The $550-a-head dinner came with a glittering view of Sydney's Iron Cove Bay. The multi-million-dollar venue glowed Liberal Party blue.
The guest of honour was Tony Abbott, at the time the prime-minister-in-waiting.
"Choose real change," the posters urged. "A stronger Australia. A better future."
Among the 600 tickets sold for the 2013 Liberal Party fundraiser at Le Montage in Sydney's inner west was a "gold package" table of five purchased by the RSL & Services Clubs Association.
The association represents the interests of dozens of RSL clubs around Australia and is a member of ClubsNSW.
The $2,750 paid to the Liberal Party’s federal campaign account is one of thousands of payments that have flowed from gambling-related organisations into Australia’s political system over the past 22 years.
Each of these boxes represents a payment to a political party or group from a person or organisation with an interest in gambling.
Prime ministers and premiers are among the key drawcards for many of these events.
Tony Abbott is mentioned more than a dozen times in connection with payments ranging from as little as $110 for a ClubsNSW contribution described as “Business lunch with the Prime Minister” to a much pricier $105,000 “Tony Abbott dinner” with the Australian Hotels Association.
Other notable mentions include Prime Minister Scott Morrison …
Former prime ministers Kevin Rudd …
… and Malcolm Turnbull …
… and former NSW premier Barry O’Farrell, whose payments include $145,000 from the Australian Hotels Association described simply as “Dinner with Barry O’Farrell”.
More than 150 ministers, candidates and other politicians are named in connection with payments worth more than $1.5 million.
A further $3.5 million in payments describe breakfasts, lunches and dinners, fundraisers, sponsorships and other events with MPs, party powerbrokers and campaign managers.
However, donors are not required to disclose the motivation behind a payment.
As a result, more than 85 per cent of the $40 million disclosed by gambling-related organisations was submitted with no description or further detail.
And it gets worse. The money declared by donors is only the tip of the iceberg.
Loopholes in Australia’s disclosure system mean numerous payments are disclosed only by the recipient but not by the donor, or vice versa.
(And in other cases, payments are not disclosed at all.)
So, for every dollar that gambling-related donors have disclosed to the federal electoral commission since 1998-99, recipients disclosed $1.58.
This means at least $81,769,853 in political payments disclosed over 22 years is linked to entities with a stake in gambling.
These figures come from an ABC News investigation tracking gambling-related political payments between 1998-99 and 2019-20.
The investigation uses data from the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) Transparency Register, a public database of annual disclosures about the financial dealings of political parties, candidates and others involved in the federal electoral process.
Political donations are murky territory. The ABC's estimate of $81.77 million in gambling-related contributions is at least double the amounts identified by previous analyses, and yet almost certainly an underestimate. The true figure is impossible to calculate because loopholes in the laws governing Australia's political donations mean more than a third of the money poured into the political system is "dark money", whose source remains unknown.
It is also unclear how much of the money relates to politically motivated payments and how much relates to other transactions such as operating costs. This is because the definition of a "donation" under federal disclosure laws is similar to a "gift": it only captures payments for which something of equal value is not returned.
This means income received from fundraising events, for example, or other instances where parties can say the donor also received something, may be categorised not as donations but "other receipts" or sometimes "unspecified" payments, even though they generate income for a political group.
For transparency, the ABC has included all disclosed payments, even though they may not be strictly considered donations.
The tale of how politics and gambling became so deeply entwined in Australia is inseparable from the factors that have driven Australians to become the world's biggest losers, squandering more on gambling per capita than any other nation.
Australia is arguably the world's most prolific gambling market, says Monash University associate professor and gambling researcher Charles Livingstone. "It's certainly the only place in the world where, across the country — with the exception of WA — you've got high-impact gaming machines in pubs and clubs."
A 2017 Australia Institute report found Australia had 0.3 per cent of the world's population but 76 per cent of the world's poker machines outside of gambling-only venues.
"And we're not talking about three machines in the corner of the pub or four machines in the High Street bookie shop, as in Britain. You're looking at hundreds of machines in some suburban clubs, and multiple suburban clubs in multiple areas," Livingstone says.
