The secret donors behind the millions in ‘dark money’ fuelling WA politics

The secret donors behind the millions in ‘dark money’ fuelling WA politics
  • PublishedJanuary 5, 2024

Those with cash to splash have been doing just that. And a legal loophole is protecting their identities — meaning we may never know who is paying for access to the highest levels of government.

It’s resulted in the state political arena being filled with “dark money” worth millions of dollars.

According to its annual returns, the WA Labor Party failed to declare the source of 75 per cent of the $6.7 million it received in the 2022-23 financial year.

And the Liberal Party isn’t saying where more than half of the $4.7 million it received came from.

A calculator to the right of frame reads 67063, while paper, a highlighter and pen are in the background.
WA’s political parties raise significant sums from donations.(ABC News: James Carmody)

Minor parties are equally opaque, with the WA Nationals not disclosing who contributed any of the $420,000 it raised last financial year.

While the WA Greens declared the sources of $243,000 it raised, it also listed $1.3 million as “other income”, although a spokeswoman confirmed most of this was from the Australian Electoral Commission.

What do donors get for their money?

Both major parties have fundraising enterprises that centre on lavish dinners, where a ticket literally buys you a seat at the government table.

Labor raised almost $1.6 million through its Labor Business Roundtable (LBR), which lets members attend intimate, catered events attended by senior members of government.

A man in a dark jacket and white shirt speaking at a lectern.
Roger Cook says disclosing details of donations below the state threshold is up to the WA Labor Party.(ABC News: Keane Bourke)

Neither Mr Cook nor deputy premier Rita Saffioti would disclose how many times they had participated in such events.

And the money raised is not classified as donations by the party, which instead calls them “other receipts” in its returns.

Do you know more about this story? Contact Rebecca Trigger.

WA Labor assistant secretary Lauren Cayoun described the roundtable scheme as a “business engagement program” which provided participants with “opportunities to network and receive feedback”.

Other donations were made directly to the party, though donors were often reluctant to classify their contributions to party coffers as donations.

“Non-cash contributions” for “facilitating discussion and the exchange of ideas” was how consulting firm Deloittes characterised the money it gave

“We do not use political donations to gain favour with government or political parties,” a spokesperson said.

Fellow tax consultant EY said it contributed to Labor “as part of our engagement with policy makers”, but also denied its cash was a donation.

A man looks just beyond the camera. He is wearing a checked blue and white shirt with a dark jumper draped over his shoulders
Developer Nigel Satterley’s company donated more than $27,000 to WA Labor.(ABC News: Marcus Alborn)

As well as money from consultants, donations Labor was obligated to declare included tens of thousands of dollars from the gambling and pharmaceutical lobbies, property developers and the mining industry, some of which are detailed below.

Donation sourceAmountGovernment engagement
St Johns WA$27,500Contract negotiations with government
Gold Valley Brown Stone (mining)$40,000Planning to expand operations
Satterley Group (property)$27,680Seeking approval for huge Perth Hills housing development
Programmed (HR, services)$44,000Won tens of millions in government contracts

A significant amount of the publicly declared cash donated to Labor was from unions.

Liberal fundraising 

The Liberal fundraising equivalent is the invite-only 500 Club, which offers guests a chance to dine with federal ministers and raised more than $225,000, although no individual donors have been disclosed..

A woman speaks at a lectern while smiling.
Libby Mettam has attended three 500 Club events since becoming WA Liberal leader.(ABC News: Nicolas Perpitch)

Party leader Libby Mettam has attended three of these events.

The only donations on the public record came from the Sir Charles Court Foundation ($157,000), and the Commonwealth Bank of Australia ($54,532 worth of “gifts in kind”).

Both parties justify the secrecy around donations by saying they’re complying with the law — but they’ve been able to file under Commonwealth legislation, which only requires payments of more than $15,200 to be disclosed, instead of $2,600 under the state legislation.

New laws have now been passed to close that loophole, but the changes won’t come into effect until later this year.

The reforms will also include a requirement for donations to be publicly disclosed within seven days, or within two days during election campaigns.

‘Blatant cash for access’

University of Queensland political law professor Graeme Orr was scathing of the situation.

Graeme Orr
Graeme Orr says the issue is a blatant case of “cash for access”.

“Even disclosing [the donations] doesn’t get around the stench of the problem,” he said.

“These are private sort of clubs where parties are saying ‘give us quite a bit of money, business people, and we will give you preferential access to ministers or MPs on front benches’.

“It’s blatant selling of cash for access.”

Federal member for Curtin Kate Chaney was also concerned about political donations linked to the gambling, tobacco and alcohol industries.

Kate Chaney
Kate Chaney says political donations from gambling companies do not “pass the sniff test”.( ABC News: Matt Roberts )

Responsible Wagering Australia – whose members include industry heavyweights bet365, Betfair, Entain, Sportsbet, Pointsbet and Unibet — spent $27,500 on Labor’s roundtable fund in the 2022-23 financial year.

A RWA spokeswoman said the group participated in membership forums to “discuss relevant policy matters” .

But Ms Chaney said donations from “social harm” industries should be banned.

“It really undermines community confidence that gambling reform will be implemented in the interests of the community, not in the interests of money and power,” she said.

“We know the gambling companies are lobbying really hard to water down any reform that affects the money they make out of this social harm that they create.

“It just doesn’t pass the sniff test.”

SOURCE: ABCNEWS

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