Inside Palmer’s campaign to thwart Labor
Clive Palmer has a history of giving extravagant gifts.
In 2010, he gave a free holiday in Fiji to 750 workers at his Townsville nickel refinery, and new Mercedes-Benz cars to about 50 of them. All up, the cost was some $10 million.
That was generous, although the bonuses were but a small fraction of the $200 million Palmer said his staff earned him that year. It was also nowhere near as generous as the gift the mining magnate gave at the 2019 election.
As of this week, with the release of donation returns by the Australian Electoral Commission, we can put a figure on his political largesse: $83,681,442, given through Palmer’s flagship company, Mineralogy. It was by far the biggest donation in Australian political history.
The AEC credits the donation to Palmer’s own United Australia Party.
However, the evidence, including the testimony of some of his party’s 2019 candidates, suggests the purpose of this expensive exercise was not to win seats for the UAP so much as to defeat Labor by harvesting preference votes for the Coalition.
In the wake of the release of the AEC data this week, The Saturday Paper sought out UAP candidates who stood at the last election. They were not easy to find.
Although the UAP website is still accessible online, it exists only in zombie form. The names of the candidates are there, though the phone numbers attached to them no longer work. Nor do their email addresses. There is only the sketchiest biographical detail for some of them and none at all for most.
Brian Burston is listed as the party’s sole parliamentary representative – even though he was elected to the senate for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party, defected to the UAP and then lost. And three long-dead former prime ministers – Joseph Lyons, Billy Hughes and Sir Robert Menzies – are claimed as the party’s own, solely on the basis that they represented another United Australia Party, more than 70 years before Palmer used the same name.
There are election videos, too, of candidates giving their various takes through the script written for them, and Palmer himself scaremongering about the consequences of a Labor election win. Apparently, Bill Shorten’s economic policy would make “four million older Australians homeless and destitute”.
Like the Lord, Clive Palmer giveth and taketh away. In 2016, when the price of nickel crashed, he mothballed his nickel operation and sacked his workers. In 2019, having failed to win a single seat in either the senate or house of representatives, he mothballed his party and consigned his candidates back into the obscurity from which they had come.
The difference is that the refinery workers were angry at being sacked and stiffed for their entitlements by their billionaire boss. Three years later, just before the election, he finally agreed to pay the hundreds of workers the $7.16 million he owed them. His former candidates, on the other hand, were not at all unhappy.
Peter Cozyn, for example, considers himself a winner, even though he failed in his bid for the safe Labor seat of Ballarat, and ended up considerably out of pocket for the experience.
“I said before the election if I got 5 per cent of the vote, that would be a victory,” he says, and points to a story that ran in the local Ballarat paper, The Courier, several weeks before election day.
In fact, in his Courier interview, Cozyn predicted, on the basis of polling, that the party as a whole would get only about 5 per cent of the vote. He also said of Palmer, “... you’re dealing with a man who is putting $70 million of his own money on the line, so you know he is looking for a return, there will be a return on the investment …”
In the end, Cozyn received 4.6 per cent of the vote – somewhat better than UAP’s national average of 3.43 per cent.
And what was the return on Palmer’s investment and his time campaigning? Keeping the Coalition in government and Labor out.
Given he didn’t realistically expect victory for himself or his party, Cozyn entirely approved of Palmer’s decision to give the UAP preference, across the board, to the Liberals.
“The only way we could make an impression was through a preference deal,” he says.
Unlike many other UAP candidates, Cozyn was not a political neophyte, having previously been a member of One Nation. In February last year, he was chosen for the second position on its Victorian senate ticket.
But One Nation wanted him to put up $12,000 to fund his own campaign. He also had issues with Hanson’s chief of staff, James Ashby – as did a number of other defectors. And he was mates with Brian Burston, who had gone over to Palmer’s outfit eight months earlier.
He went looking for a better offer than One Nation’s.
“I approached them, went to the Queensland office of the UAP. Five days later I got a letter inviting me in for an interview and screening,” he says.
