Clive Palmer has had a tough run leading up to the 2022 election campaign. He faced COVID-19 without the protection of vaccination in March, tripped at his National Press Club speech and reported being knocked unconscious for about 20 seconds when he fell during a rehearsal for his United Australia Party (UAP) campaign launch in April.
Palmer, a dedicated litigant, has also suffered some recent set-backs in the court room.
As it contests the 2022 federal election, is the UAP also on a downward trajectory or will it tap into populist sentiment reacting against vaccine mandates and climate change?
UAP’s influence since 2013
In the first federal election in 2013, Palmer’s share of the primary vote (as the Palmer United Party) was 5.49% nationally and about 11% in Queensland. This was enough to win a single seat in the lower house and three in the Senate.
There was no UAP federal campaign in 2016 due to Palmer stepping back to address the collapse of his Queensland Nickel company. But in 2019, he ran candidates in all lower house seats, winning a total of 3.4% of the national vote. The UAP was well short of the quota to land a Senate spot, even in Queensland.
Nevertheless, the 2019 House of Representatives election saw a record vote of about 25% for minor parties overall, so preferences decided a record number of seats. This means minor parties deserve our serious attention in the 2022 election.
ABC election analyst Antony Green has noted while UAP’s preference flows didn’t significantly affect any results in 2019, its “anti-Labor message and broadcast weight of Clive Palmer’s political advertising” did have an impact.
The UAP is fielding 22 Senate candidates, including Palmer, and running candidates in every lower house seat. Palmer’s best chance of electoral success is in Queensland, where he is challenging Pauline Hanson, Campbell Newman and the Coalition’s Amanda Stoker for the final Queensland Senate spot.
Palmer is certainly throwing plenty of money at the campaign, with expectations he will spend A$60-70 million in the lead up to election day. This compares with the unprecedented $84 million he spent in 2019.
This includes huge yellow billboards around the country, (problematically) promising to cap mortgage rates.
But so far, this spend has not delivered a bounce in the polls, and in 2019 it failed to translate into seats.
The UAP share of the primary vote has only slightly increased despite the massive spend at the start of the campaign and the impact of the pandemic. The most recent Newspoll, conducted April 27-30, showed the UAP vote steady at 4%. This is after spending millions on advertising.
Key differences in 2022
The familiar UAP yellow and the big budget is back, but there are some key differences in 2022.
The first is policy. In 2019, the focus of UAP advertising was anti-Bill Shorten and anti-ALP sentiment.
But Palmer launched his 2022 campaign in Coolum, with the unexpected announcement the party would push for the enactment of a bill of rights to “save Australia”.
Other key UAP policies include maximum 3% interest on home loans, abolishing federal cabinet and bringing Australian super investments back from overseas. There is also a focus on opposing COVID measures, tapping into anger over restrictions and mandates. The focus on “freedom” may entice to voters after a difficult pandemic period for so many.
UAP damaged the ALP vote in 2019, but don’t expect the same thing this time. Palmer has pledged to put the Liberals, Labor and Greens last on how-to-vote cards, diffusing the impact on preferences.
A new leader
A second key difference in 2022 is new leader Craig Kelly (Palmer is now “chairman”). Former Liberal MP Kelly joined as UAP leader in August 2021, bringing his controversial positions on COVID, coal and climate change with him, as well as a significant following.
But will this help the UAP vote? Kelly has been rated as one of Australia’s “least likeable” politicians. In December 2021, a Resolve Political Monitor survey found only 9% of surveyed Australians had a positive view of Kelly. This was only slightly higher than Palmer, on 8%. Kelly faces a tough road to win his seat of Hughes in 2022 without Liberal Party endorsement against a wide field.
Kelly has also been permanently banned from Facebook for disinformation, limiting his ability to reach supporters.
Beyond the campaign, Palmer (who has listed “litigation” as a hobby) is pursuing and facing distracting court action.
Palmer is also facing two sets of criminal charges brought by ASIC. The first involves alleged breaches of takeover provisions in the acquisition of his Coolum resort and the second relates to allegations he improperly funded his successful 2013 election campaign.
The ASIC action is due to return to the Brisbane Supreme Court for a two-day hearing on May 31 and June 1. Apart from distracting from his election campaign, it could potentially land Palmer in jail - making the Senate result irrelevant.
What does Palmer actually want?
As political scientist John Wanna has noted, we still don’t really know why Palmer is spending all this time, energy and money on elections:
Is it for political influence or policy influence? To achieve a higher profile? Buying his way to power? To let the ‘established’ political elite know he remains a key player perhaps? Or more genuinely attempting to represent ordinary Australian values, and shift policy contours?
Palmer has displayed a long interest in politics but perhaps he enjoys the game of it all.
And amid ongoing disquiet over his huge election spending, perhaps his ultimate legacy will be to prompt overdue reform of political advertising regulation.
Susan Harris Rimmer receives funding from the Australian Research Council and ONI.
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