Home > Dirty dollars – how the fossil fuel industry funds major political parties

Dirty dollars – how the fossil fuel industry funds major political parties

1 February 2022

1 February 2022

Australia was heavily criticised amid the United Nation’s COP26 climate summit last year, as it reportedly joined or ‘hid behind’ others such as Saudi Arabia and Russia in opposing key commitments and negotiating text.

Its last minute commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 ahead of the summit was also widely denounced for lacking key plans and details, such as failing to increase the country’s 2030 climate target, having no new funding or policies, and completely failing to tackle its substantial fossil fuel exports.

This came just months after the Federal Government announced a slew of fossil fuel subsidies in its 2021-2022 budget, including $173 million to develop climate-wrecking gas in the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin and $74 million to do the same in Queensland’s North Bowen and Galilee Basins.

Meanwhile, data analysed by Market Forces on Monday showed the Government gave $12 billion in tax breaks to the fossil fuel industry last financial year, while state governments also directly contribute to subsidising dirty fuels.

So why is Australia so far behind when it comes to climate action? A trawl of the latest political donations data, released on 1 February, offers some clues.

Hefty donations from the fossil fuel industry

Data released today shows that in FY2021, fossil fuel companies donated $1,782,619 to the Australian Labor Party (ALP), Liberal and National parties. This amounts to a whopping 31% increase in fossil fuel company donations compared to FY2020.

Yet given Australia’s reputation for woefully inadequate political disclosure and ‘dark money’ donations, with more than a third of contributions coming from unknown sources over the last two decades, the true figure could be significantly higher.

Leading the pack in FY2021 with $232,350 worth of largesse was Woodside Energy, followed by Mineral Resources with $222,400 and the Minerals Council of Australia with $200,783.

Market Forces collates this data from the Australian Electoral Commission. Below you will find the top 10 fossil fuel donors from the last financial year (note: the table is interactive and contains all fossil fuel donors from FY2015 to FY2021).

Political donations 2022

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wdt_ID Number Donor Year ALP LIB NAT ALP+LIB+NAT
1 1 Woodside Energy 2020-21 108,350 82,000 42,000 232,350
2 2 Mineral Resources 2020-21 92,400 80,000 50,000 222,400
3 3 Minerals Council of Australia 2020-21 71,500 101,192 28,091 200,783
4 4 The Trustee for St Baker Family Trust 2020-21 52,444 112,758 0 165,202
5 5 Santos 2020-21 55,748 44,000 22,000 121,748
6 6 Coal21 2020-21 50,000 42,500 22,000 114,500
7 7 APPEA 2020-21 31,650 72,610 2,750 107,010
8 8 The Chamber of Minerals & Energy of WA 2020-21 45,334 41,000 0 86,334
9 9 St Baker Energy Innovation Fund 2020-21 50,444 27,500 0 77,944
10 10 Ampol 2020-21 34,500 42,850 0 77,350

Another symptom of Australia’s poorly regulated political funding system are the huge discrepancies between what the major political parties disclose, and how much the fossil fuel companies claim to have gifted.

For example, in FY2021 oil and gas major Woodside disclosed $108,350 in donations to the ALP, whilst the ALP only disclosed $55,000 in donations from Woodside. Across all fossil fuel company donations to the three major parties, this resulted in a discrepancy of $1,041,729.

For ease of interpretation, the table above does not display these discrepancies, and instead displays the larger of the amounts disclosed (using the example above, it would be considered that Woodside donated $108,350 to the ALP in FY2021).

Woodside’s donations timed around government approvals and support

Woodside donated a whopping $232,350 to Australia’s major political parties in FY2021, including $53,350 to the ALP’s Western Australia division, the state where it’s pursuing its massive climate-wrecking Scarborough gas project. These donations were made around the time of key approvals for the project, including the WA Environment Minister’s August 2021 approval for a key underwater gas pipeline.

The Conservation Council of Western Australia (CCWA) has launched two Supreme Court challenges relating to the Scarborough gas proposal, with Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan threatening to intervene should the legal action be successful. Market Forces is part of Say NO to Scarborough Gas, a coalition of community-powered organisations opposing Woodside’s climate-wrecking gas project.

Origin Energy says it like it is

Origin Energy has donated a combined $499,235 to the Labor, Liberal and National parties in the six years to FY2020. At the 2017 Origin Energy AGM, chairman Gordon Cairns said that attending political fundraising events was “money well spent”, as it enabled the company to help “shape [the] thinking” of the political energy debate. Cairns is right and the Australian Government’s highly criticised “gas-fired recovery” from COVID-19 is the embodiment of this infiltration. Under its ‘Beetaloo Strategic Basin Plan’, the Australian government plans to fork out more than $224 million to support development of climate-wrecking gas in the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin, with Origin reportedly planning to take some of the handouts.

Why is donations disclosure such a mess?

The discrepancies in donations reported by donors and parties is the tip of the iceberg. Australia’s political disclosure laws are incredibly lax, so much so that in 2018 they were the subject of a Senate inquiry and a damning report by the Grattan Institute. The Centre for Public Integrity estimates that $1 billion in political donations came from unknown sources in the two decades since 1999. The consequences of our pathetic legislation are many:

  • Delayed reporting: learning about donations up to 18 months after they’re made
  • Party and donor returns not reconciling
  • Lack of standardisation of donor names
  • Donations hidden in associated entities
  • Donors can ‘split’ donations into small amounts that parties don’t have to disclose

All of this influences government policy in favour of those wealthy enough to give large political donations, and adds to the ever-growing distrust that Australians have in our political system.