Written by Michael Kelly and originally published in the Australian Financial Review on Feb 3 2022

Holding Redlich was the biggest law firm donor to political parties in 2020-21, with its administrative arm – Justice Services Pty Ltd – contributing more than $130,000 to the Labor Party.

Big contributions during the Queensland state election pushed the mid-tier commercial firm ahead of Maurice Blackburn, another with strong links to Labor, which gave $105,973 to federal and state divisions of the party.

Next on the Australian Electoral Commission’s list of annual returns for political parties was Gilbert & Tobin, which stumped up $27,500 for both the Liberal and Labor parties for a total of $55,000.

The only other top-tier commercial law firm listed on the AEC transparency register was Ashurst, which gave $3,833 to Queensland Labor.

The AEC categorises money received by political parties as either a “donation” or “other receipt”. Other receipts can include anything from subscriptions and memberships to returns on investment. Parties are only obliged to declare amounts that fall below the threshold, which was $14,300 in 2020-21 for state and federal organisations. Former NSW Supreme Court justice Anthony Whealy, who is chairman of the Centre for Public Integrity, said the limit was “entirely unreasonable”.

“It enables considerably large sums of money to be concealed from those who are entitled to see it,” he said on Thursday. “It also enables multiple amounts below the thresholds.”

Mr Whealy added that law firms which might want to stay anonymous could hide donations through associated entities, such as party foundations.

The spend on the Queensland state election suggests law firms with Labor ties will again be tapped to heavily support the party in this year’s federal election.

The Coalition will instead look to the big four consulting firms as a source of donations from the professional services sector.

PwC gave far more than any law firm to the federal arms of the Labor and Liberal parties. It had three entries on the Labor register worth $151,000, KPMG had four worth $39,650, EY had five for $46,800, and Deloitte had one for $27,500.

On the Liberal register, PwC gave $110,000, KPMG gave $30,000 and Deloitte $27,500.

The big four made donations to Labor and the Liberal National Party for the Queensland election. KPMG gave $22,000 to the LNP; EY gave $66,000 to Labor, and PwC gave $22,454 to Labor. (PwC was also listed for $16,500 by WA Labor and $49,000 by the ACT Liberals, coming to a total of $246,000).

However, they were outdone by Holding Redlich in 2020-21, which was listed 19 times for $89,198 in Queensland through Justice Services, in addition to the $44,000 it gave to federal Labor. It also gave $5500 to the NSW Liberals and $1000 to the LNP among other donations, with the AEC listing a total of $141,380.

Hawke ties

The firm’s managing partner is Ian Robertson, who was the personal lawyer for former prime minister Bob Hawke. He is currently involved in a NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption inquiry into the disclosure of donations made to the NSW Labor Party, but has denied any wrongdoing.

Mr Robertson has been unapologetic – including when giving evidence to ICAC – about the firm’s support for Labor.

He said on Thursday: “Holding Redlich makes political donations to both sides of politics at the state and federal level, principally through membership of business support groups and attendance at functions.”

The plaintiff law lobby, which has been resisting class action reform by the Morrison government, was strong for Labor. Maurice Blackburn donated $32,110 (in 12 donations) in Queensland and $46,500 (in four donations) to federal Labor; Slater & Gordon donated $36,000 in Queensland and $5,500 to federal Labor; Shine gave $2,500, and Shine Justice $1100 in Queensland, with another $8000 to federal Labor. The firm’s founder and former Queensland Attorney-General, Kerry Shine, also donated $2500 to state Labor.

Personal support

There were a number of smaller donations in Queensland across 2020-21. Hopgood Ganim gave $5358 to the ALP, while Gadens ($1971) and Mullins Lawyers ($1290) also donated.

The principal of Gadens’ Brisbane office, Paul Spiro, balanced the ledger a little by donating $16,500 to the LNP.

Money donated to political parties before the election, expected in May, will not be made public until February 2023.

Written by Michael Kelly and originally published in the Australian Financial Review on Feb 3 2022