Mining magnate Clive Palmer is pouring millions into political advertising for the Queensland election and, as at the federal poll, he is pushing a lie about a death tax the Labor Party never proposed. By Mike Seccombe.

Queensland: Inside Palmer’s outrageous campaign

Queensland businessman Clive Palmer.
Queensland businessman Clive Palmer.
Credit: AAP Image / Dave Hunt

On Monday morning, a text message pinged on A. J. Brown’s phone: “Stop Labors 20% Death Tax Open our borders Now.”

As ill directed as it was ill punctuated, the text was clearly meant to mislead the uninformed and the gullible, but Brown is neither of those. He is a professor of public policy and law at Griffith University, and a board member of Transparency International, a body devoted to exposing and campaigning against corruption in public life. As such he was alert to the many ways in which the message flouted electoral propriety.

For a start, although it clearly was intended to influence voters ahead of Saturday’s Queensland election, the message included no party identification or authorisation. A link in the text brought up the how-to-vote card of Garry Beck, the candidate for Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party in the seat of Gaven, in the Gold Coast hinterland. Gaven is currently held by Labor on a tiny margin of 0.7 per cent. The how-to-vote encouraged voters to preference Labor last.

But the text was not sent by Beck, or the UAP. It came from Clive Palmer’s mining company, Mineralogy.

Most egregiously, the substance of the message was a lie. Labor in Queensland has no plan to introduce a death tax – at 20 per cent or any other rate. Neither did the federal Labor Party during the last federal election, when Palmer promulgated the same lie and in doing so helped Scott Morrison to an unlikely victory.

“The fact that he’s recycling a completely fabricated campaign on the death tax issue is outrageous,” says Brown.

The death tax issue has been the dominant theme of UAP advertising in the closing stages of the election campaign, across mainstream media, social media and tens if not hundreds of thousands of spam text messages. But according to Brown, it’s not the only part of Palmer’s campaign that’s a falsehood.

Palmer’s UAP itself is not a political party in any normal sense, he says. The whole operation is “a cynical exercise that amounts to a type of subversion of the democratic process that electoral campaign finance laws should not permit”.

He’s not alone in this assessment. As Professor Graeme Orr, an expert in the law of politics at Queensland University, told Guardian Australia this week, the UAP, whose executive includes Palmer, his wife, his two children, his nephew and two former employees, was “designed to create the veneer of a genuine party, but also effectively so he and his family can never be voted out of office”.

ABC election analyst and Australia’s best-known psephologist Antony Green tells The Saturday Paper that Palmer’s party represents something Australian electoral authorities had never contemplated: an organisation prepared to spend huge amounts of money with no expectation of seeing its candidates elected.

Instead, the party’s purpose is to act as a spoiler, prising votes away from the progressive side of politics and delivering them to the conservatives.

“The problem with election finance laws,” says Green, “is that nobody ever wrote these laws with Clive Palmer in mind. They weren’t written on the basis of someone who would be prepared to spend millions and millions of dollars on an election without electing anybody.”

An examination of UAP’s website supports the experts’ contention that the party is not genuine in its intentions. Its policy manifesto runs to a single page, lacking any substantial detail. The section of the site devoted to media releases is likewise light on policy announcements, but heavy with releases related to Palmer’s many personal and business dealings and legal battles. And heavier still with statements attacking the Labor Party.

Of 53 people listed on the UAP candidates’ page, 11 do not even include a photograph. There are only the most cursory bios, and in many cases none at all. On the ground in the various electorates for which they are nominally running, most are all but invisible. And this, suggests Green, suits Palmer just fine.

It doesn’t matter, Green says, that the UAP has “a large number of candidates … doing very little campaigning”. What counts is not their activity but their number.

That is because of changes made to Queensland election law in June, which imposed spending caps on political campaigns. The more candidates a party puts up, the more it can legally spend. For each electorate in which it runs, a party can spend $92,000. This means the 53 people listed on the UAP website are collectively worth $4.9 million to Palmer’s campaign. In addition, each endorsed candidate may spend up to $58,000, or just over $3 million more.

The electoral law changes also went to caps on donations, but those will not come into effect until July 2022, which is fortunate for the UAP, because it has effectively only one donor. Although the Electoral Commission of Queensland records the money flowing into the party as having come from several sources, all are Palmer’s business interests, principally Mineralogy.

