‘Dark money’ and gambling companies flood political donationsFebruary 10, 2023
Online gambling companies have ramped up payments to Australian political parties in a trend that has lifted total casino and gaming donations to more than $9 million over the past two decades, intensifying a clash in parliament over conflicts of interest for ministers who take the payments.
Sportsbet leapt ahead of casino operators such as Crown Resorts and Star Entertainment by donating more than $278,000 last year alone, highlighting the financial firepower of digital companies when the federal government is considering new laws to limit harm from online gambling.
Australians lose $2.1 billion on online gambling a year. Credit:iStock
Exclusive analysis of all federal donations for this masthead also shows a 33 per cent rise in the amount of “dark money” flowing into political parties from sources that are kept secret, taking the total to $91.3 million last year and helping the major parties fight the federal election.
The analysis by the Centre for Public Integrity, a non-profit group set up by former judges, comes after this masthead revealed Sportsbet paid $19,000 last year to help the campaign of Michelle Rowland, who is now the communications minister and has a key role in gambling policy.
Federal ministers backed Rowland on Thursday by saying she had obeyed the ministerial code of conduct and was doing important work to regulate online gambling, but the Coalition called on her to “front up” about the payments and crossbench MPs called on her to resign.
The Centre for Public Integrity found the gambling sector had increased donations in recent years and displayed a pattern of paying more to help the parties at elections.
The centre’s executive director, Han Aulby, said: “The sharp increase in donations since 2017 is concerning and so are the donation peaks in election years.”
“We need to ask what is the industry getting in return for this funding? Businesses can’t give away money for free and the public should be concerned that the gambling industry may be receiving access and preferential treatment in return.”
The analysis found the gambling sector gave $8.7 million to the political parties over the period from 1999 to 2021 and the hotels sector – including pubs and clubs with poker machines – gave $15.2 million.
The latest disclosures show gambling donations surpassed $9 million after taking into account $212,738 from Star Entertainment and $216,160 from Tabcorp as well as the $278,447 from Sportsbet. Industry group Responsible Wagering Australia also gave $35,000, according to annual disclosures released by the Australian Electoral Commission on February 1 and tallied by this masthead. The donors tended to support both major parties evenly.
Australians are estimated to lose $2.1 billion on wagering sites each year and the online sector has emerged as a powerful influence when Crown and The Star have faced intense scrutiny from regulators including calls for their casino licences to be cancelled.
“Sportsbet’s donations are disclosed in accordance with the law,” a company spokesman said.
With clubs and pubs fighting NSW government plans to move to cashless poker machines and impose broader curbs on gambling, ClubsNSW under former chief Josh Landis donated $294,000 to the major parties last year. A separate group also led by Landis, Clubs Australia, donated $50,000. Of the combined total, $198,000 went to Labor.
A parliamentary inquiry into online wagering held a public hearing in federal parliament on Friday to consider calls for tougher regulation as well as warnings from media and gaming industry groups against curbs on the sites and their advertising.
A key concern is the exposure of children and adolescents to advertising that promotes gambling, but the government is yet to decide its policy and will wait for the committee report before any decision goes to federal cabinet.
Concerns over the disclosure regime flared on Friday after the ABC reported that mining billionaire Gina Rinehart donated $150,000 to the Liberal Party by giving the money to the Sydney Mining Club, which gave roughly the same amount to the party.
The club’s payments were disclosed by the federal division of the Liberal Party but not by Rinehart’s company, Hancock Prospecting, which did not respond to questions from this masthead on Friday. The Liberal Party said it had disclosed all payments made to it during the financial year that were over the legislated disclosure threshold.
An AEC spokesman said there was “no obligation to disclose” on the club because the payments were defined as “other receipts” rather than donations. The threshold for disclosing a donation was $14,500 last year and rises to $15,200 this year.
Special Minister of State Don Farrell plans to introduce changes to donations law this year after committing to reduce the disclosure threshold to $1000 and requiring donors to report their payments at the time they are made rather than months later.
But the Centre for Public Integrity has pointed to the problem of “dark money” and hidden donations to call for more ambitious changes, including tougher penalties on those who breach the rules and a broader definition of “donation” to include membership fees and gifts.
Its analysis of party finances shows the major parties received $401.6 million in total income last year, including $193.1 million in donations and $34.2 million in “other receipts” such as payments for events.
The parties also received $67.8 million in public funding as well as $42.2 million in subscriptions and unspecified revenue and $15.2 million in loans and other capital transfers.
This left $91.3 million in “unexplained” income, including transfers from funds that do not reveal where their money comes from.
“Donations under $15,200 are not currently captured by our disclosure system. Neither is income from party fundraisers or business forum membership fees,” said Melbourne Law School professor Joo Cheong Tham, a director of the Centre for Public Integrity.
“This is allowing millions to pass through our system undisclosed. We urgently need to broaden the definition of donation and bring the disclosure threshold down to $1000.”
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