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Despite Clive Palmer’s outlandish claims of his party forming government, the United Australia Party leader has a canny election strategy: to benefit his mining interests. By Mike Seccombe.

What Clive Palmer wants for his $60m

The United Australia Party leader at a press conference in Townsville last month.
Credit: AAP Image / Michael Chambers

As the argument raged this week about the Liberal and National parties’ allocation of preferences to fringe right-wing candidates at the upcoming election, one of those candidates, Clive Palmer, was utterly dismissive of all the fuss.

It was a debate over nothing, he said on Monday, because: “The United Australia Party will win government, consequently our preferences may never be distributed.”

It was not the first time Palmer had made this fantastical assertion. And there is further evidence of a fantasy preparation for government on the UAP website.

Palmer has, for example, put up a series of releases naming various members of his ragtag team “shadow ministers”. Examination of their credentials shows few have relevant experience. His “shadow assistant treasurer”, to take but one example, runs a tyre shop on the New South Wales central coast.

Not that it matters much. These people have titles, but no real responsibility for their portfolio areas. When it comes to policy statements, everything comes from the leader – although “policy” is really too grand a term.

Under the heading of “national policy” on the site, there are four dot-pointed motherhood statements, relating to lobbyists, refugees, “mineral wealth” and wealth more generally. In total they come to 158 words, promising nothing specific.

To get greater detail, you must trawl through months of media releases, which provide a series of unresearched, uncosted, often internally contradictory thought bubbles.

Palmer may lack credible candidates or policy, but he does have one thing in abundance – cash. Independent tracking suggests he spent $30 million on advertising between last September and mid-April. Palmer himself says the figure now is up to $50 million. The final figure may be tens of millions higher.

According to this week’s Newspoll, all that expenditure has bought him maybe 5 per cent of the vote. Yet he continues to insist he will win government.

“Fake news,” he told Today’s Deborah Knight on Monday, when she questioned the prospects of a UAP government, given the Newspoll numbers.

“For too long people have pandered to people on the media in the news and worrying what they think like and how they appeal. As I said, my wealth’s $4000 million. Do you think I give a stuff what you personally think, or anyone else?” Palmer raged. “I care about this country.”

Last Wednesday, in a news release relating to the tragedy that is the Murray–Darling Basin Plan, Palmer lamented: “The sight of a million dead fish was sickening to every Australian and a blight on successive governments who have continued to botch the management of our most treasured and iconic river system.

“Corporate interests are being put before the needs of Australians who rely on this river system.”

If you stopped reading there, you would likely conclude Palmer favours tighter restrictions on water extractions and greater environmental flows. And fair enough, too, for that would accord with the scientific and other evidence showing the river system has been degraded through the overextraction of water by big irrigators, and by the corruption of process under the Nationals in particular.

But Palmer went on to attack the system that limits water extraction, and the idea that users should pay for what they use. His conclusion: the Murray–Darling Basin Plan isn’t working and therefore it should be abolished.

The Saturday Paper contacted Palmer’s campaign to seek further details of how he proposed to address the crisis and save the rivers and the fish, but received no response.

This is typical of many of Palmer’s “policies”, though – they are complaints about real or perceived failings of government that provide no alternatives. Or they make grand promises – such as a 20 per cent tax cut for people living at least 200 kilometres from their state’s capital, or a $150 a week increase in the aged pension, or tax deductibility on the first $10,000 in repayments on every home loan – but give no costings or other detail.

It is all maddeningly resistant to analysis. Those who have tried, including The Sydney Morning Herald’s Shane Wright, have concluded Palmer’s plans would cost untold billions and blow a huge hole in the federal budget. The pension promise alone would eat $15 billion a year.

But the reality is the UAP’s policies are never going to be implemented, because the party has no chance of getting anywhere near enough votes to form government. And Palmer knows it.

If he truly believed he could win, he would be running, as he formerly promised, in the marginal seat of Herbert in Queensland – for it is in the house of representatives that governments and prime ministers are made. Instead, Palmer is standing for the senate and, thanks to the recently inked preference deal with the Coalition, he has a good chance of winning a spot.

