How political donations are creating a happy hunting ground for dirty fossil fuels

Ever heard the one about the political process that was corrupted by donations from corporations? Oh, sorry. Of course you have.

Fair enough too, as it’s a simple premise. We all donate to things that we have a personal stake or interest in. People donate to Market Forces (so can you, by the way) because they want to help shift finance away from environmentally harmful projects to those that benefit the environment.

But donating to political parties is not the same as your local landcare group or an NGO you care about. Political parties propose to represent the broad interests of their electorates and constituencies, acting in the best interests of the people they represent. Donating often large amounts of money to political parties puts some interests ahead of others, and the fossil fuel industry knows how to play this game.

The table below lists donations made by fossil fuel companies to major Australian political parties in the 2015-16 financial year. What we found amazing was not just the scale of donations from fossil fuel interests, but the discrepancies in donations that were reported by donors and parties. There’s also the fact political decisions have clearly favoured the companies who have made large donations.

So who’s donating?

That very much depends on who you ask.  Parties are obliged to disclose donations but companies also publish their donations… sometimes… kind of.

The table below shows the total amounts donated by companies to political parties in 2015-16 and the first thing you’ll notice is the discrepancy in totals between the parties and the donors.

Company Recipient Party Disclosed Donor Disclosed
APA Group ALP $10,492 nil
Arrow Energy Limited ALP $1,200 nil
Asciano Limited ALP $44,000 nil
Aurizon Holdings Limited ALP $21,000 $40,684
Aurizon Holdings Limited LIB nil $34,965
Aurizon Holdings Limited NAT nil $55,000
Caltex Australia Limited ALP nil $19,000
Caltex Australia Limited NAT nil $17,280
Chevron Australia Pty Ltd ALP $13,200 $44,950
Chevron Australia Pty Ltd LIB nil $53,365
Chevron Australia Pty Ltd NAT nil $19,910
Energy Developments ALP $1,100 nil
ERM Power ALP $1,200 nil
Glencore Australia Holdings ALP $30,000 $30,000
Glencore Australia Holdings LIB $15,000 $15,620
Minerals Council of Australia ALP nil $4,450
Minerals Council of Australia LIB nil $26,600
Minerals Council of Australia NAT nil $2,200
Origin Energy ALP $11,000 $22,508
Origin Energy LIB nil $19,755
Origin Energy NAT nil $440
Peabody Energy Australia ALP $1,650 nil
Queensland Resources Council ALP $5,500 nil
Queensland Coal Investments Pty Ltd NAT $55,000 $58,000
Santos Limited ALP $38,710 $62,627
Santos Limited LIB $27,500 $63,357
Santos Limited NAT nil $6,600
Southern Oil Refining Pty Ltd NAT $14,000 $21,000
St Baker Enterprise Pty Ltd LIB $16,500 nil
Wesfarmers Ltd LIB $35,000 $35,000
Whitehaven Coal LIB $22,000 $22,000
Woodside Energy Ltd ALP $123,200 $123,500
Woodside Energy Ltd LIB $125,000 $126,980

On top of these company and lobby group donations, Kostas Constantinou, an Oil Search board member donated $50,000 to the Liberal party.

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Hey big spender!

While one conclusion from a review of political donations is that the disclosure processes are clearly a dog’s breakfast, another is that some companies have excelled themselves when it comes to political donations.

In total, fossil fuel companies and their lobby groups donated between $662,252 and $977,791 (depending on whether you believe the donor or party disclosures) to the ALP, Liberal and National Parties during 2015-16.

Woodside have a history of big political donations, but when questioned at the company’s April 2016 AGM, Chairman Michael Chaney said it was unlikely his company would be donating ahead of the 2016 federal election… It’s an almighty leap from an expected $0 to the $250,000 they ended up spending!

Why the discrepancies?

If you’re looking at the table above and scratching your head, you’re not alone. Of all the donations we could compile, only six managed to square between what the donor and the party reported. Another three or four donations were close… kind of… but the discrepancies are staggering.

All donations were sourced from the Australian Electoral Commission’s Annual Returns Locator Service. Political Party Returns were sourced from the Party Group analysis on 1 February 2017. Donor Returns were sourced from the Donors by Group summaries on 1 February 2017.