Cozyn was chosen to run for Ballarat, even though he lived in Melbourne.
The operation he joined was far slicker than One Nation, he says.
About a month before the election Palmer brought all his candidates – 151 for the house of representatives, and three for the senate in each state and territory – plus, reportedly, their partners, to attend a lavish two-day training weekend at his resort in Coolum, on the Sunshine Coast.
Media reports at the time suggested those attending were handed hundreds of dollars in cash to pay for campaign expenses. Cozyn, though, says he paid for his own accommodation in Ballarat for four weeks of the campaign.
But he was impressed in Coolum, not only with the affluence, but also with the calibre of his fellow candidates. Although, he says, “as with One Nation, there were a few [about whom] you thought, ‘How’d you get in here?’ ”
Cozyn is an electronics engineer with a master’s degree in telecommunications and is a lecturer, though he doesn’t say where, proffering this information as proof he is smart. He adds, for some reason, that a lot of al-Qaeda operatives are smart engineers, too.
But it’s clear the prospect of being seen as flaky fringe political players bothered him and a number of UAP candidates, John McSweyn included.
McSweyn is one of the few accorded a brief bio on the party’s website, as “Managing Director of The Brokerage Connection, offering a national franchise network in business broking, business coaching, mortgage broking and real estate sales”.
He tells The Saturday Paper he was a Liberal voter, but otherwise uninvolved in politics before hooking up with Palmer’s party. Asked what motivated him to join the UAP, he nominates Labor’s policies to wind back the generous tax treatment of capital gains, negative gearing and “what they wanted to do with the credits on shares and all that”.
McSweyn admits he had his doubts, early on, but they were allayed by the sophisticated operation he witnessed in Coolum, and by his fellow candidates.
“We had a really good conference up in Coolum,” he says. “I talked to a lot of people and some were really intelligent and well-meaning people. You might think they were all sort of ratbag people. I was surprised myself. Better candidates than I expected.”
And he was pleased, too, with the resourcing of his campaign.
“The support from Clive and all the head office staff and that was excellent: a lot of flyers, a lot of signage, just a lot of general support. And towards the end, you know, some money to help volunteers and that type of incidentals.”
Unlike Cozyn and many other UAP candidates, McSweyn lived in the electorate for which he stood. Unfortunately, that seat was Cook, held by Scott Morrison.
He knew he had no chance and when the votes were counted, McSweyn had just 1.21 per cent. Though he didn’t have expectations for his own campaign, he had hoped the UAP might pick up some seats, “but it didn’t pan out that way”.
So, was it a waste of time and money? Not at all, says McSweyn.
“At least it got the Liberals over the line in a lot of areas, especially Queensland,” he says, adding that he would consider running again.
The electorate of Gilmore on the New South Wales south coast was a much closer contest than either Cook or Ballarat during the 2019 election. Ultimately, it was won by Labor’s Fiona Phillips, with 52.6 per cent of the two-party preferred vote.
She was mightily assisted by the preferences of the Greens, who got almost 10 per cent.
The UAP candidate was a Batemans Bay real estate agent and former Eurobodalla Shire councillor, Milton Leslight. He got 3.38 per cent of the primary vote.
Leslight was the most independently minded of the party candidates spoken with for this article. Where others had views on a limited range of issues and were apt to recite Palmer talking points, Leslight had strong, heterodox views on all manner of subjects.
He thinks, for example, that Australia has too many layers of government and one should be abolished. He has not forgiven Bob Hawke and Paul Keating for cutting tariffs more than 30 years ago, specifically on clothing textiles and footwear, a sector in which he once worked. He links it to youth suicide in Australia. He doesn’t like Chinese investment in Australia.
He continues, for 40 minutes, down all manner of policy burrows.
Before the UAP, Leslight was a member of One Nation – he still speaks glowingly of Hanson herself, as well as her climate-change-denying senate colleague Malcolm Roberts, although he has no time for James Ashby – and, even post-Palmer, can’t resist the siren call of politics. Last Friday, he published a press release in his own name, setting out a long list of actions that should be taken in the wake of this summer’s bushfires.