So, Clive Palmer is not delusional. Those too-good-to-be-true promises, the 151 hapless, hopeless candidates running in every lower house seat, the risible “shadow minister” titles, have been set up to create the illusion of a serious party with a broad suite of policies and deep interest in the disparate concerns of government.

The evidence suggests they are but a vehicle to harvest the votes of the politically ignorant and marginalised, a cohort described by one political professional as the “up yours” vote. And Palmer’s narrow goal is to ensure a right-wing government that will protect the fossil fuel industry, particularly the interests of coalminers in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, which includes himself.

Palmer’s association with coal and conservative politics goes back decades. He learnt his right-wing populist techniques at the side of the infamous National Party premier of Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Later, having made his fortune in real estate and mining, Palmer became one of the biggest donors to the conservative cause in his home state. But the long, cosy relationship busted up spectacularly in 2012, in a dispute with the Liberal National Party government of Campbell Newman over access to the vast coal reserves of the Galilee.

The Galilee Basin is much more than just the proposed Adani mine. It covers some 250,000 square kilometres and has one of the largest unexploited coal deposits on the planet. Nine separate mega-mines have been mooted. The Climate Council has calculated that if all the coal in the Galilee Basin were burned, it would produce 705 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year – roughly 1.3 times Australia’s total current yearly emissions. Exploitation of the Galilee’s resources would amount to a global climate catastrophe.

The biggest logistical problem for would-be miners in the Galilee is getting the coal to port. The cause of Palmer’s bitter falling-out with the LNP government was a decision to reject his plan for a rail line to carry his coal – and to charge other companies to carry theirs – in preference for two other proposals promoted by rivals: Indian mining giants GVK and Adani.

The fight between Palmer and Newman became floridly vituperative and legally complicated. Palmer accused the LNP government of corruption; the government in return cited its refusal to indulge him as proof that it was not. This stoush pushed Palmer to set up his first political party, the Palmer United Party, in 2013, and saw him elected to federal parliament for the lower house seat of Fairfax. Three PUP senators also were elected.

In Palmer’s three years in federal politics, he gave little indication of interest in the complex work of government. He was the most absent of all MPs. When he was there, he sometimes slept on the crossbench.

In September 2014, almost a year into Palmer’s first term, the ABC’s political correspondent Greg Jennett noted: “A full parliamentary record of crossbench votes reveals Mr Palmer attended only 19 of 202 ‘divisions’ or counted votes since entering Parliament, by far the lowest turnout of any of the 149 members on the floor.

“On the 19 occasions he has voted, 13 related to axing the carbon and mining taxes or associated votes on procedure.”

By early 2016, Palmer’s party was disintegrating and its polling numbers were crashing. The collapse of one of his companies, Queensland Nickel – which left the Commonwealth to pick up the tab for unpaid workers’ entitlements of almost $70 million – caused the scales to fall from voters’ eyes. Legal action to recover that money is ongoing. By 2016, though, the mining tax had been scrapped, along with Labor’s carbon pricing scheme. Pro-coal forces were dominant in the Coalition government, ensuring no meaningful action to address climate change. The future of the coal business looked safe. Palmer quit politics.

Things have changed since then. The electorate is increasingly in favour of progressive climate policy, with climate change emerging as a key factor in the voting intentions of young people in particular. In a clear sign of the shift in the political zeitgeist, seven high-profile lower house independent candidates – Kerryn Phelps in Wentworth, Andrew Wilkie in Denison, Zali Steggall in Warringah, Oliver Yates in Kooyong, Helen Haines in Indi, Rob Oakeshott in Cowper and Julia Banks in Flinders – signed a joint statement on Wednesday this week, which outlined 10 demands for stronger climate action. Key among them was opposition to the Adani mine.

It is the result in the senate, however, that will be crucial.

On the basis of polling carried out in mid-April by The Australia Institute, a Labor government would likely require the votes of the Greens and Centre Alliance and possibly other crossbench votes to pass legislation.

This explains why Labor has cut a deal with Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party in Victoria. In exchange for Justice Party preferences in the seats of Casey, Macnamara and Corangamite, Labor will preference Hinch’s party second on the senate ballot. Labor wants him re-elected, because it will likely need his vote.

