The Northern Territory election is less than three weeks away and hundreds of thousands of dollars from political donors, including gambling companies, property developers and unions, has flowed into the major parties.
The 2020 election will be unprecedented in the spending limits placed on parties and politicians — and while this is intended to level the electoral playing field, a large imbalance has emerged in the money-raising power of the major political parties.
Labor’s rivers of gold
Political donations are pouring into the Labor Party, the incumbent government which has held power in the Northern Territory for 15 of the past 19 years.
Northern Territory Electoral Commission records show that from July 2019 to the end of June 2020 the NT Labor branch received $438,818 in donations towards the August 22 election.
That figure is more than $100,000 above the total of all other running parties combined, and well ahead of the party’s main electoral threats in the Country Liberal Party ($131,000) and Territory Alliance ($156,000).
Donations received in July 2020 must be lodged with the NTEC by August 4, and will be made public on the NTEC website today (August 7).
Donations made from August 1 to August 16 will be made public by August 21.
Who is filling Labor’s coffers?
Labor-aligned unions have already tipped in more than $55,000 towards the party’s re-election bid.
Labor is also enjoying strong backing from property developers.
Property developers do not donate as an industry collective, but donations disclosed so far show developers have clearly favoured handing their money to Labor ahead of the August 22 vote.
Overall, the biggest donations to Labor include a $30,000 boost from the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Union, and donations of $20,000 or more from Northwest Construction, Henrey Yap and Yap Property Investments.
Are there any other big donations?
Yes. And they aren’t all going to Labor.
The biggest donation ahead of this election so far has gone to the Territory Alliance — $35,000 from the AJ Myers Campaign.
The man behind the donation is Allan Myers QC, a prominent barrister based in Melbourne.
The CLP’s biggest donor is Top End property developer Charlie Randazzo, who has given $15,000 to the party.
CLP leader Lia Finocchiaro has received a larger donation toward her own campaign.
Territory Property Group has donated $20,000 to Ms Finocchiaro. The company, which owns a vast real estate portfolio in the Top End, has also donated $10,500 to Labor ahead of the election.
Other large donors included gambling agencies and lobby groups for the oil and gas and hospitality industries.
Melbourne-based gambling firms BetEasy, Betfair, Responsible Wagering Australia and Tabcorp all donated to the Labor Party.
Property developers top donation spend
No industry has handed more money to political parties ahead of the election than property developers.
More than $80,000 in disclosed donations by various property developers have been made to major parties.
Donations from property developers — an industry which relies heavily on government contracts and decision-making for commercial success — often attract scrutiny in election cycles.
Property developers have been banned from donating to elections in New South Wales and Queensland.
University of Queensland electoral law academic Graeme Orr says without banning developers from donating in the NT, it would be hard to rule out the possibility of certain firms attempting to curry favour with a re-elected government.
“Most corporate donations try to buy influence. And corporate money follows power,” Professor Orr said.
He says the fact Labor is attracting the lion’s share of corporate donations — and that the corporate money is indeed following political power — is a “bad sign”.
“At a minimum, that risks a political imbalance,” Professor Orr said.
When Darwin businessman Henry Yap was asked why he was donating to the Labor Party ahead of the election, he said he believed in supporting the government of the day to help provide continuity for Territory businesses.
“It’s long-term planning, so we have got confidence to invest [and] so we know who we are dealing with,” Mr Yap said.
Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner did not directly respond to questions around the ethics of accepting donations from developers.
His spokesperson said “all parties need to raise money, that’s how we hold elections”.
“People have the right to make a contribution, we reformed donations and it’s never been more transparent,” he said.
Government resisting donation cap
Professor Orr said one way to stamp out the possibility of any unfair advantages in donation raising was to “cap all donations”.
In fact, in 2018, the Labor Government committed to placing a cap on political donations from companies or individuals at $5,000 or $10,000 after an inquiry into the NT’s donations system recommended the cap.
That inquiry found there was a “strong case for imposing a cap on political donations”.
“The level of political donations, unless controlled, may give rise to some loss of confidence in the integrity of the political system,” the inquiry found.
As of this year’s election, the Labor Government has not yet followed through on its pledge for a cap.
The Labor Government also committed to introducing partial public funding of elections — a system which was also recommended by the inquiry and is in place in every other Australian jurisdiction except Tasmania.
But the Government chose not to bring in partial public funding of the 2020 election, citing “the fiscal challenges currently facing the Territory”.