Just what is Clive Palmer up to in this election campaign? After a desultory campaign in 2013 when he won a lower house seat and initially three senators, he sat out the 2016 federal election. Now he’s back in full force spending upwards of $55 million before the election comes to an end. He’s standing candidates in every electorate and running a team in every senate constituency. Polling is showing him ‘influential’ in many swing seats with support running into the mid-teens in some electorates.
Why is he forking out so much of his own money on what looks like a pyrrhic campaign, and even if he is elected to the senate for Queensland, his record last time he sat in Canberra was hardly remarkable or diligent. So, why is he doing this in 2019?
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?
Many people say Palmer has no policies, he stands for nothing except himself, and is just fanning a protest vote. But is he? One of Palmer’s rivals, the NSW upper house member, Mark Latham, has already sais ‘in most (policy) areas, Palmer’s beyond the pale’, whatever that is supposed to imply.
True, Palmer tends to campaign from hackneyed slogans: ‘Make Australia Great’ and ‘Aussies aren’t going to cop it any more’ being the main two. He also authorises crass advertising which is more akin to a vacuum cleaner advertisement. Mostly his prominent billboards and full page poster-style advertisements feature himself, curtained in canary yellow, with the implicit message that that the Liberals and Labor ‘don’t fight for you’. He is partial to hyperbole, and in the media often lives in a world of denial.
At 2013 federal election Palmer’s United Party released a slender raft of policy proposals. He opposed the carbon tax and supported tax reductions; but he also proposed a more compassionate policy towards ‘illegal’ boat arrivals, a conscience vote on same-sex marriage, free university places for residents, tax relief for mortgagees, regional wealth retention, and smaller government. Many of his 2013 policies reappear in recycled form in 2019.
This election the UAP are proposing to increase pensions by 20% immediately (or $4,000 per annum for each pensioner). They are advocating an extra $80 billion on health and a further $20 billion into education over the next parliament. Palmer continues to support mining development (with more on-shore processing of commodities) and a zonal taxation system, with wealth generated in regions remaining in regions. He wants immediate investment in very fast trains. So far he has not re-endorsed free places for university undergraduates, but that proposal played out well over in New Zealand for Labor’s Jacinda Ardern.
The UAP are also fiercely criticising other policies supported by mainstream parties. For instance, Palmer opposes the ‘sell-off’ of our agricultural land to foreign buyers, targeting in particular Chinese government owned companies for their aggressive purchasing strategies. He opposes the ALP’s tax policy regarding it as insufficient and mostly deferred until after 2024. He wants all income tax rates reduced by 15% now, and for companies and small businesses to pay their tax bill at the end of the financial year once their earnings are finalised (thus abolishing the pernicious provisional tax paid quarterly in advance). He is also offering mortgagees to be able to offset the first $10,000 of repayments from their tax to help first home buyers. Furthermore, the UPA is campaigning for the abolition of the Murray-Darling Basin plan and ending the wasteful public profligacy of water buy-backs, and he claims that spending on the national broadband network has ‘wasted’ $55 billion ‘and it still doesn’t work’.
Palmer’s revival in his electoral stocks has occurred despite him being widely blamed for the collapse of his Yabulu nickel refinery in Townsville. The key perhaps to understanding Palmer’s gravity-defying electoral support is that he is a ‘positive populist’ rather than a largely negative populist along the lines of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, who has based her protectionist stance on race and xenophobia.
Palmer does not have the racist baggage his rival right of centre competitors have, including the PHON and Fraser Anning’s Conservatives. Palmer might not provide ‘programmatic specifics’ to his policies (to use a phrase Kevin Rudd infamously contorted), but he carefully focuses his positive populist messages to appreciative audiences. Certainly, some of Palmer’s electoral support will be simply a protest vote (and he will be aware of that) but perhaps some greater proportion will be voting for more genuine diversity from what the cartelised major parties are offering. Australia seems ripe for a more serious positive populism offered by Palmer and his UAP. The ultimate question will be whether the wheels will again fall of the wagon.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Professor John Wanna is Sir John Bunting Chair of Public Administration at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG). He holds a joint appointment with Griffith University and Australian National University (ANU), Canberra.
Author of over fifty books, Professor Wanna is a regular political commentator on TV (ABC, SBS, Sky, Channels 9 and 7) and the print media (The Australian, The Courier-Mail, The Saturday Paper, the Australian Financial Review, and The Conversation). He regularly appears as an Australian politics expert on other media outlets (Bloomberg, the New York Times, the Daily Mail, AFP, Reuters, Fairfax media).