As of Wednesday, the ECQ recorded Palmer companies had kicked in more than $3.9 million to the party and its candidates.

This is serious money by the standards of a state election campaign, but it’s pretty small compared with the $83.6 million Palmer spent at last year’s federal election – a sum greater than the combined spending of both major parties. Yet even that amounted to a mere bagatelle for a man whose net worth more than doubled in the year to March, to $9.6 billion, according to The Australian Financial Review’s Rich List.

Even so, it would seem a poor investment, measured against the usual yardsticks of political spending: votes and seats won. Palmer’s party ran candidates in every seat in the nation at the 2019 federal election but attracted just 3.4 per cent of the national vote. It didn’t win a single seat.

Palmer nonetheless declared himself happy with the result. Speaking with ABC Radio shortly after Morrison’s victory, he said that about two weeks before the vote, polling commissioned by the UAP showed Bill Shorten and Labor on track to win.

“We thought that would be a disaster for Australia, so we decided to polarise the electorate and we thought we’d put what advertising we had left ... into explaining to the people what Shorten’s economic plans were for the country and how they needed to be worried about them,” he said.

Palmer said the preferences of UAP voters were decisive.

“Ninety per cent of those preferences flowed to the Liberal Party and they’ve won by about 2 per cent,” he said. “So our vote has got them across the line.”

Not true, according to Antony Green.

“It wasn’t Palmer’s preferences that elected the Coalition,” he says. “Every seat the Coalition won, they were ahead on first preferences anyway.

“It’s not his preferences – it’s his money. It’s his campaigning. It’s the fact that he was sending out this message that was witheringly attacking the Labor Party throughout the last two weeks of the federal election.

“And that’s the same in Queensland; it’s not going to be his preferences, it’s not going to be his votes,” says Green. “It’s going to be what he spends campaigning.”

Palmer’s tactics in Queensland closely mirror his federal election game plan. Then his organisation, operating more like an outsourced dirty tricks unit of the Liberal and National parties than an independent political operation, mounted the biggest, most expensive disinformation campaign in Australian political history.

While the UAP promulgated the lie of a death tax, the mainstream conservative parties artfully advertised that Labor would “tax you to death” – a claim that skated the line of falsehood.

And Morrison squeaked back into government, declaring the victory a miracle on election night.

The question now is whether that unlikely agent of the Lord, Clive Palmer, can produce another miracle for the conservatives in Queensland. The Liberal National Party and its leader, Deb Frecklington, could certainly use one, for things have not gone well for them over recent months.

Coming into this election year, the LNP looked competitive with Labor in the polls, and it seemed that, after two terms, the voters of the Sunshine State were growing disenchanted with Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.

A Newspoll last October had Palaszczuk’s net satisfaction rating – that is the number of people who were happy with her performance, compared with those who were not – languishing at minus 3. Then came Covid-19, and the premier responded decisively, shutting the Queensland border. By July, her net satisfaction was plus 35, according to Newspoll.

Despite continued criticism of Palaszczuk’s sealed border from the political right, notably New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian, there is little evidence her personal popularity has waned.

An Essential poll last week found 62 per cent of voters approved of the way she was performing, compared with just 28 per cent who disapproved.

It should be noted the dramatic lift in approval for Palaszczuk is not unique in this pandemic. Support for incumbent political leaders in all jurisdictions across Australia, and around the world – with the notable exception of Donald Trump – has been buoyed by the Covid-19 crisis. That is just bad luck for Frecklington.

But she has not helped herself. Her initial criticism of the Queensland border closures seriously misread the public mood.

And her party colleagues have not helped, either. In June, internal LNP polling was leaked to the media, showing Frecklington trailed Palaszczuk on 18 attributes, including likeability and optimism. The details of the leak were damaging for Frecklington personally, and the fact of the leak was damaging for the party as a whole, highlighting factional divisions.

A nasty row ensued. Frecklington declared she would “not be bullied by backroom boys”. Her supporters accused LNP president Dave Hutchinson – a property consultant to Clive Palmer – of planning a coup.

Frecklington was strongly backed by the state’s most powerful federal member, Peter Dutton, and Hutchinson was ousted. But damage was done.

