Consultancy firms and other businesses engulfed in scandals threw money at political parties last year as they struggled to contain reputation damage.
In some cases, donations were made while politicians investigated allegations of wrongdoing and planned tougher regulations that could affect the companies’ revenue.
PwC Australia – which plunged into crisis after it monetised confidential Treasury information – donated $369,973 directly to Labor and the Liberals last financial year. This was a 50% annual increase and its highest spend since 2018/19.
On 24 January, a day after an industry regulator announced it banned a former partner for integrity breaches, PwC Australia gave $49,500 to the federal Labor party. The next day, the treasurer declared he was “furious” about the breach.
PwC Australia also donated $22,000 to the Labor Party’s Western Australia branch on 21 April. By then, the firm had sustained months of damaging headlines, which intensified when hundreds of internal emails were released in the following weeks.
The federal Labor party’s annual returns reveal PwC Australia also provided $88,000 to a business forum – taking the firm’s overall contributions beyond $400,000.
In early July – weeks after PwC Australia announced it was divesting its entire government services division for just $1 – the firm declared it would no longer make political donations.
PwC Australia’s chief executive, Kevin Burrowes, said political donations “don’t align with community expectations and we have stopped them in their entirety”. That includes payments to business forums aligned with political parties.
“While we can’t change the past, we can take the positive steps we need to take in order to improve our governance standards – and that’s exactly what we are doing,” Burrowes said.
Transparency advocates and the Greens have called for other consultancy firms to stop political donations to avoid potential conflicts of interest and restore public confidence in the industry.
Last financial year, EY spent $227,853 on donations – a 74% increase on the year earlier and the highest total since 2018/19. KPMG and Deloitte also continued to donate, although to a lesser extent. The four firms were the subject of a Senate inquiry during this period.
Most consultancy firms do not make cash payments, but instead offer in-kind contributions that include event hosting, catering, sponsorships, networking events, policy briefings, office sharing or contributions to fundraising.
Meanwhile Australia’s biggest employment service, APM, donated $150,000 to the federal and Western Australia branches of the Labor party in the midst of a damning parliamentary review into the employment services industry.
The inquiry, chaired by Labor MP Julian Hill and established by the employment minister, Tony Burke, declared the system largely failed to improve employment outcomes but was still set to cost over $9.5bn over the next four years.
The inquiry held hearings between November 2022 and September 2023, with the final report tabled in November last year. At the same time, between 17 September 2022 and 29 June 2023, APM donated $147,140 to the two ALP branches.
It was one of the largest amounts donated since APM started receiving government contracts for employment services in 2015.
The Antipoverty Centre’s spokesperson, Jay Coonan, said the donations called into question the “legitimacy” of APM as a witness in the inquiry.
“Even if we had money, those of us in the system wouldn’t use it to increase our influence,” he said.
APM defended the donations, with its general manager of corporate affairs, Adrian Bradley, saying the company had given money to “the government of the day and opposition” for years and always adhered to guidelines.
“Donations have no impact on government policy and produce no material benefit or outcome to the business,” Bradley said.
Gambling companies also continued to donate while politicians led a parliamentary inquiry into the harms caused by their online operations. The government is still considering the inquiry’s recommendation to ban gambling ads after a transition period.
Australia’s largest bookmaker, Sportsbet, donated $203,000 to Labor, the Liberals and the National party last financial year. That was a drop on the $313,424 it donated the previous year earlier, but more than it gave in 2020/21 and 2019/20.
Tabcorp continued to donate, but its $161,500 contribution to the Liberal, Labor and Nationals party was its lowest in almost a decade.
The ALP was contacted for comment.