The result is an industry that generates massive amounts of money. In 2018-19 Australians lost $25 billion gambling. Just over half went to the pokies. That same year, the government earned $6.56 billion in gambling tax revenue.
Where there's money, there are hungry investors, from casino tycoons, to supermarket giants Woolworths and Coles — previously Australia's two largest poker machine operators — to property developers or your local pub or footy club.
This leads to a second remarkable trait of Australia's gambling industry: its reach.
"It's very widespread — much more so than most other countries," Livingstone says. "It penetrates into all sorts of sectors and … it's been normalised. It's part of everyday life."
This is why the ABC has expanded on previous analyses by the Democracy For Sale project, Monash University researchers Charles Livingstone and Maggie Johnson, and the Centre for Public Integrity, to include interests beyond casinos and gaming under the umbrella of "gambling".
Rather than categorising an entity by one main interest or focusing on the largest gambling-related groups, the ABC compiled these databases into a single dataset of roughly 17,800 entities. From here, we identified more than 370 businesses, unions, organisations and individuals with an interest in gambling.
We then forensically examined all federally disclosed payments connected to those entities, including the PDF returns lodged by the most generous donors, which contain details excluded from the Transparency Register's online database.
The ABC's analysis spans hotels and pubs, banking, entertainment, sport, supermarket retailers, media and property, as well as gaming machines owned by the Australian Labor Party.
The resulting dataset reveals an industry whose influence and power belies most estimates of its size.
And this betrays a third key feature of Australia's gambling industry. While there's no telling the precise reasons why any individual or organisation makes a political donation, the gambling industry has cause to be especially motivated.
As Livingstone points out, the industry is entirely dependent on government regulation. This means it is profoundly invested in who is making the rules.
"If you've got that licence to print money, you've got to protect it."
Beer giant Fosters, now part of Japan’s Asahi Group, contributed $415,150 between 1998-99 and 2004-05. Fosters owned pokies until 2004, when it split its hotel, gaming and liquor operations into two entities, pub operator Australian Leisure and Hospitality and property arm ALE Property Group.
Sports organisations contributed at least $685,700 to political parties. Major donors include motorsports and horseracing interests …
… as well as NRL and AFL clubs, many of which own poker machines.
Property developers contributed more than $815,000. Of this, $600,000 came from Gold Coast-based golf course owner Hungtat Worldwide on behalf of the late Macau gambling tycoon and former Hungtat chairman Stanley Ho.
Hudson Conway, part of the consortium awarded the monopoly licence for Melbourne's Crown Casino, gave $215,500. It built and managed the casino and was at one point Crown’s largest shareholder.
Former media and gambling company Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd contributed more than $1.22 million. Controlled by the Packer family, PBL was the predecessor to embattled gambling empire Crown.
Supermarket behemoths Woolworths and Coles together contributed $3.33 million — more than the previous sectors combined.
Woolies and Coles were ranked first and second as Australia’s largest owners of poker machines until their recent exits from the gambling market.
The majority ($2.48 million) came from Woolies.
Woolies' demerger from its liquor and hotels business Endeavour Group in June this year left Endeavour with a portfolio of 12,364 poker machines and about 290 TABs and KENO outlets, making it the third-largest gaming operator in Australia.
The Coles Group tipped in $849,000. Before offloading its hotel and pokies business to Spirits Hotels in March 2019, Coles owned 3,069 poker machines through its hotel chains in Queensland and South Australia.
Individuals donated more than $4.79 million, mostly to the Liberal Party. Among the largest donors are philanthropist Roslyn Packer ($1.34m), mother of billionaire casino mogul James Packer, the largest Crown shareholder …
… and former Crown directors John Poynton ($92,600) and Harold Mitchell ($1.35m).
The estate of the late Tattersall's founder and lottery promoter George Adams ($1.13m) and Stanley Ho ($509,000) and his associate Anthony Chan ($100,000), who lists the same Hong Kong address as Mr Ho, also gave generously.
These overseas donations were made before the ban on foreign political donations came into effect on January 1, 2019.