Suffice to say, he doesn’t much like the Liberals, likes Labor less, and really dislikes the Greens. He is thus happy with the election outcome.
Eurobodalla Shire, which includes Narooma, Broulee and Mogo, was one of the regions worst affected by the fires. Leslight doesn’t blame climate change for this crisis. “Australia has too many national parks,” he says. “Seven hundred here compared with just 69 in the US.”
It’s important to note that most protected land in the US is in state parks, of which there are more than 10,000. Land held in conservation makes up about 10 per cent of the entire country.
Leslight may not be intentionally misleading. He may just be honestly wrong, but he cites statistics with confidence. Another statistic is that the trade unions spent twice as much as Palmer did during the election.
In reality, says Kate Griffiths, a fellow of the Grattan Institute, who has analysed the AEC election data, unions were big third-party campaigners in 2019, spending some $32.6 million. But this was way less than half Palmer’s $84 million.
Overall, political parties spent about $430 million on last year’s election.
“Forty-one per cent of that spending by all parties for the 2019 election was by the Coalition parties,” Griffiths says. “Labor spent 28 per cent, and Palmer 21 per cent.”
Given that Palmer spent most of that money on anti-Labor advertising, she says, one might reasonably add it to the Coalition’s spending.
“And that amounts to a much bigger division between the major parties, in terms of a campaign war chest, than we’ve ever seen before,” she says.
Even if one adds in the third-party spending by unions and others, including GetUp!, on the left of the political spectrum, the conservatives still outspent them more than two to one.
This imbalance sheds new light on an old debate about the importance of money in determining election outcomes. Of the past five federal elections, says Griffiths, the winning party was the one that spent more. The exception was 2010, when the Coalition spent more, but Labor squeaked back into government, albeit in a hung parliament.
The question has always been whether money leads to electoral success or if it follows the likely winner.
The 2019 election, says Griffiths, adds weight to the case for the former. Labor had been consistently ahead in the polls right up until the campaign began. Then the big money poured in, backing the conservatives, and they won.
So, does that mean Clive Palmer bought the election for the Coalition?
“I guess that depends on what his purpose was. Was his original purpose to win seats or to keep Labor out?” asks Griffiths.
She notes Palmer himself suggested both those intentions. Before the election, he said his goal was to win power for his own party; afterwards he claimed credit for re-electing the Morrison government.
Whatever his intention, though, there is little doubt his massive spending was a major factor in the election.
The authoritative Australian Election Study, which examines the reasons for election results, put it thus in its report released in November:
“Measured by first preference votes, there was a swing against both the Liberal-National Coalition (-0.6%) and Labor (-1.4%) in the election. The Coalition managed to secure a greater number of seats than in 2016, despite the lower primary vote. The Coalition won the election through preferences flowing from the minor parties.”
The authors were not talking about the Greens, whose vote remained essentially unchanged, but about the twin right-wing populist parties, UAP and One Nation, which won 6.5 per cent of the primary vote between them.
It may well be that the most true claim Clive Palmer made during his whole campaign was that he won it for the Morrison government.
And what does he stand to gain? It’s worth noting that one of the reasons Brian Burston split from One Nation was his support for tax cuts for big corporations, such as Palmer’s.
As is the fact that the billionaire has plans to build a massive new coalmine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin – several times the size of the controversial Adani proposal.
Palmer has good reason to back a coal-friendly government, as even his UAP candidate Peter Cozyn concedes:
“People say Clive Palmer did it for himself, which is probably true.”
The obvious answer to the problem of wealthy individuals attempting to influence elections, as many have noted, is electoral law reform.
Last December, parliament’s joint standing committee on electoral matters reported on its inquiry into changes proposed in a bill from crossbench member Rebekha Sharkie, which would have required far more detailed disclosure of where money was coming from.
Both major parties rejected it.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 8, 2020 as "Inside Palmer’s campaign to thwart Labor". Subscribe here.