Last month, in a move that smacked of payback against Frecklington and Dutton, reports emerged that the party organisation had referred the pair to ECQ in relation to alleged breaches of laws prohibiting political donations from property developers. The commission has not commented publicly about any investigation into the allegations.

The impression is one of a party that is far from united. And the LNP’s turmoil is but one element of a witch’s brew that has made this election utterly unpredictable.

One major imponderable relates to One Nation. At the previous Queensland election, in 2017, the far-right party received 13.7 per cent of the vote, statewide, with much of that concentrated in regional electorates, particularly in the Queensland deep north. It won just one of 93 seats in the parliament but finished second in 20 others, 12 of which went to Labor and eight to the LNP.

But according to a Newspoll carried in The Australian on Thursday, support for Pauline Hanson’s party has collapsed to just 2 per cent. The question now is where those former One Nation voters will go.

Newspoll suggests the bulk of them have transferred their loyalty to the LNP – internal ructions notwithstanding. Frecklington’s party was supported by 45 per cent of electors, up from 40.2 at the 2017 election.

At the other end of the ideological spectrum, support for the Greens also has declined, according to Newspoll, from 11.3 per cent in 2017 to 9 per cent, while Labor’s primary vote has gone up 1.6 percentage points to 41.

In two-party preferred terms, this movement of electors from minor to major parties leaves the election balanced on the finest of knife edges: 50.5 to Labor and 49.5 to the LNP.

But swings are never uniform, particularly in Queensland. In political terms, it is Australia’s most diverse state – the only state where a majority of electors live outside the capital city.

Voters in the inner suburbs of Brisbane are as progressive as any in inner Sydney or Melbourne. The electorate of Maiwar, for example, in Brisbane’s affluent and leafy western suburbs, was once Liberal Party heartland, but it returned a Green at the last election.

In all likelihood, the Greens will win another today, taking South Brisbane from the former deputy premier and lioness of the Labor left, Jackie Trad. Ironically, the Greens’ campaign has been greatly aided by relentless attacks on Trad by the LNP, which has placed her last on its how-to-vote cards.

As is the case elsewhere in inner-urban Australia, Labor is threatened by the loss of voters who are more concerned about issues such as climate change than the traditional concerns of the working class. But 1200 kilometres to the north, in the coal seats that delivered government to Scott Morrison last year, the party is assailed from the opposite direction.

The electorates of Townsville, Labor’s most marginal seat, on a margin of just 0.4 per cent; Mundingburra, where the incumbent Labor MP member is retiring; and Thuringowa, which Labor won in 2017 over One Nation, are the focus of LNP hopes for victory.

But in truth, it’s impossible to predict with any certainty where the election might be won, or which party will win it. This much can be said with confidence, though: the Palaszczuk government has a lot working against it.

“I see parallels between this election and the last federal election,” says Professor Joo-Cheong Tham, a specialist in political funding at the Melbourne Law School and a director of the Centre for Public Integrity.

“We have Clive Palmer – at least on the evidence we have right now – outspending both the major parties.

“Then we have the influence of fossil fuel interests – the Queensland Resources Council is running a very prominent campaign.

“And very worryingly, I think, we see the same tactics we saw at the last federal election, based on misinformation,” says Tham.

Regardless of who wins, he says, the election will likely be a test of the adequacy and enforceability of the new funding laws, in the face of the challenge presented to democratic norms posed by the corporate–political hybrid that Palmer has created.

And it is a most peculiar threat that Palmer presents. If Newspoll is right, his party will receive only about one-half of 1 per cent of the vote today. Yet its well-funded campaign of lies may be the deciding factor at this election, as it was at last year’s federal election.

The answer, says A. J. Brown, is more sweeping reform. Not only in Queensland, but nationally, and not just related to spending on political campaigns.

Next month Transparency Australia will release a detailed “national integrity system assessment” recommending a raft of measures to clean up Australia’s politics, among them a national integrity commission, new constraints on the activities of lobbyists, protections for whistleblowers, and – most importantly in the current context – laws against misleading or deceptive conduct in political campaigns.

Fine ideas, all of them. There is just one obvious problem, though. Their implementation would rely on politicians who owe their election to untruths.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 31, 2020 as "Queensland: Inside Palmer’s outrageous campaign".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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