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Political donations: a health sector perspective on the AEC donations data

Mining, resources, banking, gambling, consulting, telecommunications and the pharmaceutical sectors are the biggest donors to political parties and lobby groups, according to the latest data on donations released by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).

This data covers donations in the 2019/20 financial year and was released in accordance with the Commonwealth funding and disclosure scheme, introduced to increase overall transparency and inform the public about the financial dealings of political parties, candidates and others involved in the electoral process. This scheme requires candidates, Senate groups, political parties, political campaigners, associated entities, third parties and donors to lodge election or annual financial disclosure returns with the AEC.

Both Michael West Media and Crikey (behind the paywall) have provided useful overviews of this latest release.

Some key issues relevant to health are discussed by Croakey editor Jennifer Doggett below.


Jennifer Doggett writes:

The latest political donation data, released by the AEC last week, may shed some light on why some industry sectors seem to continually escape government intervention, or receive protections not afforded to other comparable sectors, despite repeated calls for reform from public health experts and advocates.

This data reveals that some of the most “unhealthy” industries, such as the gambling, alcohol and fossil fuel sectors, were among the largest political donors last year.

Alcohol, tobacco and gambling  

Alcohol, tobacco and gambling interests were major contributors to all political parties, with an overall bias towards the Liberal and National parties.

The Australian Hotels Association donated $425,639 overall, including to state and federal divisions of Labor and Coalition parties. Crown Resorts also made a series of donations totalling $184,566 – all but $50 of this went to the Liberal party.

Tabcorp gave $190,445, mostly to Labor, and Sportsbet contributed $27,500 to the Liberals, with nothing to Labor or the Nationals. Other gambling organisations making political donations included Star Entertainment ($43,900) lobby group Responsible Wagering Australia ($70,650) and Clubs NSW ($49,895).

Many in the health sector and the wider community would be shocked to hear that one Australian political party – The Nationals – is still accepting donations from big tobacco. Despite the fact that tobacco advertising has been banned since 1989 in Australia, Phillip Morris was able to contribute over $55,000 to the Nationals’ coffers last year.

It’s never straightforward to draw a line between a political donation and a policy or regulatory outcomes, but Crown has previously been accused by public health experts of using its influence to sway political decision making, in particular in relation to the Victorian Government’s COVID-19 lockdown in 2020.

The exemption provided to Crown Casino (despite the closure of schools, churches, cinemas and almost all other entertainment and recreational venues) raised the ire of public health experts (this exemption was subsequently removed by the Victorian Government).

The Federal Government has also repeatedly ignored calls from health groups to increase restrictions on alcohol advertising, particularly in relation to sports and in social media.

Gambling is another sector with significant negative health impacts but which perennially seems to resist calls for reform from health groups.

Croakey has previously reported on the harms of gambling, in particular to Indigenous communities. Warumungu man Ethan Taylor is a board member of the Alliance for Gambling Reform and told Croakey that “The gambling industry preys on trauma, and it preys on pain, and it preys on economic hardship.”

The power of lived experience

Mining and resources

According to Michael West Media, 45 fossil fuel companies donated over $24 million last year. This included $4.13 million from BHP, $3.7 million from Rio Tinto and $2.2 million from Peabody Energy.

Political party donations from this sector were heavily skewed towards the Liberal party and also included substantial donations to lobby groups advocating for mining interests, including the Business Council of Australia and the Mineral Council of Australia.

These donations may shed some light on the governments’ ‘glacial’ pace of action on climate change.

Consulting firms

Major consulting firms including KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte and Ernst & Young, were among largest political donors on the AEC’s register.

Their contributions included donations by PWC of $134,000 to Labor and $31,711 to the Liberals and a total of $94,962 from Deloitte, favouring the Liberal party. KPMG and EY handed over $152,094 and $72,372 respectively, spread between the majors.

These firms are big recipients of governments contracts. Michael West Media estimates that collectively, they receive more than half a billion dollars a year in consultancy contracts from the Federal Government alone.

They are frequently used by the Department of Health to conduct reviews and evaluations and to write reports and policy papers.

For example, Deloitte was contracted to review the Sporting Schools Program  and KPMG has delivered a report outlining options for a Serious Incident Response Scheme for government-subsidised aged care providers.

The increasing trend within the Department of Health to use these consultancy companies for what previously would have been considered “core” departmental business raises a number of questions about their growing influence over health policy, including whether there is a conflict of interest when a consultancy company donates money to a governing political party while also competing for a lucrative government contract.

