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    Who’s at the party? The thriving business of corporate access to politicians

    The business forums of both major parties sell political access to corporate Australia, and they make a pretty penny doing so. Many of Australia’s largest companies are members and their events can raise hundreds of thousands in one night. Zacharias Szumer investigates.

    On the eve of the Australian Labor Party’s national conference in August, the party held an exclusive dinner party, charging guests $10,000 a head to meet the prime minister and treasurer. The ALP reportedly raised $150,000 on the night. Not bad for one night’s work.

    To be fair, a fair bit of pre-event organising was probably required. The group that did that is the Federal Labor Business Forum – the party’s fundraising arm charged with selling corporate Australia access to politicians. Both the Liberal and National parties have equivalent organisations: the Australian Business Network and the National Policy Forum, respectively.

    As MWM  found (in a Walkley nominated story) in 2021, many of Australia’s largest companies were members of these forums. As recent research presented in this article shows, many still are.

    So, what do these forums offer their members and who’s in the club?

    A glimpse into fundraising events

    From what MWM hears, a small boardroom dinner or lunch event will go something like this:

    The main attraction will often be two ministers from related portfolios – agriculture and water, or defence and defence industry. As the aforementioned recent ALP fundraiser illustrates, it may be the prime minister and treasurer. Often, ministerial advisers will be present to answer technical questions.

    Around 10-25 attendees will sit down. The ministers will open the event with a speech, offering insight into a policy or issue. We are told that these speeches often contain a bit more candour and detail than politicians give to the press or public.

    Next, the conch is passed around the table. Attendees introduce themselves, bring up something they’re keen for the government to address or ask the minister for clarification about a policy.

    From what MWM understands, the real work of influencing government policy doesn’t happen at these events.

    The dinner dates are just a step that companies have to go through to get what they really want: a one-on-one meeting with the minister, which is where the real advocacy happens. Having paid big money to attend such events, the minister’s diary is, naturally, a little more accommodating.

    MWM also hears that ministers aren’t the biggest fans of these fundraisers. Reportedly, the asks from attendees can sometimes be a bit beyond the pale, politically speaking. And, after a full day’s work, making chit-chat with a room of people who all want something from you, is reportedly a bit tiresome.

    However, the attendees have bought their tickets and, with both major parties locked into a fundraising arms race, ministers have come to accept such schmooze-fests as part of their schedules.

    The perks of business forum membership

    The price of a boardroom dinner or lunch-style event, such as that described above, depends on the guest of honour. For a dinner with the Prime Minister and Treasurer, tickets might cost $10,000. If it’s a lower-level minister, a couple of thousand dollars will secure a seat.

    Attendees don’t have to worry about getting gouged too hard though, because ticket prices are essentially capped. For one, they’ll never pay more than the Australian Electoral Commission’s federal disclosure threshold, which currently sits at $16,300.

    Those prices are just for dinner-style events though. There’s a whole variety of other fundraising-type events throughout the year, from policy briefing sessions to lunches with over 100 attendees and multiple ministers spread over multiple tables filled with corporate guests.

    A company can either pay to attend these events as they come up, or they can sign up to a party’s business forum. The more a company pays, the more ‘networking opportunities’ it receives.

    Tiered membership, with optional extras

    In essence, it’s a tiered membership system, with higher-tier membership entitling a member company to more invites and seats at more exclusive events. That’s essentially what a Woodside executive told a parliamentary committee several years ago

    In that inquiry, the Woodside rep said the company’s “platinum membership” entitled it to attend numerous events throughout the year, including “Prime Minister’s Networking Dinners” and “end of year drinks” with party leaders.

    Sometimes there are optional extras.

    Until recently, disgraced consultancy firm PwC had a “tailored membership” that included “an opportunity to sponsor a dinner in the week of the Federal Budget”, according to testimony provided to a Senate committee inquiry this year.

    PwC has since renounced their business forum membership, following the tax leak scandal, but the parties are reportedly keeping their fees.

    How much do they pay?

    PwC paid a bit extra for the privilege of its “tailored membership”: $80,000. However, such special arrangements may be the exception.

    As the same Woodside executive described it, memberships are structured into three tiers: a top-level ‘platinum’ membership costs around $110,000, a mid-level ‘gold’ around $55,000 – $60,000 and a bottom-rung ‘silver’ around $25,000 – $30,000.

    Based on AEC ‘other receipt’ disclosures for the 2021-2022 financial year, it looks like a similar system is still in place, with an unusually high number of companies making payments of figures around these levels to the national branches of the ALP or Liberal Party.

    Many confirmed to MWM that they were business forum members.

    Who’s in the club?

    MWM has compiled a list of confirmed and potential members. The list is not intended to be complete, and there may be more members than what is listed.

    We are not entirely sure whether there are still three tiers, but we’ve broken this section down as such. All dollar figures refer to ‘other receipt’ payments to the national branches of parties.

    Unconfirmed means that the company did not respond to MWM’s request for confirmation of membership. Confirmed means they have confirmed they are members, not that they are confirmed members of any particular ‘tier’.

    Payments to state branches and ‘donations’ of any sort were not included. Sometimes companies will be members of a party’s business forum at the state level, but not the federal level.

    One notable inclusion, although not a confirmed member is Pratt Holdings – representing Anthony Pratt, the billionaire owner of Visy. MWM was not able to get any kind of confirmation, but in addition to the $132,000 ‘other receipt’ payment, Pratt also made donations of $1,750,000 to the ALP and $1,350,000 to the Liberal Party.

    Several companies such as Airtasker and Swisse Wellness made $30,000 ‘other receipts’ payments to the ALP but said they weren’t members. They didn’t clarify what the payments were for. Swisse told MWM in 2021 that it was a member of these forums.

    Woodside told MWM that it cancelled its memberships in 2021 and is now only paying “to attend ad-hoc business engagement events”.

    At the federal level, the Pharmacy Guild only donated to the ALP, not to the Liberals. This is somewhat interesting, considering that the ALP has pushed forward with its 60-day dispensing policy, much to the chagrin of the Guild. In 2021, the Guild told MWM that they weren’t a member of any forum. We await their clarification.

    Nine Network has previously been a member of both forums, but there was no evidence of any payments from them in 2021-2022.

    Qantas also made no declared payments, but then again, they can entertain the pollies in their very own Chairman’s Club.

    Photo above: Flickr Time for a party
    Michael West Media
    https://www.michaelwest.com.au/

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