Australia’s major political parties pocketed millions in donations from the oil, gas and coal industry in the lead up to the 2019 federal election, in public disclosures released publicly today by the Australian Electoral Commission show.
While most of corporate Australia gave the most attention to the two major parties, all of these donations were dwarfed by mining billionaire Clive Palmer, who poured almost $90 million into his election campaigns, paid for my his mining companies, in the lead up to the Federal election in a quest to regain the political influence seized following the 2013 campaign.
Most of the astonishing expenditure was funded by Palmer’s resources company Mineralogy which funnelled $83.7 million into Palmer’s United Australia Party, followed by smaller amounts from Palmer’s Coolum Resort, Queensland Nickel and the Waratah Coal businesses.
Palmer used the cash to run a highly visible advertising campaign, which saw Clive Palmer’s yellow “Make Australia Great” billboards become a ubiquitous sight in most Australian cities.
Of the more than $121 million in political donations were published by the Australian Electoral Commission in relation to the 2019 election year just short of 70 per cent of those donations went to Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party.
The Human Rights Law Centre said the example that Clive Palmer provides, of someone using their extreme wealth to influence an election outcome, underpinned the need for donation reforms.
“Whether rich or poor, everyone should feel empowered to have a say on issues that matter to them at election time. This data shows that in reality, the bigger your bank balance, the bigger your megaphone. And that instead of representing our interests, our politicians are beholden to the big donors who fund their campaigns,” Human Rights Law Centre senior lawyer Alice Drury said.
Despite spending on a similar scale to the major parties, Palmer walked away with no seats from the 2019 election, netting just 2.36% of the Senate vote and 3.43 per cent of the House of Representatives votes.
It’s an unprecedented level of expenditure by a party that failed to gain any parliamentary representation, but Palmer’s influence and campaign potentially did enough to channel dissatisfied Labor voters to the Coalition through preferences. The effect was likely small but would deliver huge dividends to Clive Palmer, particularly after the election of a pro-coal, pro-mining, Coalition government.
Immediately following the election, Palmer sought planning approval for a coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee basin that would be four times the size of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine. The earnings from that project could leave Clive Palmer’s electoral expenditure looking like a wise investment.
Adani’s Carmichael coal mine was one of the decisive issues at the 2019 federal election, with the Morrison government’s enthusiastic support for the mine, and Labor’s wavering position being frequently cited as some of the most influential factors in explaining the election result.
For their part, Adani Australia was more modest in their donations, gifting just under $250,000 to the Liberal and National Parties. The donations were split between Adani Australia ($97,300) and its subsidiary Carmichael Rail Network Pty Ltd, which contributed a larger amount of $150,000 between the two federal Coalition partners.
Compared to Clive Palmer’s extravagant expenditure, the donations from Adani Australia are relatively cheap, particularly in light of the pace at which the Federal and Queensland governments sought to rubber-stamp the Carmichael coal mine, that is expected to produce as much as 2.3 billion tonnes of coal over the life of the project.
The donation disclosures relate to the 2018/19 financial year and capture most of the electoral donations and expenditure leading up to the May 2019 Federal election. Under electoral laws, political parties are required to publicly disclose donations above $13,800.
The disclosures show which companies helped fund the campaigns of the major political parties, during a campaign that many expected to see the election of a Bill Shorten-led Labor government, but instead delivered a third term to a Coalition Government now lead by Scott Morrison.
Both major parties were largely equal beneficiaries of donations from the fossil fuel sector, which possibly reflects both the Coalition’s strong support for the coal, gas and oil sectors, and a general expectation before the election that the Labor party was in prime position to seize government.
Woodside Energy emerged as one of the largest fossil fuel donors, gifting $135,400 to the Australian Labor Party, $136,750 to the Liberal Party and $11,190 to the Nationals.
Santos likewise split its donations, gifting $69,500 to the Labor Party, $40,654 to the Liberal party and an additional $38,200 to the National party.
The re-election of the Coalition government is likely to deliver returns on Santos’ donations, with Morrison recently mandating that the New South Wales government ramp up their gas production in return for funding for the State government’s renewable energy ambitions. A likely beneficiary of this gas production mandate is Santos’ Narrabri gas project which is in a prime position to deliver the extra gas.
Lobby group APPEA, which lobbies on behalf of the oil and gas industry, also chipped in a total of $161,659 to the major parties, with $77,467 going to Labor, $60,262 going to the Liberals and $23,920 going to the Nationals.
The Minerals Council of Australia, the most active lobby group for the coal industry, contributed $83,996 to the Labor Party, $53,540 to the Liberal Party and $9,194 to the Nationals.
Other leading fossil fuel donors included Chevron Australia, Origin Energy, and Trevor St Baker’s family trust.
Trevor St Baker, who owns a half-stake in the coal-fired Vales Point power station, and who has been a long-time financial supporter of the Liberal and National parties, also split his donations across the political spectrum.
St Baker directed $40,450 in donations to the Labor party, $17,500 to the Liberals and $16,500 to the Nationals.
While following the trend of splitting donations between both sides of politics, Chevron Australia also chipped in $5,000 to aid the election campaign of the Liberal Democrats.
Australian Conservation Foundation campaigner Matt Rose echoed the calls for political donation reforms in light of the publication of the disclosures.
“This political donations data reveals the influence of the fossil fuel industry in Australia’s political system,” Rose said.
“This data explains why even in the face of a rolling national emergency driven by climate change and community demands for change, the Government continues to defend and promote the industries that are the root cause of the problem.”
“Serious donations reform is needed now to make sure our political system works for the benefit of all Australians, not just those with the biggest wallets.”