From www.health.gov.au

The health sector   

The Pharmacy Guild of Australia was the largest single donor from the health sector during 2019/20. It contributed a total of $214,025, with $63,340 going to Labor and the rest to the Coalition.

Clearly there were many reasons why Minister for Health Greg Hunt ignored almost all the recommendations of the Government’s own review of the Pharmacy Guild Agreements (and a raft of other reports) and signed another five-year agreement locking in anti-competitive, anti-consumer protections such as location and ownership restrictions.

But if the Guild’s $150,000 donation to the Coalition parties made even a small contribution towards securing the $25.3 billion agreement, its members would no doubt agree that it was money well spent.

Other major health sector donations came from pharmaceutical companies, including peak body Medicines Australia, medical device companies and the private health insurance sector.

The main health sector donors are listed below:

  • Bayer Australia Ltd: $42,855
  • Blackmores Limited $40,500
  • Bristol-Myers Squibb Australia $85,250
  • Eli Lilly Australia $33,000
  • Johnson & Johnson $62,500
  • Medicines Australia $131,275
  • Medtronic Australasia $37,100
  • Members Health Fund Alliance $49,627
  • Pfizer Australia  $47,140
  • Roche Products  $50,000
  • Sanofi-Aventis  $62,851
  • The Pharmacy Guild of Australia $214,025.

Problems with the current system

Croakey has previously raised problems with the current system of political donation in allowing vested interest groups to exert undemocratic influence over political decision making. This issue is compounded by the lack of transparency in the current reporting process.

While the AEC data provides some degree of transparency there are limitations to its usefulness. Both Michael West Media and The Grattan Institute have raised the problem of hidden donations which do not show up in the data as they are below the mandatory $14,000 declarable threshold, providing opportunities for donors to make a series of small donations which can go undetected.

In 2019/20, Michael West Media found that the total payments made to recipients including political parties, campaigners, associated entities and lobby groups such as the Business Council of Australia was $587 million, with 94.3% listed as ‘other receipts’.  Out of the $118.5 million given to the major parties, only $14.7 million – or 12.4% – was disclosed as donations. The remaining funds are listed as ‘other receipts’.

Grattan Institute analysis has previously found that these “dark money” donations have accounted for around half of all money going to the Liberal-National Parties and around one-third of that donated to Labor.

Grattan has raised problems with the delay between the time of the donation and the required public reporting, with data coming in six months after the end of the financial year in question and covering a period stretching back more than 18 months. This restricts the ability of the media and the general public to scrutinise financial contributions at the time they are made and to assess their role in influencing current political and policy decisions.

In the most recent AEC data release, Michael West Media also identified “multiple discrepancies between the Donor Returns (donors disclosing donations) Detailed Receipts (parties disclosing amounts received in donations).”

Calls for reform

A 2020 report from the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) identified problems with the AEC’s management of financial disclosures, finding that “there is insufficient evidence that the returns that have been provided are accurate and complete”

The report made seven recommendations focussed on the AEC obtaining accurate and complete returns from all entities with a disclosure obligation. The AEC has agreed to two recommendations, agreed with qualification to four and did not agree to one of the seven recommendations.

With both major parties benefitting from the current system of political donations, it is perhaps not surprising that neither has attempted to restrict the flow of money into their campaign coffers from vested interest groups.  Although prior to the last federal election Labor committed to a $1,000 disclosure threshold (already occurring in some states) and to exploring the possibility of real-time reporting.

The most vigorous supporters of reform within parliament are the Australian Greens who have proposed a Donations Reform Bill which would ban political donations from mining, development, tobacco, alcohol, gambling, banking, defence and pharmaceutical industries. It would also cap all other donations (including from individuals, unions and charities) to no more than $1,000 per year.

In addition, the Greens have suggested a Political Donations Enhancing Transparency Bill, which would prevent ‘donation splitting’ by requiring all donations from a single donor in one financial year to be accumulative; ban donations from foreign interests; ban all anonymous gifts above $50; and tighten up penalties.

From www.greens.org.au

Looking forward

Few – if any – health groups working in the consumer, community and public health sectors have the deep pockets of pharmaceutical companies and other corporate health interests. The current system of political donations clearly creates an unequal playing field when competing for influence in the political arena.

