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As membership of the United Australia Party surges, its policy platform remains built almost entirely around Covid-19 conspiracies. By Mike Seccombe.

Palmer’s UAP now largest party by membership

The story of how Craig Kelly came to leave the Liberal Party and join forces with Clive Palmer is long and convoluted but ultimately traces back to Donald Trump and a crackpot doctor in the United States.

Most Australians would never have heard of Dr Vladimir Zelenko. Most Americans hadn’t either, before Covid-19 reached the town of Kiryas Joel, a community of 35,000 Hasidic Jews an hour’s drive north of New York City.

Early in March last year, about a month into the pandemic, Zelenko developed an experimental treatment for the virus, involving the antibiotic azithromycin, zinc sulphate and an antimalarial drug called hydroxychloroquine. He tried it on hundreds of patients and claimed a 100 per cent cure rate. On March 21, he recorded a video detailing his treatment, and sent it off to Donald Trump. It also was posted on Facebook and YouTube.

Within days, the obscure doctor became a celebrity of the political far right. He was praised by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, for “thinking of solutions, just like the president”. His “cure” was extensively touted on Fox News and elsewhere, and Trump himself called it possibly “the biggest game changer in the history of medicine”.

In this country, too, Zelenko won conservative followers. Among the most ardent were Clive Palmer and Craig Kelly. The mining billionaire went on to import some five million doses of hydroxychloroquine, which were never used, and Kelly, the former furniture salesman and member for Hughes, telephoned Zelenko, who “explained to me in sort of, in layman’s terms, why it works”.

This was the beginning of an important alliance. Palmer approached Kelly and offered him money to help spread the word on hydroxychloroquine. Soon after, Kelly left the Liberal Party. Eight months later, they lead what they claim to be the largest political party, by membership numbers, in Australia.

“Earlier this week we passed 65,000 members,” Kelly tells The Saturday Paper.

“We believe this makes us the largest. The Labor and Liberal parties don’t publish any numbers, but in articles here and there, they talk about 50,000.” He and Palmer expect many more supporters come the election.

“We’ve ordered 160,000 T-shirts and hats for election day, because that’s how many people we believe we’ll have. One thousand people on the ground in each electorate.”

The attire will be in Palmer’s trademark yellow and black, although what is printed on it is yet to be determined. Likely it will be the Trump-derivative slogan that appears on the party’s website: “Making Australia Great”.

Part of the party’s rapid growth, Kelly acknowledges, is the ease of joining. There is no membership fee and new members simply fill in an online form. Still, this satisfies the Australian Electoral Commission’s definition.

It remains unclear exactly what democratic role all those members will play, other than handing out how-to-vote cards on election day.

In other parties, grassroots members have a say in candidate selection. The UAP, in contrast, has taken the unorthodox approach of running ads in the media seeking nominations.

In most parties, leaders are determined by a vote of the elected representatives, but Kelly was simply appointed. By whom, and by what process, the August 23 media release did not specify.

Also questionable is what role members might take in policy formulation. The constitution of the UAP makes reference to a policymaking structure, but at the 2019 federal election the party’s few, mostly vague policies appeared to have been dictated by Palmer alone. The rank and file – and even candidates – were silent and invisible.

Kelly acknowledges this but insists “this election will be completely different”. He says: “Clive’s taking a backward step, as the chairman of the party.”

This time Kelly will be the main frontman, but there also will be a lot of other spokespeople.

“As we get our candidates preselected, we will have, like, a spokesman for each portfolio area that will actually have some expertise in that particular field. We’ll have a shadow Health minister or Health spokesman – they’ll actually be a doctor or a professor of medicine. We’ll have an Agriculture minister that is a farmer. A Veterans’ Affairs minister who’s seen real bullets.

“We’ve already got some very, very high-profile people put their hands up, you know, from professors of medicine to high-ranking sporting personalities.”

Kelly declined to name these people. Likewise, the policy platform, he says, “is still being developed and finalised”, but the big message is freedom.

“Freedom from medical coercion, freedom from lockdowns, freedom from censorship, and freedom from police injustice. They’re the four basic platforms to restore the freedoms that have been taken away from Australians.”

In fact, almost everything that Kelly enumerates in the way of policy goals – including apparently progressive commitments to a national anti-corruption body and the implementation of an Australian bill of rights – he relates back to the views he holds on Covid-19 and vaccinations and his belief that people like him are being persecuted and silenced.

Apart from that, the only subject that gets him really animated is climate and energy policy. He is sceptical about the role of human activity in changing the climate; doubts the usefulness of renewables; wants to keep mining, burning and exporting coal; and wants Australia to invest big in nuclear energy, although not nuclear weapons.

In short, there’s not much policy, and what there is reflects the personal prejudices of the party’s leaders.

But while the UAP’s policy is thin, its wallet is not. Kelly says his billionaire patron is prepared to spend “whatever it takes” to become a force in politics. The party will run candidates in all 151 house of representatives seats, he says, as well as the senate.

