Amid signs the vote for Clive Palmer’s party is dropping, a picture of his mainstay supporters is emerging. By Mike Seccombe.

Who votes for Clive Palmer?

Clive Palmer on a break from campaigning in the 2013 federal election.
Clive Palmer on a break from campaigning in the 2013 federal election.

April 1, day of fools and hoaxes.

And if you were to believe the spokesman for Clive Palmer, the Murdoch press was observing April Fools’ Day by having a big lend of its readers.

The morning’s page-one splash in The Australian reported that the federal government was preparing to wind up one of Palmer’s companies over a “looming” $36 million debt for unpaid carbon tax. This was not true, Palmer’s spokesman told us. And he offered a quote, attributable to his boss: “The Australian is full of fictitious (sic) writers.”

This wasn’t fair. Sure, the Oz had taken a bit of a stick to the story, extrapolating what Palmer’s liability would be if he didn’t pay up by next financial year. But the basis of the story, that Palmer’s Queensland Nickel had a liability for more than $6 million, overdue since June 17, was absolutely true. 

As was the assertion that this debt was accruing interest at the rate of 20 per cent a year, plus potential late payment penalties. Also true was the suggestion that the Clean Energy Regulator was looking at legal action. It had informed Palmer that it had set April 5 as the cut-off for the overdue payment before they would consider taking legal action.

Anyway, said the spokesman, emphasising the foolishness of The Australian’s piece: “He’s paid it. And it wasn’t even due.”

Palmer himself claimed the same thing, in a tweet: “Qld Nickel’s $6.8M Carbon Tax bill paid today before due date of April 5 as requested by the Clean Energy Regulator.” On ABC radio, he further drove home the point. “They wrote to us and asked us to pay by the 5th of April and that’s when it’s due. I don’t think you pay your tax before it’s due, do you?”

This brings us to a couple of points of Palmer semantics; to wit, the meanings of the words “due” and “paid”.

For most of us, the due date for a bill is the date by which the bill must be paid, not the last possible moment before creditors send in the bailiffs. 

But in Palmer’s understanding, in this case at least, the “due” date was not when the regulator expected payment; it was nine months later, just before it took action for recovery of the debt.

As for the concept of “paid”, the regulator said it had not received payment at the time Palmer and his spokesman were making their claims.

Many hours later, in the early evening, it released a written response, stating: “The Clean Energy Regulator can confirm it received a payment from Queensland Nickel of $6.8 million earlier today.”

The statement continued: “The payment reflects the debt which originally fell due in June 2013 in the amount of $6.1 million, plus 20 per cent interest per annum, through to 31 December 2013. The amount paid today clears the debt as it stood at 31 December, but it does not include interest accrued at the rate of 20 per cent per annum since then.

“A further debt in the amount of $2.27 million fell due in February 2014 ... The Clean Energy Regulator will continue to pursue the debts using appropriate means, including payment plans and court proceedings.”

Such a threat – not to mention the implicit accusation of less-than-total truthfulness – might cause most people to worry. If it worried Clive Palmer, though, it didn’t show.

Over in Western Australia, he was campaigning on behalf of his bespoke political party ahead of Saturday’s senate election. To the extent he expressed any concern, it was about a conspiracy against him: that the Abbott government was so worried about the rise of the Palmer United Party it had arranged for The Australian to do a job on him. Beyond his tax liabilities, it accused him of being a “tyrannical bully” to his bodyguard, of being prone to temper tantrums, of mass sackings of staff at his dinosaur resort, of flaky business dealings and spending like a drunken sailor, et cetera, ad nauseam.

Palmer was not a bit embarrassed. He embraced the media controversy as confirmation of his status as an underdog, picked on by big media and big politics.

As the deputy leader of the National Party, Barnaby Joyce, later commented: “People don’t realise, when you get stuck into Clive, you’re just advertising him.”

And that frustrates the heck out of the major political parties, because they know that out there in the electorate is a cohort of voters who are susceptible to that advertising.

1 . PUP voter demographics

Who are they, these people who find Palmer plausible? 

Well, given that his party has been in existence for less than a year, there is not a lot of research to go on, so any assessment requires a certain amount of reading of the tea-leaves. It can be said for sure, though, that on the basis of three elections in which the party has stood, its supporters are a very small part of the electorate. 

In the 2013 federal election, the PUP won about 5.5 per cent of the national vote. Even Palmer himself won election to parliament with just 26 per cent of the primary vote. The party also won two senate seats, one for Queenslander Glenn Lazarus, who got 9.9 per cent of the first preference vote, and Tasmanian Jacqui Lambie, who got about 6.6 per cent.

In last month’s Tasmanian election PUP did worse, getting about 5 per cent, and winning nothing. It achieved a similar result in the South Australian state election in March.

The West Australian result will provide further evidence, but to date, PUP’s popularity is not surging. It appears, rather, to be in decline: Nielsen pollster John Stirton says recent national polling shows PUP support down to about 4 per cent.

As for the demographic breakdown of PUP supporters, Stirton says on the limited data he has they appear to be older, though not elderly: people over 65 were actually slightly less likely to support Palmer. They are more likely to be male and more concentrated in regional areas.

ANU professor Ian McAllister, who co-directs the Australian Election Study, conducted after each federal election since 1987, says about 90 PUP voters turned up in the sample after the 2013 poll.

While it was a small sample, he offers some general observations, which largely accord with Stirton. PUP voters were older, more likely male, less likely than average to be tertiary educated. They were conservative but not necessarily former Coalition voters. Indeed, in the 2013 poll, they were more likely to be disaffected Labor voters. However, they delivered their preferences about 54-46 to the conservatives parties. 

“They tended to make up their minds at the last minute,” says McAllister.

And this is not unusual among minor party support, he says. People become disaffected with a major party, vote impetuously for someone else once or twice, and then usually go back.

Neither Stirton nor McAllister spoke to the income or employment status of Palmer voters.

But some slight, circumstantial evidence on that score comes from Ebiquity, an advertising monitoring service that has been watching not only how much advertising the various parties have been doing in the current WA senate campaign, but where they have been doing it.

The overall figures are astounding. Palmer is doing nine times as much advertising as either of the major parties. And while Labor and the Coalition have tended to concentrate their TV ads in prime-time slots, Palmer is also hitting morning and daytime.

“Judge Judy and Dr Phil,” says Ebiquity’s spokesman. “That’s an older and less employed demographic.” 

2 . Economic pessimism

And probably not a very happy one, if an Essential Media polling report that came out on April Fools’ Day is any guide.

As well as the usual polling on voting intentions – it had PUP down to 3 per cent nationally – the Essential poll asked its 1867 respondents what they thought about a variety of issues.

Most striking were the responses to a couple of economic questions.

Respondents were first asked to rate the overall state of the economy. Among Liberal voters, 47 per cent said good or very good. Among Labor voters, the figure was 38 per cent and among Greens, 36 per cent.

Then there was the category for “other” voters, which includes a bunch of minor parties, including the PUP. Within that group, the economic view was a whole lot darker. Just 21 per cent thought it good; 46 per cent said poor or very poor. Sixty-one per cent thought the economy was heading in the wrong direction.

What profile may be determined from all this of the average Palmer party voter? Older, male, not very well educated, not very involved in the political process and prone to making last-minute decisions not based on policy considerations. They are more likely to be living in the outer suburbs or the regions, and are very pessimistic about their economic prospects.

And, one might reasonably deduce, are more likely to be watching daytime TV than to be reading a national broadsheet.

Which makes such a voter just the kind to whom you can sell a PUP.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 5, 2014 as "The Palmer people".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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