With a federal election on the horizon late 2021 or early 2022, it might be time for health groups to reignite the call for electoral donation reform to help combat the vested interests who so often appear to drive health policy and funding decisions and resist repeated calls for change.

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Cultural determinants of health
Digital platforms
Elections and budgets
Federal Budget 2019-20
Federal Budget 2020-21
Federal Budget 2021-22
Global health and climate change
2019-20 climate bushfire emergency
asylum seeker and refugee health
Climate emergency
disasters
Ebola
extreme weather events
flooding 2011
global health
NHS
NZ Election 2017
WHO
health
Health workers
Healthcare and health reform
abortion
adverse events
aged care
allied health care
Australian Medical Association
cancer
cardiovascular disease
child health
Choosing Wisely
chronic diseases
co-payments
Cochrane Collaboration
complementary medicines
conflicts of interest
death and dying
diabetes
digital technology
disabilities
e-health
emergency departments and care
Equally Well
euthanasia
evidence-based issues
general practice
genetics
health & medical marketing
health and medical education
health and medical research
Health Care Homes
health ethics
health financing and costs
health reform
health regulation
health workforce
HIV/AIDS
hospitals
HRT
infectious diseases
influenza
international medical graduates
journal articles
LGBTIQ
medical marijuana
Medicare Locals
men's health
mental health
MyHospitals website
National Commission of Audit 2014
National Health Performance Authority
naturopathy
NDIS
NHMRC
non communicable diseases
nurses and nursing
oral health
organ transplants
out of pocket costs
pain
palliative care
paramedics
pathology
Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme
pharmaceutical industry
pharmacy
Pregnancy and childbirth
primary health care
Primary Health Networks
private health insurance
quality and safety of health care
rural and remote health
screening
sexual health
social media and healthcare
suicide
surgery
swine flu
telehealth
tests
TGA
trauma
women's health
youth health
Indigenous health
#CTG10
#NTRC
Acknowledgement
cultural safety
Indigenous education
Lowitja Institute
NT Intervention
social and emotional wellbeing
Uluru Statement
WA community closures
News about Croakey
PIJ Commissions 2021
Public health and population health
#PreventiveHealthStrategy
#UnmetNeedsinPublicHealth
air pollution
alcohol
consumer health matters
COVIDwrap
environmental health
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD)
food and nutrition
gambling
Government 2.0
gun control
health communications
health impact assessment
Health in All Policies
health inequalities
health literacy
human rights
illicit drugs
injuries
legal issues
marriage equality
Media Doctor Australia
media-related issues
nanny state
National Preventive Health Agency
obesity
occupational health
physical activity
plain packaging
prevention
public health
public interest journalism
road safety
sport
sugar tax
tobacco control
transport
vaccination
violence
Web 2.0
weight loss products
Royal Commission
Social determinants of health
discrimination
education
housing
justice
Justice Reinvestment
NBN
Newstart
poverty
racism
social policy
Summer reading 2020-2021
Tasmanian election 2021
Testing Croakey News category 1
The Croakey Archives
#cripcroakey
#HealthEquity16
#HealthMatters
#IHMayDay (all years)
#IHMayDay 2014
#IHMayDay15
#IHMayday16
#IHMayDay17
#IHMayDay18
#LoveRural 2014
Croakey Conference News Service 2013 – 2019
2013 conferences
Australian Centre for Health Services Innovation Forum 2013
Australian Health Promotion Association Conference 2013
Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
CRANAplus Conference 2013
FASD Conference 2013
Health Workforce Australia 2013
International Health Literacy Network Conference 2013
NACCHO Summit 2013
National Rural Health Conference 2013
Oceania EcoHealth Symposium 2013
PHAA conference 2013
2014 conferences
#IPCHIV14
AIDA Conference 2014
Congress Lowitja 2014
CRANAplus conference 2014
Cultural Solutions - Healing Foundation forum 2014
Lowitja Institute Continuous Quality Improvement conference 2014
National Suicide Prevention Conference 2014
Racism and children/youth health symposium 2014
Rural & Remote Health Scientific Symposium 2014
2015 conferences
#CPHCEforum
#CRANAplus15
#HSR15
#NRHC15
#OTCC15
Population Health Congress 2015
2016 conferences
#AHHAsim16
#AHMRC16
#ANROWS2016
#ATSISPEP
#AusCanIndigenousWellness
#cphce2016
#CPHCEforum16
#CRANAplus2016
#IAMRA2016
#LowitjaConf2016
#PreventObesity16