If we could explain the difference between donations reported by parties and donors, we would. It may be a different interpretation  of what constitutes a donation between donor and recipient. It may be that parties have different processes for accounting for donations. The 2 July election date also provided a loophole which would allow election campaign donations to be made (on 1 or 2 July) without them becoming public until February 2017.

Discrepancies could also be due to downright incompetence. We simply don’t know. What is clear is that the registry of political donations and transparency are a dog’s breakfast.

Note: one point that we should account for is that donations to the LNP have been attributed in the above table to the Liberal Party. That will create a minor distortion to the figures but nothing that explains the chronic and massive discrepancies between that the donors and parties disclose. 

Overall decline

While Woodside and co are still prepared to shell out hundreds of thousands to the major parties, overall political donations from fossil fuel companies to have decreased significantly since the last federal election year. The 2015-16 total of $977,791 disclosed by fossil fuel companies is almost half the $1,940,174 reported in 2013-14.

The decline could be a result of tightened purse strings due to the significant drop in commodity prices since 2013-14. Companies have also faced increased scrutiny and pressure over their donations from the likes of ASA, ACCR, 350.org and our own shareholder activism work.

Undue influence? Or just the perception?

The most important question is how much of an influence do these donations have on the political process? It would be foolish to assume that donations were made purely out of the goodness of a company’s “heart” and the perception of political influence is clear, cited by AGL as the reason they would cease political donations. Later, AGL plead guilty to 11 breaches of political disclosure laws – another very good reason to introduce a policy of no more donations and perhaps another factor in the downward trend in donations.

But if AGL were concerned about perceptions, what should we make of Origin, Santos and Woodside – all of whom have been far more significant donors than AGL over the years – not changing their policies to prohibit donations?

Clearly the flow of money between politics and fossil fuel companies is a two-way street. Fossil fuel companies benefit enormously from fossil fuel subsidies. You can check out our research on fossil fuel subsidies here. While it is not possible to say that subsidies remain in place because of donations, we can all imagine what it would be like to deny someone a benefit after they have donated a quarter of a million dollars to your cause. Hence AGL’s concerns about perceptions of political influence.

How do the numbers compare to the previous year?

The tables below contain all the donations we were able to compile for the 2014-2015 financial year, when fossil fuel companies reported $1,033,011 worth of political donations.

If you know of other sources for donations, please send us an email at contact@marketforces.org.au

Company Recipient Party Disclosed Donor Disclosed
Adani Mining ALP $5500 nil
AGL ALP $19,800 $24,840
AGL NAT nil $2000
AGL LIB nil $11,200
Alinta Energy ALP $6600 nil
APA Group ALP $4433 nil
APPEA ALP $18,755 nil
Asciano ALP $44,000 $64,000
Aurizon ALP $25,514 $8674
Aurizon LIB nil $18,260
Australian Mines and Metals Association ALP $2000 nil
Beach Energy LIB $55,000 nil
Caltex Australia NAT nil $1050
Caltex Australia LIB nil $23,705
Caltex Australia ALP nil $1650
Chevron NAT $18,150 $2330
Chevron ALP $15,950 $36,290
Chevron LIB nil $12,030
Energy Developments ALP $4800 $5900
Energy Developments LIB $15,000 $14,150
Energy Supply Association of Australia ALP $8500 nil
ERM Power ALP $4173 nil
Glencore ALP $10,000 nil
Hancock Coal ALP $22,000 $22,000
Hancock Prospecting NAT nil $22,000
Linc Energy LIB $25,000 nil
Minerals Council of Australia ALP $10,000 nil
Origin Energy ALP $49,950 $70,380
Origin Energy NAT nil $5170
Origin Energy LIB $49,950 $57,730
Qld Resources Council ALP $1200 nil
Queensland Coal Investments NAT $22,000 nil
Queensland Coal Investments LIB $16,500 nil
Santos ALP $57,166 $82,483
Santos NAT nil $23,320
Santos LIB $27,500 $62,939
Woodside Energy ALP $112,600 $111,100
Woodside Energy NAT nil $18,800
Woodside Energy LIB $127,000 $136,920