Push to Stop ‘Arms Race’ in Australian Federal Election Spending

Push to Stop ‘Arms Race’ in Australian Federal Election Spending
Australian banknotes in Melbourne, on Nov. 7, 2017. (Paul Crocker/AFP via Getty Images)

Influential donors with deep pockets are having an effect on Australian politics as a report finds election spending has reached record highs.

Analysis by the Centre for Public Integrity, an independent think tank, found election spending had increased by almost 85 percent in the past two decades.

In 2022, spending reached a record high of nearly $440 million (US$302.4 million) and the top five individual donors contributed 70 percent of all donations.

The centre is calling for donation and spending caps to reduce the political influence of big spenders.

Unlike in New South Wales (NSW), Victoria and Queensland, there is no cap on Commonwealth political donations.

Geoffrey Watson SC, who sits on the think tank’s board, feared Australian elections were becoming “nothing more than auctions.”

“The biggest donors and the biggest spenders win the day,” Watson said.

“Money in politics is getting out of control.”

A joint parliamentary committee has been investigating the 2022 federal election and potential reforms to election funding and donations.

The committee’s interim report is expected in coming weeks. The think tank said it represented an opportunity for parliament to fix entrenched problems in the system.

Addressing donation concentration, donor transparency and limiting incumbency benefits are among a wishlist of priorities the centre wanted the committee to address in its report.

This included real-time disclosure of donations over $1000 (US$687.3) and introducing a requirement to disclose electoral expenditure every three months.

Existing laws for federal branches of political parties only require donations over $15,200 (US$10,500) to be disclosed annually.

The centre’s analysis also found donor concentration was high across both major parties.

In 2021/22 the top five individual donors to the Australian Labor Party (ALP) contributed $205.4 million (US$141.2 million), or almost 35 percent of the total donations.

The top five donors to the Liberal National coalition contributed $118.8 million (US$81.7 million), or more than 22 percent of total donations.

Pratt Holdings Pty Ltd, owned by billionaire businessman Anthony Pratt, was the top donor for both the coalition and ALP in 2021/22, donating $1,712,000 (US$1,176,700) and $1,962,000 (US$1,348,500) respectively.

Other top ALP donors included the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union ($1,160,090 (US$797,300)), Maurice Blackburn Pty Ltd ($386,266 (US$265,500)) and the Pharmacy Guild of Australia ($310,330 (US$213,300)).

Mineralogy, owned by billionaire Clive Palmer, single-handedly funded the United Australia Party campaign with a nearly $117 million (US$80.4 million) donation.

The biggest donor for independent MPs Allegra Spender, Monique Ryan, Zoe Daniel, Sophie Scamps, Kylea Tink and Kate Chaney was Climate 200.

Melbourne Law School Professor Joo Cheong Tham said parliament had an opportunity to stop the “arms race” in election campaigns.

“Reform in this area needs to be holistic,” Tham said.

“With caps in place we also need to limit the incumbency advantage and make public funding fairer.”