A light examination of the “dark money” shows that laws have been broken, writes Peter Hartcher

As UNSW’s Constitutional Attorney George Williams said a few years ago, “We have donation laws you could drive a truck through.”

And sure enough, the truck just got bigger. Clive Palmer wasn’t concerned about secrecy. On the contrary, he is there for the attention. Palmer’s company donated $117 million in fiscal year 2021-22, and he’s proud of it, according to this week’s results from the Australian Electoral Commission.

Mining magnate and former federal representative Clive Palmer dominated the political fundraiser.

Mining magnate and former federal representative Clive Palmer dominated the political fundraiser.Credit:Scott McNaughton

And why bother with the Coalition or Labor when you have your own political party? His company’s donation, by far the largest single donation in the country’s history, enabled Palmer’s party to outperform Labor and Liberals in last year’s federal election campaign.

That’s right – Palmer’s party became the biggest donor in Australian political history. While Labor spent $116 million and the Liberals $118 million, Palmer’s United Australia Party spent a total of $123.5 million.

Palmer boasted ahead of the election that he would spend over $100 million in 2022: “It’s just a few months of work for me,” he told a reporter between the COVID-vaccination hits. Perhaps we should qualify his use of the word “work” here; so-called work, maybe. China’s CITIC pays Palmer’s company $600 million annually in mining royalties.


Palmer spent $88 million campaigning for his party in the 2019 election. Despite this enormous effort, he and his party won exactly zero seats. Still, he seemed happy with the result. His greatest accomplishment was helping Scott Morrison defeat Bill Shorten by running strident anti-Shorten ads.

Now Palmer planned to outdo himself in the 2022 election. Sitting on his $100 million yacht in Sydney Harbour, he explained his favorite way of conducting his campaigns: “I get up at 2am,” he told John Stensholt The Australian, “and I’ve spent my first hour thinking about all the nasty things I can do to the Liberal Party or the Labor Party. Then from 3 a.m. to 4 a.m. I actually do it, write the ads and other things.”

You’ve seen his campaign ads, painted in a distinctive yellow livery, roughly the color of sick people, with their persuasive punch line: “Freedom, Freedom, Freedom.” Maybe he should have tried to sleep an hour or two more.

Despite fielding candidates in all 151 federal constituencies and outperforming Labor and Liberal campaigns, the Palmer United Party won no seats in the House of Representatives and only one seat in the Senate.

As one senior Liberal observes: “Money is very important in an election, but while it is necessary, it is not enough. You need campaigning skills and a good product with guidelines and staff.”

Clive Palmer's donations helped Scott Morrison return to the lodge.

Clive Palmer’s donations helped Scott Morrison return to the lodge.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

After Palmer’s $88 million bounty helped bring Scott Morrison back to The Lodge in 2019, I asked a member of the Liberal leadership group if there needed to be any limits on the amount of donations. No, he assured me, the system works as it should. In other words, it worked for him.

But next time, I dared, a pro-climate billionaire could emerge as a new force with a huge war chest and oust you from power. Would you still agree? Yes, the system works well, he replied.

Next time, no pro-climate billionaire showed up. At least two did, Atlassian co-owners Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes, and they donated to the independent Teals. None of the wealthy pro-climate donors gave more than $1.5 million apiece. More importantly, they were part of a movement that ousted the Morrison administration and installed independents who supported climate protection, integrity and justice for women.


Rather than emulating Palmer’s cocky ineptitude, wealthy businessman Holmes a Court and his Climate 200 coordinated a series of well-crafted community-based campaigns. “I think most people were offended by what Palmer did,” Holmes a Court tells me. “There was no coherent ideology or community — it was one man’s folly.”

After Palmer, Climate 200 was the largest disclosed donor. Total spending was $13 million, all for teal independents. Of that, Holmes a Court only gave $250,000.

Nonetheless, this group managed to spur on the campaigns that brought six new teals into the House of Representatives and David Pocock into the Senate. Each of them took a seat from the Liberal Party, including some of its most prized traditional seats in the heartland.

“I started Climate 200 with a very different model,” says Holmes a Court. “We don’t select candidates.” The municipalities in each electorate chose their own. “Why have we had so few independents in Parliament up until now? Partly it’s because it’s almost impossible to mount a credible campaign against the big machines.


“We were involved very early in the campaigns. We ran matching challenges” — like donating a dollar for every local dollar raised — “and helped them get their finances in order. We provided less than half — 30 to 40 percent — of the “funding” for the blue-green independents.

Among those offended by Palmer’s campaigns was the man tasked with reforming the system, Don Farrell, the Albanian government’s special minister of state, who also serves as trade minister.

“We have to be careful that rich people can’t just buy election results that ordinary Australians can’t,” he tells me. I think it’s appropriate to look at how much money individual rich people are spending.

“The risk is that if you don’t fix it, it just snowballs and next time another rich man says, ‘Okay, I’ll do the same thing but with more’.” About Palmer, Farrell doesn’t try to hide his dislike: “He doesn’t pay his severance pay, but he’s spending $117 million to buy a single Senate seat — how shocking is that?”

Palmer’s Queensland Nickel went into voluntary administration in 2016 without paying out entitlements to its 800 workers. The Queensland government stepped in to pay them. Palmer later settled a lawsuit by agreeing to pay back $66 million to the state to compensate Queensland taxpayers.

Does the Liberal Party still believe the system is working as it should? Now that it has worked against them, senior liberals say they are open to reform. Farrell has other changes in mind as well. Labor earlier pledged to introduce real-time disclosure of donations and lower the disclosure threshold from $15,200 to $1,000.

The Liberals are open to negotiating the changes with Labor provided they create a level playing field for both parties. Holmes a Court fears they will create new barriers for independents trying to break into the system; He keeps Climate 200 running. Farrell hopes to have the changes in place by the end of the year.

One thing is for sure. Clive Palmer will not be happy.

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https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/light-scrutiny-of-dark-money-shows-political-donation-laws-are-broken-20230202-p5chi0.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_politics_federal A light examination of the “dark money” shows that laws have been broken, writes Peter Hartcher

Callan Tansill

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