Until earlier this year, billionaire Bruce Mathieson ($135,000) operated more than 12,000 gaming machine licences as co-owner of Australian Leisure and Hospitality (ALH), the nation's biggest hotel and pub group.
In 2019, the Woolworths hotel business accounted for about 10 per cent of the supermarket giant’s total earnings.
ALH has since merged with the supermarket giant's liquor retail arm to form Endeavour Group. Mathieson and Woolworths each hold a 14.6 per cent interest in Endeavour.
Len Ainsworth ($53,460) founded the world's second-biggest gaming machine company Aristocrat Leisure.
Drawing on expertise in neuroscience and behavioural psychology, it developed the modern poker machine — a high-intensity electronic machine designed to keep people playing longer and faster.
The result, named an "electronic gaming machine" or EGM, was described by Tasmania-based historian James Boyce as "one of the most life-destroying design innovations in Australian history".
United Voice — the hospitality workers union representing casino, hotel, pub and club workers — contributed $6.78 million, mostly to the ALP.
In NSW, United Voice struck a deal with Crown, which saw the union drop its opposition to smoking in the Sydney casino's high-roller gambling rooms and sign an MOU to become a Crown Sydney Hotel Resort project partner.
Its predecessor, the Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union, was on the Ministerial Advisory Group on gambling reform in 2010-11.
Two associated entities linked to the ALP’s ACT branch, the Canberra Labor Club ($9.36m) and investment vehicle 1973 Foundation ($3.77m), together contributed $13.14 million.
The term "associated entities" refers to any organisation run by or acting for a political party. This includes fundraising bodies and investment vehicles set up by political parties, as well as party-aligned unions.
Gambling businesses tipped $14.46 million into political coffers, with Tabcorp ($3.95m, now merged with TAB Ltd and Tatts), Crown ($3.25m) and The Star Entertainment Group ($1.77m) among the biggest donors.
Hotels, pubs and clubs gave $35.95 million — more than twice as much as casinos, lotteries and other gambling businesses combined.
Roughly 60 per cent came from two organisations: industry lobby groups the Australian Hotels Association ($14.73m) and ClubsNSW, also known as Clubs Australia ($6.55m). ClubsNSW members operate roughly 70,000 pokies machines.
About 290 individual hotels, clubs and pubs contributed a combined $14.67 million.
Excluded from the overall analysis of gambling-related payments are contributions paid to and disclosed by three groups: the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association, or "Shoppies" union; the Construction Forestry Mining Manufacturing and Energy Union (CFMMEU); and the Canberra Labor Club.
All three are associated with the ALP.
The CFMMEU reported detailed receipts totalling $17.99 million, including $17.37 million from the Canberra Tradesmen’s Union Club ($18.88m), also known as "Tradies".
Tradies was established in 1964 by the unions that would later become the CFMMEU. It operates 300 gaming machines, making it the ACT’s largest pokies operator after the Canberra Labor Club group.
Separate figures show the CFMMEU and its branches contributed $18.77 million in donations, subscriptions and other receipts to political parties over 22 years, including $18.1 million to the ALP.
The Shoppies union, a major financial backer and powerful factional force linked to the ALP, disclosed $54.46 million in detailed receipts, including $46.6 million from Woolworths and $7.84 million from Coles.
The union has previously come under fire for striking deals with the supermarket giants that slashed penalty rates and left workers millions of dollars out of pocket.
Separate returns show the Shoppies transferred just under $20.38 million in donations, subscriptions, and other receipts to political parties over 22 years, including $20.32 million to the ALP.
The Canberra Labor Club group disclosed more than $460 million in detailed receipts.
The group operates more than 400 gaming machines. It was set up by ACT Labor to support the party, and its articles of association require any profits to be paid to the branch.
In 2019-20 it generated $9.95 million in net gaming machine revenue (excluding tax and player winnings).
Roughly $330 million paid to the Canberra Labor Club is from ATM and EFTPOS suppliers.
These groups had a keen interest in the 2010 Productivity Commission inquiry into problem gambling, which considered an outright ban on ATMs in gaming rooms.
