The biggest wildcard of this election period may not have been played yet. At about this point of the 2019 campaign — two weeks before voters went to the polls — Clive Palmer decided to turn the blowtorch on Labor leader Bill Shorten.
“We thought that would be a disaster for Australia [if Shorten won],” Palmer told the ABC days after the election.
“So we decided to polarize the electorate and we thought we’d put what advertising we had left… into explaining to the people what Shorten’s economic plans were for the country and how they needed to be worried about them.”
Despite spending a record $84 million on that election campaign, Palmer’s United Australia Party didn’t win a single seat. But many in Labor credit the billionaire mining magnate’s relentless anti-Shorten blitz in the final stretches as helping depress the party’s primary vote.
Three years on, the only thing we can say with certainty about Palmer’s election plans is he still has a lot of money to burn for potentially no real political gain. He’s promised to spend about $70 million during the campaign.
Those messages, with the ubiquitous UAP yellow, are everywhere — from billboards littering highways to getting in the way of your YouTube binge. Recent data also shows where Palmer is outgunning the major parties.
The UAP has spent more than $2 million on general display advertising, totally dwarfing Labor and the Coalition. And on Google, there’s not even competition. Since 2020, $15.5 million of the $18.3 million spent on political advertising has been for the UAP.
That could spell trouble for Labor. Although Palmer says he won’t prefer the major parties (telling the National Press Club last month he’d take the Greens over Labor or the Libs), his saturation of the airwaves could crowd out the opposition’s messaging.
But so far, Labor would be relieved he hasn’t gone into full-on attack mode against Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese … yet.
Instead, the messaging from Palmer, and UAP leader Craig Kelly, has been all over the place. Palmer is spruiking a harebrained idea to “use the power of the Constitution” to cap interest rates at 3%, which has emerged as the UAP’s signature policy at this election.
In a rambling address to launch his party’s election campaign, Palmer talked about assets being sold to foreign buyers, the need to help more young Australians into the property market, and repaying the trillion dollars of Labor and Liberal debt through a minerals export license.
There’s also a policy about abolishing all student debt, which sounds like something right out of the Greens.
The big takeaway from analysis of the UAP’s ads is that after spending most of 2021 spreading disinformation about vaccines, and attacking “mandates”, the party is trying to focus its attention on broader cost-of-living issues, while tapping into some of the latent dissatisfaction around lockdowns and the pandemic.
A widely used recent ad is a case in point. In it, a UAP candidate stars into a camera and recites the following message:
“Was it worth it? Domestic violence, one trillion dollars of debt, broken families, bankrupt businesses, depression, loneliness. Never let it happen again.”
In other words, a kind of vague pitch intended to draw in various types of disaffected people.
So far, both major parties are being targeted. If anything, there’s been more criticism of Morrison, the incumbent.
Will Palmer get anything out of his big ad blitz? Kelly, who should’ve run in the Senate, is all but certain to lose his lower house seat of Hughes. Various opinion polls have put the UAP sitting at a steady 3-5% primary vote.
Palmer represents the party’s best chance at a spot in Parliament, fighting with Pauline Hanson, former Queensland Premier Campbell Newman (Liberal Democrat) and Coalition Senator Amanda Stoker for the roguest spot in the Senate.
But some Labor strategists worry the party could make inroads in outer suburban Melbourne seats like McEwen, Hawke and Dunkley, where voters ticked off at the city’s long lockdowns could back the UAP, making its preferences crucial.
So far, Palmer remains unpredictable, fulfilling his role as Australian politics’ chaos agent. While Australians largely ignored his attacks on vaccines, there are still plenty of undecided voters leaning away from the major parties.
There’s still no clear sense that vote is going to the UAP. Unless Palmer decides to do Morrison a huge solid, and hammer Albanese in the closing stages, his impact on this election could be minimal.