Big four accounting firms increased their collective contribution to political parties by 50 per cent, to more than half a million dollars, in the 2010-11 financial year, most of it funnelled to the Liberal Party.
Political donations by the firms – PwC, KPMG, Ernst & Young and Deloitte – totalled $581,055, up from $373,914 in 2009-10.
The increase coincides with strategies at big four firms to target government as a key growth industry, alongside financial services, and energy and resources.
PwC was the most generous benefactor, donating $197,763.
KPMG doubled its political contributions to $135,211, while EY was the only big four firm to pull back donations to $95,000, down $25,000.
Deloitte upped its donations by $57,000 for the year, to $152,849, but is down on 2003 highs, when it was pumping $220,000 into political contributions.This puts big four accounting firms at the top end of political donors. "Over $100,000 from one company in a single reporting period puts you in the category of a very large donor," said lobbyist Justin Di Lollo, managing director of Hawker Britton.
All big four firms have beefed up their government service lines in the last three years, hiring senior public servants in health, infrastructure, defence and education.
"Many large professional services firms were quickly denuded of commercial clients when the global financial crisis hit," Mr Di Lollo said. "Government stimulus packages made them sit up and question why they hadn't better developed government as a customer."
The onslaught of privatisation also required greater interplay between government and business.
Government consulting was the fastest-growing area of EY's business in the 2010-11 fiscal year, up 30 per cent. The firm's revenue from public-sector engagements has risen by 60 per cent in the past four years.
PwC's government service line is tracking at 10 per cent growth for the 2011-12 year. This is slightly down on the 18 per cent revenue increase the division produced the previous year, but it doesn't include health engagements, such as the social policy work PwC did on the national disability insurance scheme.
Mr Di Lollo said it was natural for organisations with greater exposure to government decision-making to spend more on political contributions.
"If you're in a business that has a risk or an opportunity associated with a government decision there's a logical reason why you'd also be more likely to consort with political parties through donations," he said.
But a donation doesn't buy outcomes. "A casual observer may think it's buying favours, but political life is rarely as simple as that," one lobbyist said. "Donations are a way for companies to signal that they are both approachable and unavoidable to politicians."
Macquarie Bank famously lost every single government bid it submitted – about 20 in a row – at a time when it was easily the single largest donor to the NSW Labor Party.
PwC and EY apportioned their contributions evenly between the Liberal-National Coalition and Labor. KPMG showed preference to the Liberals, while Deloitte favoured Labor.
"Donations are a powerful way to send political signals through the system," said Mr Di Lollo.
"A company might look too friendly with one side and seek to signal the other political party that they are, in fact, even-handed.
"Alternatively, it could be common knowledge that company executives are diehard Liberal supporters and, even though everyone in political circles knows it, they don't want to burn Labor off just because it's out of government for 10 years.
"It's used as a salve, to indicate that the company is not the sum of the people in it."