The commission stopped short of a ban, instead recommending that governments fine-tune regulations to limit cash withdrawals, position ATM and EFTPOS facilities out of sight of gamblers, and ensure warnings and help messages were clearly visible on these facilities.
ATM and EFTPOS suppliers opposed the Productivity Commission's recommendations. They were backed by gambling industry heavyweights including the Australian Hotels Association, Clubs Australia and the Australian Casino Association.
These payments to the Shoppies, the CFMMEU and the Canberra Labor Club — totalling more than $615 million — are disclosed in associated entity returns lodged with the AEC. The majority of payments are categorised as "Other Receipt" or "Unspecified".
The ABC has excluded these payments from the overall analysis of gambling contributions because it isn't clear how much of this funding has wound up in the political system.
Disclosure rules require associated entities to disclose their payments, debts and receipts. All receipts must be disclosed, even if they do not benefit a political party.
Some associated entities, such as the ACT Labor-linked 1973 Foundation, have been set up to raise income for a party, so it's reasonable to assume that most of the money ends up in the hands of that party, Monash's Charles Livingstone says.
However, this is less likely to be true for entities such as party-aligned unions, which have significant operational expenses beyond supporting a political party.
This is further muddied by reporting practices that make it difficult to track where payments are really going.
The Canberra Labor Group, for example, channels funds through the 1973 Foundation, which was reportedly set up to shift ACT Labor's finances into real estate. Returns lodged by the 1973 Foundation show it received $2.5 million from the Canberra Labor Club in 2013-14 and $378,538 in 2010-11.
However, this money trail is not obvious from the Canberra Labor Club's disclosures to the AEC. The Canberra Labor Club has never reported any payments to the 1973 Foundation in these returns, nor has it disclosed any payments to ACT Labor after 2004-05, despite the branch's returns showing it has received more than $4.1 million from the Canberra Labor Club since then.
Adding to the opaqueness is the enormity of the amounts disclosed by the Canberra Labor Club group and the sheer number of payments, which include amounts as little as $1,500.
The Labor Party has made moves to divest from the Canberra Labor Club group over the years, however, these were ultimately stymied by forces within the party, Livingstone says.
It's little wonder. More than $10 million of the $12.45 million disclosed by ACT Labor since 1998-99 has come from the Canberra Labor Club and the 1973 Foundation, according to figures compiled by the Greens' Democracy For Sale project.
"It raises a significant conflict of interest for the Labor Party … to actually be regulating gambling machines when the party has a really powerful vested interest. They're impossibly compromised," Livingstone says.
Neither the Canberra Labor Club nor the ALP responded to requests for comment.
This chart shows the flow of money from gambling interests to political parties, associated entities or political campaigners/third parties between 1998-99 and 2019-20.
Donors form the outer ring; recipients are in the centre (with a few exceptions for entities that both give and receive funds).
Select a circle or use the search box to see the total amount paid/received and the top transactions.
Democracy under attack
To the uninitiated, political donations can seem like a pricey game — especially given explicit quid pro quo is rare, says Grattan Institute CEO Danielle Wood. But money talks, research shows.
"It's about access and relationships," she says.
"It's about that opportunity to bend the ear of politicians on a regular basis so when issues do arise, they're already very familiar with the views of those that support them."
A 2018 Grattan Institute report on access and influence in Australian politics found that highly regulated industries tended to be the most politically active, punching well above their economic weight on donations, commercial lobbying contacts and meetings with senior ministers.
The gambling industry was "probably the most stark" example of this outsized generosity, says Wood, who co-authored the report.
"On top of that, it seems to be an industry that is a bit more active or open about using donations to get a particular policy outcome. More of a sledgehammer than a scalpel compared to other donors."
The deeper problem with the donations system, however, is the lack of transparency. Over two decades, roughly 35 per cent of private funding to political parties, about $1 billion, has remained hidden from public scrutiny, according to analysis from the Centre for Public Integrity.
Two loopholes in the federal disclosure system make this not only possible, but also legal.
The first is the high disclosure threshold. In 2020-21, the disclosure threshold for donations, which rises yearly based on inflation, climbed to $14,300, meaning only donations above this amount need to be disclosed.
