The source of tens of millions of dollars in electoral funding remains a secret, with political parties not disclosing where more than a third of their income comes from.
The Australian Electoral Commission’s annual release of financial disclosures by political parties has revealed some of the major donors in 2020-21, but has also raised questions about where the rest of their money is coming from.
While the national bodies of the Liberal Party and the Australian Labor Party (ALP) declare the source of most of their funds, their state bodies are much more opaque.
About 80 per cent of the finances for the Liberal Party of Australia are disclosed, while the ALP’s federal body has accounted for 90 per cent of its funding (for The Nationals, it is 69 per cent and the Australian Greens 40.4 per cent).
But the Tasmanian branch of the Liberal Party has only disclosed the source of $260,000 out of the $3.4 million in its annual receipts, which is just 7.6 per cent.
The ALP’s Tasmanian branch only disclosed where 15.4 per cent of its funding came from.
The Victorian branch of The Nationals has not disclosed where a single dollar of its $1.9 million in funding originated.
Parties using loopholes to dodge disclosure
Donations worth less than $14,300 do not need to be declared, meaning smaller fundraising drives by political parties will often not be included in the disclosures.
It is also possible for large donations to be made with multiple cheques just under that threshold.
Donations can also be funnelled through bodies affiliated with political parties that, for example, accept payments for seats at fundraising events.
These funds are then registered by the political parties as receipts from the affiliated body and the original source remains hidden.
Centre for Public Integrity chair Anthony Whealy QC said the latest batch of donation disclosure showed the need for reform.
“The federal disclosure scheme is misnamed — it is a non-disclosure scheme with more than a third of political funding shrouded in secrecy,” Mr Whealy 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.”
Visy’s billionaire the biggest donor
Businessman Anthony Pratt’s company Pratt Holdings was the largest donor last financial year, with $1.3 million directed almost entirely to Liberal Party divisions.
Conservative lobby group Advance Australia received two donations worth $1 million from two funds registered at the same address in Sydney.
Melbourne-based William Nitschke donated $300,000 to former One Nation senator Rod Cullerton’s new party, The Great Australian Party.
Liberal National Party senator Gerrard Rennick donated $27,000 to the party, close to one year before he threatened to withhold his vote in parliament.
The National Party continues to receive donations from tobacco companies, including $55,000 from Philip Morris Limited.
Professional gambler Duncan Turpie continues to donate generously to the Greens, with $100,000 flowing to two branches.
Liberal candidate Scott Edward donated $224,000 to the West Australian branch.
Mining companies and associated lobbying groups continued to donate generously to major parties.
The Minerals Council of Australia donated $101,192 to Liberal divisions, $64,660 to Labor branches and $28,091 to the Nationals.
Oil and gas company Woodside donated $232,350 to the same parties, with $105,350 going to Labor and $124,000 to the Coalition.
Energy Minister Angus Taylor said the donations were appropriate and properly disclosed.
“We have a system in this country where, at the federal level, campaigns are funded through donations,” Mr Taylor said.
“That has been the situation for a long while.
“It’s a system we all work to, all sides of politics, every part of politics works to the system and will continue to do so as we look forward to the current election.”
Election donations won’t be reported until 2023
Money donated to political parties in the 11 months before the expected May election will not be made public until February 2023.
This lack of real-time reporting has prompted many people to call for an overhaul of the donation system.
In the last financial year, the Coalition reported a $15 million funding boost with $84 million coming from donations and other income streams.
The Labor Party also received an $11 million boost but reported a lower overall figure of $66 million in receipts.
Written by ABC political reporters Melissa Clarke and Henry Belot. Originally published by the ABC on February 1.