When you put his boasts under a microscope, Palmer is far less influential than he makes out, writes Paul Williams.
When you put his boasts under a microscope, Palmer is far less influential than he makes out, writes Paul Williams.

Palmer’s claims of swinging elections don’t stack up

ANALYSYS

VOTING for a minor party or independent isn't exactly a wasted ballot.

Our well-crafted system of compulsory preferential voting ensures all votes shape an outcome.

But the fact government in Australian can be formed only by one major party or another means minor party voting is a bit like mating mules: it sounds sensible but it's ultimately futile.

Enter Clive Palmer's United Australia Party.

Mr Palmer, just two months out from a critical state election, last week made his usual loud noises about one or other of his political nemeses.

In 2015 it was LNP Campbell Newman; last year it was Bill Shorten.

This year it's Annastacia Palaszczuk whom Clive labelled as "hopeless".

Hopeless? Palaszczuk won majority government at her last election; Palmer failed to win a single seat at his. And with 57 per cent of Queenslanders approving of Palaszczuk's leadership - with 76 per cent approving of her handling of the pandemic - Clive clearly thinks most Queenslanders are mugs.

Worse, Clive - a billionaire whose every syllable can move financial markets - should think very carefully before again running down the Queensland economy with stupid comparisons to "third world" conditions.

Billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer at Paradise Point on the Gold Coast. Picture: Russell Shakespeare
Billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer at Paradise Point on the Gold Coast. Picture: Russell Shakespeare

But Palmer, like all leaders who name political parties after themselves (remember Palmer's United Party?), rates his own political importance a little too highly.

Indeed, he loves to tell how he singlehandedly "saved" Australia from a "dodgy" Shorten government, and that he did it "for all Australians".

First, minor parties do not act for "all Australians".

Most are election vehicles for sectional interests which, by definition, means they cater for only a section of the community.

In Clive's case, it's investors in the mining industry.

Second, Palmer's claim to have eroded Labor's primary vote in 2019 and re-directed it, via preferences, to the LNP is flimsy at best.

Just look at the federal seat of Herbert, based around Townsville, where UAP did comparatively well, despite Clive paying local Queensland Nickel employees - just weeks before the election - the $70 million he long owed them.

UAP scored just 5.7 per cent of the vote in Herbert in 2019, finishing sixth out of eight candidates.

Former Labor member for Herbert Cathy O’Toole. Picture: Cameron Laird
Former Labor member for Herbert Cathy O’Toole. Picture: Cameron Laird

Yes, there was a 5 per cent swing away from Labor's Cathy O'Toole, but there was also a 3 per cent swing to Katter's Australian Party and a 1.6 per cent movement to the LNP.

These parties can lay a similar claim to unravelling Labor.

The likelihood that Clive had little to do with impaling Shorten is also found in the distribution of preferences.

UAP Herbert candidate Greg Dowling was the third excluded from the count and, of Dowling's final total of 5,517 votes, 60 per cent when straight to the Katter and Hanson parties.

Only about 30 per cent went to the LNP, and under 10 per cent to Labor.

The point is clear: had UAP not existed, most of Clive's disaffected voters would have gone straight to Katter (who won one House seat) and Hanson (who won one Senate seat) and not directly to the LNP.

Moreover, the vast majority of those voters were always going to preference the LNP over Labor.

Clive's presence in the 2019 election was therefore a mere distraction - one underscored by his failure to win a single seat.

And that brings us to the question of value for money.

The most conservative estimates put Palmer's 2019 election expenditure at $60 million.

For that investment, Clive scored a total of 835,000 House of Representatives and Senate votes, or 2.5 per cent of the 33 million votes cast.

Each vote therefore required $72 worth of advertising.

With the government refunding Clive about $2.80 for each vote, we can calculate Palmer's loss on investment at about 98.5 per cent. That's some business deal.

So what sort of impact will Clive have on the October state election?

For three reasons, almost none.

First, this election - like most during periods of crisis - will be a referendum on leadership, economic management and public safety.

These types of polls usually sees minor parties pushed to the side as worried voters return to the sensible centre.

Second, new electoral expenditure laws mean Clive can spend a maximum of $14 million across all 93 seats. He will likely spend far less.

Third, the lion's share of what remains of the disaffected populist vote will go directly to Katter and Hanson.

When Clive again fails on 31 October, we can only wonder when, not if, the big man hangs up his cheque book.

Paul Williams is a senior lecturer at Griffith University.

Originally published as Palmer's claims of swinging elections don't stack up


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