The second is that political parties are not obliged to aggregate multiple donations from the same donor before applying the limit. Donors are supposed to but it is difficult to enforce. This leads to "donation splitting", where payments can be hidden by being split into multiple amounts below the threshold.
Another critical flaw is the absence of caps on either donations or political spending, which has the potential to allow a handful of big donors to exercise substantial control over a party's financial position.
Also, disclosure data is released only yearly in February, which means the public may wait up to 19 months to find out which groups donated the most to each party ahead of an election.
"There's just simply no reason why we should be waiting anywhere near as long as we are to see donations," Wood says.
The lack of transparency, low levels of spending controls and poor enforcement have combined to create some of the weakest donations laws in the developed world.
"This is the democratic process that is under attack," says Anthony Whealy, chair of the Centre for Public Integrity and a former Court of Appeal judge.
"Participation in the democratic process is a good thing … However, where it becomes excessive, where it becomes uncontrolled, or unbridled and where transparency is lacking, then political donations actually become a threat to democracy."
The Australian Hotels Association did not respond to requests for comment.
However, a ClubsNSW spokesperson said: "All political donations made by ClubsNSW are declared, made transparent through the relevant authorities and comply with the law ... Politicians and political parties which support not-for-profit clubs deserve to be supported."
A Liberal Party spokesperson said the party does not accept funds that are "subject to political conditions of any kind".
"Australia's political parties are subject to a rigorous funding and financial disclosure regime ... In recent years, the Coalition government has strengthened this regime by banning foreign donations and better regulating third party campaigners."
It said political parties have large volunteer wings and limited resources, and it does not support reforms that would "unnecessarily add to the already considerable administrative and compliance burdens" placed on them.
This is the first part of an ABC investigation into political payments from the gambling industry. Future stories will examine the political timing of the industry’s donations and state and territory data on political donations.
Reporting and data: Development: , Design: Research: , ,
- This project was supported by $20,000 funding from the Google News Initiative as part of the Australian International Documentary Conference's Raw Data, Real Stories data journalism pitching initiative.
- The Greens' Democracy For Sale project, Monash University researchers Charles Livingstone and Maggie Johnson, and the Centre for Public Integrity generously shared data with the ABC. These datasets formed the starting point for this analysis
- The ABC's analysis includes entities judged to have a significant interest in gambling, even if this was not their sole or primary activity. For example, Woolworths is included because it was previously Australia's largest operator of gaming machines, even though its main business operations are in supermarket food and retail.
- This analysis examined annual returns and election returns lodged by donors and recipients, including political parties, associated entities, political campaigners and third parties. Political campaigners and third parties spend money above a certain threshold to influence the electoral process. Detailed definitions are available via the Australian Electoral Commission
- This analysis includes information found in the PDF records that are available for download on the Transparency Register but not found in its digital records or downloadable data.
- Except where specified in the opening data visualisation, the ABC has reconciled the annual amounts disclosed by recipients and donors. Where recipients and donors have disclosed different amounts, the higher amount is used
- Unless otherwise specified, donors and recipients with multiple branches (for example, state or territory divisions) have been grouped for the purpose of reporting total amounts contributed or received
- The ABC has corrected a small number of errors found in the Transparency Register data. In some disclosures, both the donor and AEC have assigned a politician to the wrong party. In these instances, ABC News has assigned this payment to the correct party
- Payments earmarked for a federal politician but assigned (either by the donor or the AEC) to a state branch of the same party have been left unchanged. For example, a donation earmarked for Joe Hockey was assigned to the state Liberal Party rather than the federal Liberal Party. ABC News has not amended this.
- The ABC's data includes a small number of payments recorded on PDF returns but omitted from the AEC's digital records
- Main photographs by Lisa Maree Williams for Getty
- For clarity, the following words in bold were added to the story: "The second is that political parties are not obliged to aggregate multiple donations from the same donor before applying the limit. Donors are supposed to but it is difficult to enforce. This leads to "donation splitting", where payments can be hidden by being split into multiple amounts below the threshold."