Can voters get past Palmer's billions?

As soon as the United Australia Party is registered donations will have to be disclosed, and voters can decide if it’s a party Clive Palmer simply belongs to, or one built wholesale around his wishes.

The Clive Palmer political juggernaut is gaining momentum, with the mining billionaire announcing on Friday that he’s about to launch a TV advertising campaign to raise awareness of the as yet unregistered United Australia Party.

In announcing the campaign, Palmer did not reveal how much it would cost. He was also unsure exactly how much money he’s personally given to the United Australia Party – though he did say others within the party had also put in money.

One of the big questions about the UAP is to what extent it will be taken seriously by voters as a party, rather than as one man effectively paying to build a party apparatus around himself. And even if they do see it as a massive ego trip, will it stop them penciling ‘1’ alongside his party’s name?

Ross Perot, billionaire presidential candidate in the 1992 and 1996 US elections, was able to garner 18.9 per cent of the 1992 popular vote. That equated to 20 million Americans overlooking the fact that his wealth, not his policy-making acumen, was his biggest asset.

There seems little chance now that the whole Palmer affair is a bluff. Three former or sitting Queensland MPs have put their names to his ticket, the campaign is ready to roll, and Palmer has assured reporters that the party registration process in on track (the AEC is not permitted to confirm or deny that it has received an application).

Working back from August 21,when writs will be issued for the September 14 election, the very latest that the party could come into existence is July 22. That’s because if the AEC accepts UAP’s registration, it has to advertise for four full weeks to solicit any objections to the party being formed (it might get a few angry letters signed Mr T. Abbott).

But to get back to money, is there any real advantage flowing from Palmer’s billions as he tries to get a party up and running in a very short time?

Adrian Bradley, a considerably less wealthy man, has been through the process in the past year to register the Bank Reform Party. He says there’d be merry hell to pay if the UAP’s registration was in some way expedited by the AEC. And without that, the wheels of democracy turn slowly indeed.

Bradley explains how to get 500 signatures to form a party, you really need to get around 700 to 800 people signed up. That’s because the AEC is rigorous in checking that the people exist, are registered to vote, and actually want to be in the party. Small problems with a signatory’s details can knock them off the list of 500 required names. They must, for instance, have a landline rather than just a mobile phone to show the AEC where they live. And any error in address or other personal details will also knock them off.

Before the party is formed, there is no limit to what Palmer can spend employing people to get the application for registration ready, and even door-knocking if a ready 700 or so people don’t step forward to join.

However, once the party is up and running it will have to disclose who its donors are, and in what amount they have donated. That’s where the distinction between a party Palmer belongs to, or one that is being built around a single man’s wishes, will become clear. If, as Palmer say, there is a substantial list of co-donors, Palmer edges closer to Don-Chipp-like status – just a true believer, trying to keep the bastards honest.

But if that list shows Palmer has given zillions of dollars, and others perhaps hundreds of dollars, then the UAP will be easier for the Coalition (which has most to lost from Palmer's crusade)  to depict as the desperate, ego-driven vehicle of one very rich man.

There is also the question of which other parties will be willing to swap preferences with Palmer – his candidates’ only realistic hope of having any power.

Adrian Bradley explains that this is not a straightforward question. Last weekend Bradley attended a conference in Sydney where representatives of 30 minor parties got together to explain what they’re about, and to find ways to trade preferences – that is, to find common ground or at least avoid radioactive patches of political terrain.

For example, Bradley says the BRP executive is working hard to ensure that the party is not hijacked by ‘loony right’ activists who wish to attach extreme views to the party’s otherwise fairly centrist policy list.

Bradley says there is always a loony-right fringe “searching for a home” and wishing to push racist views, or conspiracy-theory-based ideas about the economy. Or just dumb ideas, such as the old One Nation policy to tax every stage of production in industry with a flat tax, rather than tax only the end product.

The BRP has been approached by other parties across the spectrum, both left and right, and by some very senior political figures (who Bradley named, but on condition the information was not released at this stage). But which to do deals with? Getting that call wrong can quickly lead a minor party to be smeared with scandal.

Palmer will face exactly the same test. As described last week (We’re in the palm of Clive’s hand, April 30), the UAP will need very tight internal controls if it is to launch a candidate for every House of Reps seat – how do you ensure 150 people keep any un-PC views to themselves, at least until the election date of September 14?

Bradley thinks the UAP should find it relatively to attract “Hansonite” voters, because some of its policies can, at present, be interpreted as radical – and radically at odds with mainstream policy thinking. The feeling that ‘something must be done!’ too easily becomes ‘just about anything must be tried, since the major parties won’t do it!’

Though light on detail, UAP’s plan to fly refugees to Australia in droves and then fly them back if they are found not to be refugees, might appeal to voters who have been whipped into a state of anxiety about an armada of boats landing on our shores.

So too, the plan to open up value-added downstream processing of Aussie minerals, so we ship out more of the iron/steel/aluminium and less of the ores. That sounds good until the mix of economic barriers to such a move are considered – those industries are currently going out of business, not clamoring for more capital to open up more.

There is no doubt the early form of Palmer’s party will appeal to some voters. But just how many are put off when the full details of the party’s funding are released, is yet to be seen.

Australia does need another party to stir the policy pot. It doesn’t need an autocratic billionaire stirring trouble for fun. Within a month or two voters will get the details they need to decide which Palmer’s party is.