“There’s no reason why we can’t win a senate seat in every state, which would hopefully give us the balance of power. In the lower house, I think I’ve got a real shot at winning my seat and a number of others,” he says, although he does not identify any target seats.

Of course, Palmer expressed similar hopes before the 2019 election. He, his wife, and associated companies spent more than $84 million on the UAP campaign but failed to win a single seat in either house.

Despite this, shortly after the election Palmer declared himself well pleased with the result.

He said that about a month before polling day party research showed the UAP would win 11 per cent of the national vote, and four senate seats.

“But it also showed Bill Shorten would be elected prime minister,” Palmer told ABC Radio at the time.

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

“Immediately the LNP vote went up to about 43 per cent. When the election was held that cost us a lot of votes but improved the government’s position. We got 3.5 per cent and 90 per cent of preferences have flowed to the Liberal Party and they’ve won by about 2 per cent. So our votes got them across the line.”

Palmer’s numbers were wrong. In fact about 65 per cent of those who voted for his party gave their preferences to the Coalition, as did a similar proportion of those who voted for One Nation.

But his claim that the UAP helped Scott Morrison to his narrow win is arguably right. Preference flows were only part of the help the UAP gave Morrison. Perhaps a bigger assistance was the vast sums it spent spreading disinformation about the opposition – most specifically by falsely claiming Labor would implement a “death tax”.

It was a lie, but the Liberal Party piggybacked on it, advertising that Labor would “tax you to death”.

And the UAP did not stop pushing the line once the federal election was over. It trotted it out again before last October’s Queensland poll. The death tax lie is still up on the UAP website.

Palmer’s admission in that 2019 ABC Radio interview serves as confirmation to many observers that the UAP is not a political party in any normal sense, but rather a vehicle set up to benefit the major conservative parties by means the parties themselves dare not embrace.

One of these critics is Geoffrey Watson, SC, a former counsel assisting the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption and a current director of The Centre for Public Integrity, an organisation devoted to greater accountability in public institutions, and eliminating undue influence of money in politics.

He describes Palmer’s mammoth spend in the 2019 federal election as “the biggest third-party campaign in Australian history”.

He elaborates: “A third-party campaign usually takes the form of somebody – like the Minerals Council or the trade unions – who are not standing for election but are supporting one side, putting out propaganda which is designed to help one of the principal parties. That’s exactly what Palmer did.”

Professor Joo-Cheong Tham, of the Melbourne Law School, one of Australia’s leading experts in the law of politics, says there is effectively no prohibition on political parties lying, other than a very narrow prohibition against false and misleading statements when it comes to the casting of votes.

“Otherwise, there is no regulation as to the truth or falsity of campaign statements in federal elections,” he says.

Palmer’s admission that he set out to sow division among Australians, says Tham, should be seen as “a kind of political vandalism”.

He concedes that trying to regulate against false or misleading statements in election campaigns is very difficult.

“Obviously, it’s not desirable in a democracy to have false statements circulating. At the same time, there are real issues in terms of free speech, and in terms of who determines the truth and falsity of statements.”

But there are other steps that could be taken to limit the influence of the likes of Palmer, he says, such as capping donations or spending. Most states now have taken one or both. New South Wales has caps on both donations and spending. Queensland limits spending. Victoria limits contributions.

“But most of the important jurisdiction in our country, the federal level, has got the weakest regulation,” Tham says. “There’s no limits on spending and no limits on the amount of donations.”

All of which means there is nothing to stop Palmer again spending vast sums promulgating false and misleading claims, to the ultimate benefit of the Coalition.

Indeed, his capacity to spend big has greatly increased since 2019, as a result of booming iron ore prices. As of May this year, according to The Australian Financial Review Rich List, Palmer was worth $13 billion.

Craig Kelly insists, however, that the UAP under his leadership is not a stalking horse for the Coalition. He calls himself an “equal opportunity critic” of the major parties, and says his inclination is to preference all sitting members last, although that strategy is yet to be finally determined.

There is no love lost between Kelly and the government. He says he knew he had to quit after Morrison’s office called him in and demanded he “censor my own Facebook and gave me a list, a very long list, of posts that they wanted me to delete”. He was also upset that the prime minister criticised his views in parliament. “I just felt that either I had to shut up and go against my conscience, or continue to speak out.”

He went with his conscience, and his belief that the current Covid-19 vaccines are ineffective and likely dangerous, that vaccine mandates are a threat to freedom, and that the prohibition on alternative treatments such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin is an unconscionable interference “with the sanctity of the doctor–patient relationship”.

Kelly has the courage of his convictions. He remains proudly unvaccinated.

While his views, which now are UAP policy, are shared by only a small minority of Australians, it takes just a small number of voters operating on the basis of disinformation to swing an election, as was the case in 2019.

It could yet come to pass that it will happen again, in which case Kelly’s greatest service to the Liberal Party will have been quitting it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 16, 2021 as "Palmer’s UAP now largest party by membership".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.