We have never seen anything quite like it before. Newly re-instated billionaire, Clive Palmer, has set out to buy political influence and support by spending millions of dollars pestering voters. This in itself has the major parties concerned. But what has also got them worried is his anti-establishment message not only plugging into political disillusionment but further making it worse.
In this, the controversial Queensland businessman seems to be imitating another billionaire, Donald Trump. Trump played the outsider but he did it by hijacking one of America’s major parties, not by attempting to set up one of his own.
A Newspoll of the marginal Queensland seat of Herbert based on Townsville found that Palmer’s United Australia Party was cannibalising the other protest parties of the right. Not only was the Liberal vote down but so was Pauline Hanson’s support and that of the other colourful character, Bob Katter.
Herbert was polled because Palmer says he will run as his United Australia Party candidate in the seat. That in itself requires the hide of a rhinoceros. Three years ago, Palmer’s nickel refinery closed down throwing 800 locals out of work without their entitlements. He is now talking about re-opening the enterprise, but unless that happens before the expected May election, no saturation of the radio and TV airwaves will easily restore his reputation there.
But it is clear Palmer’s ambitions go beyond Queensland. Analysis for The Australian by the media and marketing consultancy Ebquity has found Palmer has spent $3.49 million on advertising on radio and TV in the major capitals alone and that’s just in the first three weeks of January. The amount skyrockets to $7 million since September. Then there are the billboards around the nation and a phone texting campaign reaching millions of voters whether they like it or not.
Labor’s Bill Shorten describes Palmer as “Australia’s number one digital serial pest”. He says he will take him seriously when he pays workers the $70 million he owes them and when he pays back taxpayers, who, through the government, stepped in to fulfil the obligations to his sacked workers he would not.
Veteran media analyst Peter Cox says there’s no doubt the blitz gives Palmer “reach and frequency” but it also “produces resentment”. This is a worry for the major parties. A senior Liberal strategist says Palmer is debasing the currency so much so, it will turn off people taking any notice of anyone’s ads when the big players crank up their spend closer to the poll.
Enough voters were prepared to lodge their protest vote with Palmer back in 2013 giving him senators in three states and himself a seat in parliament. He spent up big then but it was a drop in the bucket compared to now. The Coalition with its instability and leadership churn, emulating Labor in government, have kept the urge for protest alive even though the record suggests Palmer offers nothing better than snake oil.