Real estate groups gave money to Labor in the run-up to last year’s election even as they lobbied furiously against the opposition’s plans to curb negative gearing and capital gains tax breaks on property investment.
The Real Estate Institute of Australia (REIA), Master Builders Australia (MBA) and Housing Industry Association (HIA) paid the Australian Labor Party (ALP) a collective $66,000 in the year to June 2019, Australian Electoral Commission records show.
The REIA donated nothing to the ALP the previous year, but stumped up $35,500 in the year of the election Labor was widely expected to win. The MBA’s payment of $23,100 was more than the $22,000 it spent on the ALP in 2018. The HIA made two donations worth a collective $8,000 last year and the value of any donations a year earlier was not immediately clear.
Weak disclosure rules shield the true extent of donor money flows to Australia’s political parties – UNSW academic Lindy Edwards says only between 12 per cent and 15 per cent of parties’ incomes can be clearly and easily attributed to specific donors – but the latest returns released by the electoral body this week show the extent to which the threat of Labor’s policies galvanised the peak national bodies.
“It was not a donation,” REIA president Adrian Kelly said.
“The REIA joined the Federal Labor Business Forum (FLBF) in the lead up to the 2019 Election. REIA joined the FLBF to gain access to relevant ministers to advocate for change to the ALP policies. It was not an endorsement of the policies.”
Master Builders made a similar argument.
“Master Builders Australia donated to the Federal Labor Business Forum which provides opportunities for dialogue with Labor’s federal parliamentary leadership and decision makers through fundraising event attendance,” chief executive Denita Wawn said.
“We are strongly opposed to Labor’s policies to increase capital gains tax and restrict negative gearing and to give construction unions free reign to bully small businesses into signing union deals by abolishing the ABCC.
“However, that doesn’t mean that we disagree with all Labor policy and we are committed to continuing to engage in policy based dialogue with Labor including through our continuing membership of the Federal Labor Business Forum.”
Getting a true handle on the full extent of property industry donations to political parties is difficult. Initial analysis by The Australian Financial Review of national and state-level returns showed about $600,000 in declared donations to the ALP – with about half of that to the national arm of the party, and the rest going to states.
Rich Lister Harry Triguboff’s Meriton ($60,000), Lendlease ($55,000), The Gandel Group ($40,000) and tollroad operator Transurban ($39,450) were among the largest Labor donors – as were lobbyist firms representing property clients, such as LK Creative and Spring Street Advisory.
Industry donations to the Liberal Party were far larger, with the $4.2 million from property investor Isaac Wakil’s company Sugolena leading the pack. Meriton gave the Liberals $270,000; the Gandel Group was also more generous, giving nearly $260,000. Transurban’s Liberal Party donations were also greater – just – at $42,500.
Ray White Corporation gave the Victorian Liberals $50,000 while LJ Hooker’s commercial division gave the Liberal Party’s ACT division nearly $151,000. The Property Council of Australia did not make any donations.
But Australia’s jumble of state and federal donation laws makes it near impossible to know who the actual beneficiary of funds was, said Dr Edwards, a senior lecturer in politics.
“There is a lot that indicates there’s jurisdiction-shopping going on where donors make payments to a jurisdiction with the weakest laws and the parties then shuffle that around,” she said.
And while laws in a state such as NSW prohibit funds from developers going to political parties, developers still do.
Records show Sydney-based Payce Consolidated donated $60,000 to the ALP’s NSW branch. The developer could do that because the state branch of the ALP could receive money for the federal party if that money was to be used for the federal ALP campaign in that state, the AEC said.
“The ban on donations by property developers applies to NSW state electoral laws (administered by the NSW Electoral Commission), but not to federal electoral laws (administered by the AEC),” a spokesman said.
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