Former top judge Anthony Whealy, who now heads an independent think tank, said the top 10 donors funded almost a quarter of all donations, but a significant portion of political funding was “shrouded in secrecy.”

Businessman Anthony Pratt was the biggest political donor in the last financial year, handing almost $1.3 million to the Liberal Party.

Newly-published Australian Electoral Commission disclosure data shows the Liberal and National parties received almost $84 million in donations and other funding in 2020-21, while Labor received more than $67.3 million. 

Just 10 donors accounted for more than $4.2 million, or more than 23 per cent of all political donations, according to independent think tank The Centre for Public Integrity.

Former NSW Court of Appeal judge Anthony Whealy, who is now chair of the Centre, said the data shows some of the donations that were made last financial year, “but nothing under $14,500 and nothing from the last six months”. 

“The federal disclosure scheme is mis-named – it is a non-disclosure scheme with more than a third of political funding shrouded in secrecy,” he said. 

“With an election around the corner, the public deserves to know who is funding our political parties.

“What we can see is that a handful of donors dominate the funding of political parties. Big money has big impact, with the top 10 donors funding almost a quarter of all donations.”

The data revealed Mr Pratt’s company Pratt Holdings, which owns recycler Visy, donated almost $1.3 million to the Liberal Party and its various branches, while $10,000 went to Labor’s NSW branch. 

Silver River Investment Holdings tipped $650,000 to conservative activist group Advance Australia, which also received $350,000 from Cartwright Investment Corp Ltd. Both are reportedly overseen by Simon Fenwick. 

Mr Fenwick, a former fund manager, previously told the Australian Financial Review of his intention to start backing the group due to his concern that “Australia’s freedom, prosperity and security is being undermined by left-wing agendas and that a strong counter voice is needed”.

Another major donor was William Nitschke, who gave four separate donations totalling $300,000 to former One Nation senator Rod Culleton’s Great Australia Party. 

The National Automotive Leasing and Salary Packaging Association gave $303,700, including $150,000 each to the Liberal and Labor parties, while the Pharmacy Guild of Australia donated $295,000 between Labor and the Liberals.

Alice Drury, Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said over $1m came from each of the gambling industry and fossil fuels and mining industry last financial year. 

“Today’s release of data tells a familiar and damning story about who is donating large amounts to federal politicians…” she said. 

“In a healthy democracy, the best interests of people, communities and our planet are at the heart of every single decision our government makes.  But when political donations are revealed in February each year, we’re reminded that it’s big harmful industries that are calling the shots.”

The gambling industry donated $1.08 million across the Labor Party, the Liberal Party and the Nationals, with the biggest industry donor, totalling $260,000, being the NSW branch of the industry peak Australian Hotels Association. 

While both major parties have banned donations from the tobacco industry, the National Party has again received  $55,000 from Philip Morris. 

Among the mining and energy companies revealed on the list was Woodside Energy, which declared $232,000 in donations across the Liberals, Nationals and Labor. Oil and gas producer Santos declared $66,000 in donations, with two thirds going to Labor and the remainder to the Liberal Party while Chevron declared $75,000, fairly evenly split between the Coalition and Labor. 

Ms Drury said the country’s national integrity laws lag far behind the states and territories. 

“We need greater transparency over who is giving to our politicians and a ban on large, corrupting donations altogether,” she said. 

Energy Minister Angus Taylor said he saw no reason for Australia’s political donations system to change.  

“Every part of politics works to that system and we’ll continue to as we look forward to the upcoming election,” he told reporters in Canberra.

Written by Emma Brancatisano and originally published by SBS on 1 February 2022