Google Australia paid $22,000 to the Tasmanian Liberals, but won’t say why

The tech company extols transparency in the US, but its Australian arm is silent on lobbying
 August 22, 2023
Published:  August 22, 2023
Image: Tasmanian Inquirer.

Google made a major financial contribution to the Tasmanian branch of the Liberal Party of Australia, but has declined to reveal why.

The party listed a $22,000 payment from the Australian subsidiary of the global technology company in its annual return submitted to the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) for the 2021-22 financial year. The company was the fourth-largest corporate contributor to the party that year. It was the first time Google Australia contributed an amount over the disclosure threshold to any branch of the Liberal Party.

It has contributed $79,500 to the national office of the Labor Party since 2017. Since 2014 it has contributed $286,000 to the Menzies Research Centre, a Liberal-aligned think tank, and $258,500 to Labor’s Chifley Research Centre.

The Tasmanian payment is tagged as “other receipt”, a category distinct from donations but which can include subscriptions to party events for corporate supporters and lobbyists. Google Australia did not respond to requests for clarification on whether the payment was for company executives to attend fundraising events attended by Tasmanian ministers.

The Tasmanian Liberals corporate fundraising forum has been an increasing source of controversy. Late last year, Premier Jeremy Rockliff refused to answer questions by Greens’ environment spokesperson Rosalie Woodruff on whether he had attended a $4400-per-head Liberal Party fundraising dinner attended by salmon industry executives.

The AEC guide for donors says a payment to attend functions to meet MPs “may not be considered a donation if the commercial value or benefit of attending is equal to or exceeds the amount paid”. It says the value of attendance at a function “is a matter for the donor and party to determine”. An AEC spokesperson said a donor did not have to submit a return if the political party had disclosed the transaction as an “other receipt’”.

Some companies voluntarily reveal their contributions, including those below the disclosure threshold. For the current financial year, the disclosure threshold is $16,300.

“Our engagement with policymakers and regulators is guided by a commitment to ensuring our participation is always open, transparent and clear to our users, shareholders, and the public”. 

Google US

Tasmania does not require political parties or donors to disclose payments beyond those under federal law, though this will change when the Electoral Disclosure and Funding Bill before the Legislative Council comes into effect. Local government councillors must disclose all donations they receive greater than $50.

In the US, Google says its “engagement with policymakers and regulators is guided by a commitment to ensuring our participation is always open, transparent and clear to our users, shareholders, and the public” and its contributions to non-federal political organisations, including state and local candidates, are made “to promote the company’s interests”.

Google Australia did not respond to questions on why it contributes to political parties and party-aligned think tanks but provides no details on its contributions, unlike its US parent.

Lobbyists to the right, lobbyists to the left

In the US, the company must report what it spends on lobbying, the issues and legislation it made representations on and the names of the lobbyists representing it.

In its latest federal quarterly disclosure, Google Client Services 19-page return revealed it spent US$3.4 million and lobbied members of Congress on 73 separate issues and 25 bills, including the regulation of online advertising, tax cuts, privacy standards, data protection and open-source software.

The regulation of lobbyists in Australia and Tasmania is weaker. It requires no details of issues raised with MPs and public servants or the level of expenditure.

The Australian government’s lobbyist register shows Google Australia has hired five lobbying firms: Christmas Jalili, SEC Newgate, EJF Advisory, Eloquium Group, and Pyne and Partners. Former Liberal minister Christopher Pyne founded Pyne and Partners, while EJF Advisory is headed by Eamonn Fitzpatrick, an advisor on Anthony Albanese’s 2022 federal campaign.

Google Australia did not respond to questions on what issues its federal lobbyists have made representations on, orwhether it has lobbied Tasmanian ministers. The company has made submissions to federal agencies on the media bargaining code, online safety laws, copyright standards and the regulation of digital advertising.

Google Australia has no registered lobbyists in Tasmania, but registration is required only if lobbyists contact MPs or state public servants, not if company executives directly meet state representatives. Ministerial appointment diaries are unavailable for the year covering Google Australia’s payment to the Tasmanian Liberals.

Bill Browne, the director of the Australia Institute’s democracy and & accountability program, said: “The lack of disclosure requirements in Tasmania leaves the state’s voters dependent on weak federal disclosure laws and lets candidates and parties that only operate at the state level off the hook.”

Meg Webb, an independent member of the Legislative Council, said Tasmania lagged far behind the level of disclosure elsewhere. She said it highlighted the need for “rigorous” regulatory standards in Australia.

“Under current arrangements, where disclosure is at best minimal and at worst completely absent, Tasmanians simply do not know enough about who is donating or meeting with political decision-makers and influencing the policy and funding decisions being made,” Webb said.

“This undermines the health of our democracy, as it denies citizens the opportunity to be appropriately informed when casting their vote.”

Bob Burton is a Hobart-based author, researcher, editor and freelance journalist. He is the Editor of CoalWire, a weekly bulletin on global coal industry developments for the US-based non-profit group Global Energy Monitor. His freelance journalism has been published in a wide range of news outlets from the British Medical Journal to the US-based PR Watch.

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