By David Crowe, originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 18th January 2021.
A surge in donations at the last federal election has taken the resource industry’s political payments to $136.8 million over two decades and a new analysis has named the sector as the biggest donor in Australian politics.
Mining and gas companies ramped up their spending on political parties in recent years to outstrip property developers and other big donors, led by a funding blitz from coal and iron ore magnate Clive Palmer.
The analysis, compiled by the Centre for Public Integrity from public data, shows the Liberal and Nationals parties collected $15.2 million over the period, more than three times the $4.9 million paid to Labor.
This shows the lion’s share of the funding was paid by Mr Palmer and his companies to his own political parties.
The Centre, a non-profit group that includes corruption investigators and former judges, says the findings show the need to overhaul election funding laws to cap donations and force greater disclosure.
The results come two weeks before the Australian Electoral Commission reveals the next annual disclosures from the parties and their donors, while a federal inquiry calls for submissions by January 29 on the funding laws.
In a finding that highlights gaps in rules, some of the biggest payments since 1999 have come from companies that claimed to have policies against political donations while funding campaigns that sought to influence political outcomes.
“The resources industry is by far the largest donating industry,” said Anthony Whealy, the chair of the Centre for Public Integrity and a former NSW Supreme Court judge.
“Donations can lead to greater access and influence.
“Companies that have policies against making donations are still having influence by donating to political campaigners and peak bodies.”
In a sign of the link between donations and policy outcomes, the figures show a spike in payments during the debate over climate change and a carbon price during the 2013 federal election and its aftermath.
The next spike came when Mr Palmer turned against the Liberal and Nationals to create his own parties, winning seats in 2013 but failing to repeat the result in 2019 despite spending $116.2 million on his United Australia Party.
“Clive Palmer made the largest political donation in Australian history in the 2019 election,” Mr Whealy said.
“He influenced voters through ads and direct communications. There is nothing stopping other mining magnates from doing this in the future.”
The analysis shows Mr Palmer’s two main companies, Mineralogy and Queensland Nickel, donated $98.6 million and $21.1 million over the period from 1999 to 2019.
They were followed by gas companies Woodside and Santos, with $2 million and $1.5 million respectively, and Ausgold Limited with $1.1 million.
Other big donors included Western Mining, which donated $755,000 and was bought by BHP Billiton in 2005, and Australian Gypsum Industries, a resources company in Western Australia that paid $555,777.
“The enormous amounts donated by a sector whose existence depends on the issuing of government permits is highly problematic for public trust in the democratic process,” the report says.
“After all, impartiality in decision-making must not only exist but also be seen to exist.”
The findings are the result of months of analysis of AEC files that collect annual disclosures from companies and parties in a paper-based system that are available online but difficult to search and subject to error. The AEC will release the next disclosures on February 1.
The community has until January 29 to lodge submissions to a review of federal funding laws by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, but committee chairman James McGrath, a Queensland Coalition senator, has rejected calls for reform in the past.
In the committee’s last look at donations law, Liberal Party federal director Andrew Hirst and Nationals federal director Jonathan Hawkes opposed a bill to require donors to disclose payments over $1000 compared to the existing threshold of about $13,000.
“The Liberal Party does not support changes which fail to recognise that political parties are broad-based organisations with large volunteer wings and limited resources,” Mr Hirst wrote last March.
Others argue people would stop donating if more of their payments were revealed.
“The ‘quiet Australians’ do not want their names on the front page of the newspaper and online for a donation of over $1000,” wrote Grant Layland, spokesman for the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, in a submission last year.
Labor has argued in Parliament for donations law reform including greater disclosure, while the Greens support greater transparency as well as a cap on donations.
The Centre for Public Integrity board includes former federal court judge and Queensland corruption commissioner Tony Fitzgerald, former Victorian Court of Appeal judge Stephen Charles, NSW barrister and corruption inquiry counsel Geoffrey Watson and University of Melbourne professor Joo-Cheong Tham.
Separate to the donations, the report highlights funding for organisations such as the Minerals Council of Australia, the Business Council of Australia and a coal industry group called Coal21 to help with industry lobbying, while also naming the CFMMEU as a resource industry union that engages in campaigns.
“We need urgent reform to cap donations and spending, and make all donations transparent to voters in real time,” Mr Whealy said.