Elsewhere, Labor will largely preference the Greens, as well as various independents running against the government in traditionally safe Coalition seats.

In the event the Morrison government is returned on May 18, The Australia Institute’s analysis predicts it would face “a nightmare scenario in the senate … potentially requiring the entire crossbench to pass legislation opposed by Labor and the Greens”.

And this is why the Coalition parties are preferencing Palmer candidates across the nation and, in Queensland, One Nation.

Since that poll was first taken, the numbers have shifted a bit but not in any consequential way, says The Australia Institute’s executive director, Ben Oquist. While the fortunes of Pauline Hanson’s party continue to decline as a result of its various scandals, her voters might be expected to move to Palmer.

Either way, the upshot is that if the Morrison government wants to have any hope of stymieing Labor’s policy agenda, much less winning the election, it needs the support of these two fringe parties. Or as Labor’s Penny Wong put it last week, the relationship between Morrison and Palmer amounts to a “marriage of convenience between an ad man and a con man”.

Mind you, Labor will preference Palmer candidates above Liberals in some 80 seats, which takes a lot of sting out of the gibe.

The motivations of the ad man are absolutely clear, but what about the motivations of the other party to that marriage of convenience? Why would a man whose previous parliamentary history demonstrated a studied lack of interest in the affairs of government spend $50 million, $60 million, $70 million – plus another $7 million promised as part payment of Queensland Nickel workers – to buy his way back in? As Bill Shorten suggests, Palmer’s not doing it out of altruism towards the Libs; he expects something in return.

That thing, says Christian Slattery, campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation, lies in the Galilee Basin. “He proposes two huge coalmines, one of which would be adjacent to Adani’s Carmichael mine. He has made application to the federal government for approval for that mine.”

According to documents submitted to the federal Department of the Environment and Energy by Palmer’s Waratah Coal, his Alpha North project would involve a series of open-cut and underground mines covering an area of 144,000 hectares, and would produce about 33 per cent more coal than the Adani mine.

The fortunes of Adani and Palmer are linked: Adani’s rail line would facilitate Palmer’s mine, and potentially others, getting coal to port.

The Morrison government is firmly behind the Adani project. Labor has been more cautious in setting out its position. Shorten, who once expressed opposition to Adani, is now evasive, saying his government would be guided by the science, and would not take any action that might involve sovereign risk.

It’s not hard to see why. The powerful Construction Forestry Maritime Mining Energy Union stands with the government on Adani, and there are marginal seats in north Queensland that Labor is keen to protect.

But things might well change after the election, depending on where Labor wins and loses seats, and particularly if the Greens manage a strong performance.

The prospect that a progressive majority in government policy might reflect both scientific reality and popular opinion – a strong majority of people are anti-Adani, according to the polls – scares the coal lobby and its political and media surrogates.

And so, we have seen in this election an extraordinary outpouring of hostility and untruths levelled against the Greens.

To offer a quick sample from the past week:

That they support death duties – they don’t. That they would abolish the alliance with the United States – a distortion of a nuanced argument cautioning against following Donald Trump on foreign policy. That they would abolish Australia’s defence force – a lie. That they would legalise heroin – a misrepresentation of a detailed drugs policy advocating harm minimisation. That they would “criminalise” the export of coal – they would phase it out by 2030, as the science indicates is necessary to avoid runaway global warming.

On Monday night’s Q&A, The Australian’s conservative but usually measured foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, joined the fray.

“There is absolutely no moral difference between preferencing Clive Palmer or Pauline Hanson or the Greens,” he said.

“The Greens party is a party of hatred of Western civilisation and of our economy, which wants to deindustrialise Australia and destroy every tradition we’ve been built on. They are absolutely as extreme and much more dangerous, because they’re much more competent than either Clive Palmer or Pauline Hanson.”

Sheridan’s fellow panellist, Guardian Australia editor Lenore Taylor, skewered him in the politest way: “I actually think competence is a factor to be admired in a political party,” she said.

Likewise, one might add, are honesty and tolerance.

But on May 18, the Morrison government will be relying on the preferences of Clive Palmer and Pauline Hanson.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 4, 2019 as "What Clive Palmer wants for his $60m".

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Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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