Hold The Front Page


The political donations for the 2010 federal election are published by the Australian Electoral Commission today, so we can expect plenty of news reports about property developers and mining magnates giving large sums to the major Australian political parties. What we are less likely to see, is major news outlets delivering analyses of the big donations that come from big media organisations.

Public debate erupted around the United States after Rupert Murdoch approved two $US1 million donations from News Corp to the Republican Governors Association and US Chamber of Commerce in the lead-up to the November mid-term elections. The size of the sums raised concerns about the corporation’s objectivity — which were echoed by shareholders in their October annual general meeting.

There is no such debate raging in Australia, but donations and mutually beneficial financial relationships between media companies and the major parties are abundant.

Six-figure donations are common, and the relationships don’t end there – Labor has several major investments in media companies and the close relationship between former Fairfax CEO Ron Walker and the Liberals is well known.

Information on these financial relationships is available through the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) website, but it is often obscured by archaic filing systems and the disclosure laws. Indeed, in examining the ties between corporate media and the major parties over the last decade, the obstacles that obscure clarification of that relationship are as significant as the revelations themselves.

Let’s put News Corp’s donation into an Australian context: if we adjust for the relative sizes of our populations, a US$1 million political donation in the US is equivalent to an $80,000 one here.

This amount is roughly what PBL and its entities give the Coalition every year, on average from the financial years of 2000 to 2009, although the amounts vary from year to year. In the same period, Labor accepted nearly $70,000 a year from PBL.

These donations weren’t just given to federal branches of the parties, but to the NSW, Victoria, WA and Queensland branches. Many hundreds of thousands of dollars of donation money is transferred between party branches, often in both directions at once. When money is reshuffled between branches like this it can be difficult to hold individual politicians to account for the donations they receive — and it can also obscure political motives.

For example, in the three years leading to the 2007 federal and NSW state elections PBL backed the NSW Liberal Party with a total of nearly $120,000. They gave NSW Labor only $13,750 over the same period.

Ten days before Kevin Rudd’s 2007 victory, PBL gave the NSW Liberals a further $20,000. Bear in mind this was eight months after the NSW election. But on Rudd’s fifth day as Prime Minister the company changed horses and gave $50,000 to Labor — but again to the NSW branch.

In the 07/08 financial year, the AEC website shows that the NSW Liberals transferred more than $1.5 million to the federal Liberals, and gave them more than $330,000 in payments.

Other state Liberal branches transferred more than $2 million combined (with the most money coming from Victoria) and made payments totaling nearly $1 million. Federal Labor got nearly $1.8 million, and over $200,000 in payments from its state parties.

There are clear disclosure guidelines for political donations, however they do not always make it easy to follow the money. When a political donation is made, the donor may use their own name, they may include a spouse, or they may use the name of one of their companies.

They may also abbreviate or expand any of the above. If even one letter or punctuation mark diverges from their previous disclosure, it is filed separately, and any relationship with previous donations to that company is partially obscured.

Most of the PBL money was given under the name Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd. Other donors included Consolidated Press Ltd, the Nine Network and Roslyn Packer.

If each of these entities themselves consistently donated under the same name, the money trail would be more clear. This is not the case. The Nine Network, for example, is filed under the following: Nine Network, Nine Network Australia, Nine Network Australia — (VIC), Nine Network Australia Pty Ltd, TCN Channel Nine Pty Ltd, and PBL (TCN Channel 9).

PBL gave Australian political parties more than any other media organisation. Next in line was the Ten Network which gave the Coalition nearly $650,000 and Labor over $400,000; and then Austereo with nearly $500,000 and nearly $350,000 respectively.

Ten donated $75,000 each to both parties in the last three disclosed elections, while Austereo donated over $100,000 worth of airtime to each party for the 2007 election.

Another big donor, Paul Ramsay Holdings, primary owner of Prime Television and various private hospitals, donated nearly $250,000 to the Liberals over the decade — far exceeding Prime’s own donations of nearly $73,000 to the Liberals and nearly $58,000 to Labor.

A host of News Corp companies, including News Limited, Foxtel and Nova, gave the Coalition $88,550 in donations and other payments, and Labor $15,000 over the ten year period. Rupert Murdoch’s mum, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, outdid all of them put together — giving the Liberals in excess of $120,000 over the decade.

Fairfax companies and family members gave over $90,000 and over $20,000 respectively, while the Seven Network gave about $35,000 each way.

For journalists reporting on political donations, an obfuscatory public record means public information is unlikely to reach its audience.

But why should we care about political donations from media companies to political parties? After all, don’t media organisations have political interests to protect? In the last federal election, much concern was expressed about the influence of media organisations on voters. It’s easy enough to detect and discuss bias in material that is published or broadcast for a wide audience. The very difficulty of working out the labyrinthine relationships financial relationships between political parties and media organisations — and we haven’t even gone into the murky terrain of associated entities and interest-free loans — impedes public discussion of these relationships.

Should political parties accept donations from media organisations? Do these donations reflect the editorial orientation of these organisations? Should media organisations be obliged to disclose their financial relationships to political parties during election periods? These are important questions — but the big media organisations aren’t in a rush to ask them.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.