While the nation’s attention is rightly focused on just who threw a Vegemite sandwich at Prime Minister Gillard, in the background Clive Palmer’s campaign to eat the major parties’ lunch continues apace.
A few days ago Palmer revealed another four candidates for various Queensland seats, and continues to claim that he’ll find others for all 150 seats across the country.
While his chances of success have been dismissed by just about everyone, Palmer’s political potency relies on two factors.
Firstly, his candidates’ preferences, if directed away from the Coalition, may upset the swings required to oust Labor candidates in some seats – and as politics professor Brian Costar told me yesterday, on current polling there’s a chance that every Labor seat in Queensland could fall, including those of Kevin Rudd and his old high-school buddy Wayne Swan.
And a second Palmer effect emerged this week, with NSW Greens MP Cate Faehrmann using Palmer, and fellow conservative renegade Bob Katter, as a rallying cry for the Greens vote. She warned that any success they have will lead to "cowboy behaviour" and that "we are very much the counter to that". So even though Palmer might not win any seats, his looming presence could be useful to the Greens.
But there is also a good chance that the critics are wrong. Palmer could pick up One-Nation-type votes in rural and outer-metropolitan Queensland, and there is speculation of a preference deal between Palmer and Katter that could at least bolster the latter’s chances of winning seats.
Katter is much more likely to galvanise the old Hansonite vote than Palmer, especially given that the Palmer’s United Australia Party (still not registered) has announced it will allow a conscience vote on same-sex marriage.
The more extreme voters who may be attracted to Katter – despite him not actively campaigning to their prejudices – who think Australia is being invaded by dole-bludging, disease-carrying, democracy-hating foreigners, tend not to be well disposed towards ‘Adam and Steve’ wanting to get hitched.
One of the great frustrations facing Palmer is that perhaps his greatest asset – his personal wealth, which has been estimated at up to $8 billion – largely can’t be used to advance his political cause.
So far, four of the ten UAP candidates announced already work for Palmer-owned companies. But for those who don’t, Palmer cannot simply dip into his rather deep pockets to offer financial incentives to serve the party. That is, they must join the part for reasons of love, not money.
The Australian Electoral Commission guidance on this is pretty clear: “A person shall not, with the intention of influencing or affecting ... any candidature of another person ... give or confer, or promise or offer to give or confer, any property or benefit of any kind to that other person or to a third person. Penalty: $5000 or imprisonment for two years, or both.”
So Palmer’s money is of little use in recruiting the next 140 or so candidates. If he made the error to trying to grease the palms of potential candidates, any electoral wins would be open to legal challenge by other parties.
Similar actions were brought against Pauline Hanson’s One Nation – most famous was the legal fighting fund set up by Tony Abbott in 1998, which John Howard was forced to reveal he knew nothing about. You can bet similar funds would be set to take on Palmer if any sniff of electoral impropriety were to be detected.
And without being able to 'incentivise' people to run, finding good candidates could prove a real headache. There will be no shortage of volunteers, but the UAP will need extremely tight vetting processes to avoid enlisting people with hidden and extreme views such as racism, conspiracy theories, or ridiculous economic ideas.
Palmer’s road to Canberra relies on one very simple trend in current politics – that though voters overwhelmingly favour a Coalition government for the next parliament, the polls show they still have a very low opinion of both Abbott and Gillard. The farcical ‘Palmer for PM’ line is designed to make the movement look larger than it is, and to get a little momentum going among the disillusioned voters who don’t like either side’s performance over the past few years.
That momentum may come to something, but if it does it will be real sentiment among voters and candidates – not something that can be bought.