On Saturday, Australia will hold its federal election. The current conservative government—a center-right coalition led by the Liberal Party—is narrowly slated to win out, despite the fact that the Liberal Party appears to have laundered taxpayer money through a company the party owns.
Nearly all Liberal members of parliament pay a company, Parakeelia Pty Ltd, $2,500 annually for access to Parakeelia’s voter-monitoring “Feedback” software. The software itself is somewhat controversial—civil-rights advocates have raised concerns about the amount of information it collects and stores on private citizens—but the party’s use of it is standard.
As the Sydney Morning Herald’s James Roberston reported early last month, however, not only is Parakeelia wholly owned by the Liberal Party, in recent years it has donated more than $1 million back to the party. From the Herald:
Parakeelia is registered to the same inner-Canberra office building as the Liberals. The company’s directors include the Liberal Party’s federal director, Tony Nutt, and president, Richard Alston. It is registered with authorities as being associated with the party.
Last financial year, Parakeelia transferred $500,000 to the federal Liberal division, making it the party’s second-biggest single source of funds. The year before it came in fourth with $400,000; before that $200,000.
But the Liberals would not say how much of the company’s revenue began as taxpayer funding.
Parakeelia’s annual revenue currently hovers around $1 million, though in 2013-2014, the Liberal Party gave the company a $250,000 cash injection. In 2013, Parakeelia also rented office space in the same building that housed the Liberal Party’s campaign headquarters.
“I can understand why politicians may pay for the software,” John Adam, a former advisor to Liberal MP Arthur Sinodinos, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “but when you pay to a company, and then that company has surplus money to give back to a political party—I dunno, that seems like money laundering to me. I dunno how else you can call it. I don’t think that’s an appropriate use of taxpayer’s money.”
What’s more, the party has been using taxpayer money to pay parliamentary staffers, who are simultaneously employed by Parakeelia, to train MPs how to use the Feedback software, which they use exclusively for campaigning. “It was a very clear understanding that there’s Feedback training provided to staff members and basically the training is to use it as a database politically rather than to assist constituents,” disendorsed Liberal MP Dennis Jensen told ABC. “Indeed, the instruction given by Feedback trainers is if there’s not a vote in it, don’t do it.”
(The left-wing Labor Party contracts with a similar software company, though that company appears to have no affiliation with the party beyond the business relationship.)
But despite holding 98 percent of Parakeelia’s shares, former Liberal treasurer Ron Walker told the Herald that he wasn’t aware he was still associated with the company. Incumbent prime minister—and former Liberal treasurer—Malcolm Turnbull has deflected questions about Parakeelia to the Liberal Party. In a statement, the party’s federal director, Tony Nutt, acknowledged that Parakeelia is owned by the party.
“It has been in existence for many years during the administrations of various governments,” Nutt said. “It is run on a professional basis, independently audited and complies with the law.” Nutt sits on Parakeelia’s board of directors.