donations received by parties from “associated entities” such as the Greenfields Foundation (Liberal Party), the Cormack Foundation (Liberal Party), Progressive Business Association (Labor Party) and John Curtin House Limited (Labor Party).
Political parties are using such entities to collect millions from wealthy benefactors with the lure of guaranteed protection from disclosure laws.
What the official register reveals
Although loopholes in reporting laws have undermined the transparency of the electoral commission’s disclosure regime, here’s the official list of the biggest donors to each of the parties last year:
• Cormack Foundation – $4.4 million
• Brunswick Property – Melbourne-based property developer pumped $600,000 into party coffers
• Queensland businessman Paul Marks tipped in $325,000
• Pratt Holdings Pty Ltd – Visy packaging empire coughed up $200,000
• Ever Bright Group – Property developer kicked in $200,000
• Rico Investments – NSW company sunk $155,348 into the junior Coalition partner
• Manildra Group – The Honan family agribusiness empire made donations to three parties, but the Nationals got the lion’s share with $114,928
• Australian Hotels Assn – The major parties all got cash from the hotel industry body, with The Nats receiving $86,049
• Labor Holdings – Party-owned investment company handed over $2.95 million
• Progressive Business Assn: The ALP’s business fundraising arm donated $636,000
• Sean Tomlinson – Queensland technology entrepreneur delivered $253,300
• Jianping Zhang and Min Fu – The Melbourne couple with a penchant for investing in expensive property gave $200,000 to the Victorian branch of the ALP
• Electrical Trades Union – coughed up $131,000
Clive’s embattled mining empire spends big on Canberra
A string of companies owned by Clive Palmer pumped almost $10 million into the coffers of the Palmer United Party.
Most of the cash came from the struggling Queensland Nickel and Mineralogy mining companies, which together injected more than $9.5 million into PUP.
Queensland Nickel, which was placed in voluntary administration on January 19, was the party’s largest donor with a contribution of $5.94 million.
Data released by the Electoral Commission of Queensland shows that Queensland Nickel donated a further $288,000 to the party on 31 December last year – only a few weeks before 240 workers were sacked by the company.
ALP cashes in on pokies
Federal Labor’s rhetoric about protecting problem gamblers looks pretty empty when it is considered that an associate of the party is one of the largest operators of pokies in Canberra.
The Canberra Labor Club Limited, which operates almost 500 poker machines across four venues in the ACT, raked in a net profit of $2.4 million in 2015.
In 2014, the company donated $2.5 million to another entity associated with the ALP – the 1973 Foundation.
Governance body wants tighter reporting laws
For many years the controversial revenue-raising structures of the country’s major political parties have drawn criticism from international governance agencies.
Since 2010, Transparency International has been calling for an overhaul of electoral laws to bring Australian reporting practices into line with other OECD countries.
In a report published last August, Transparency International’s Alan Wolfe recommended sweeping reform of Australia’s disclosure regime, including a proposal that would give the Australian Electoral Commission powers to prosecute donors and parties that flouted laws.
“Political finance is only reported annually in Australia, resulting in post-election delays of up to 19 months before sources of political funding are publicly known,” Mr Wolfe said.
“The source and timing of donations is of increasing concern to Australians.”