22 February 2024
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Are winning teal candidates the playthings of billionaires?

Peter Switzer
8 November 2022

When my colleague Ben Fordham asked me to look at the big money that bankrolled the Teals into power and significantly helped kick out the Coalition, I thought it was a story of small significance.

Why? Well, for decades, no, centuries, big-end-of-town interests such as banks, miners, media bosses and industrialists as well as trade unions, have spent money supporting and influencing political parties and politicians. But does that make it right?

It only looks more worrying when you see that Wentworth MP Allegra Spender received $2.1 million and a lot of it came from a relatively unknown mob called Climate 200.

This is how they describe their goal: “Climate 200's goal is to support political candidates committed to a science-based approach to climate change and to restoring integrity in politics.”

And this is how they describe themselves: “Climate 200 is a community crowdfunding initiative that supports community-backed independents to stand for election to advance climate policy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the country and limit climate change in Australia.”

Climate 200’s founder was businessman Simon Holmes à Court and even if he has the best of intentions, it makes you wonder what happens if someone as rich as him, had bad intentions. For those who were fans of former Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, this from the AFR might concern you: “In the Victorian seat of Kooyong, teal Monique Ryan spent more than $2.1 million to defeat former treasurer Josh Frydenberg, including about $1.8 million in donations.”

If you’re a great supporter of reforms to address climate change, then you’d be happy. But what if the bankrollers were a foreign power or a corrupt business group wanting to change gambling laws? That said, those kinds of interests have undoubtedly spent and prospered, thanks to compliant politicians who went along for the lucrative ride.

That’s why the news that the Special Minister of State Don Farrell has been tooled up by the Albanese government to pass changes to campaign spending laws, “amid concerns Australia could see US-style funding wars.”

This would mean considering expenditure caps and changes to disclosure thresholds for donations.

The teals combined spend of $9.6 million came as campaign group Climate 200 raised about $9 million for the election, donating almost $6 million. And the AFR reveals: “Simon Holmes à Court and his family’s philanthropic vehicle Trimtab Foundation made a combined $250,000 in donations.”

Other big donors were Mike Cannon-Brookes’ foundation, Boundless Earth, which donated $1.18 million to Climate 200 and Canva founder Cameron Adams, who donated $200,000 to Climate 200.

I’m not saying that any of these people did anything wrong — they have largely played within the rules — but it does look like it’s high time to change those rules.

And even Senator David Pocock, who was helped to win his seat by Mike Cannon-Brookes, is keen to see changes to ensure that there is not “undue influence on an election”.

Right now the rules are that donors are to report all cash donations totalling more than $14,500 for elections. Given how small that is, will there be caps on how much you can donate? That seems like the logical alternative but will political parties buy that? I don’t think so.

One thing is for sure, we don’t want any of our politicians to be playthings of billionaires and billion-dollar companies.

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