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As speculation mounts that Clive Palmer will seek a preference deal w ith the Coalition, his advertising spending in some markets is more than 200 times that of his rivals. By Rick Morton.

Clive Palmer and how to buy the balance of power

Craig Kelly and Clive Palmer at the United Australia Party’s campaign launch on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland last weekend.
Craig Kelly and Clive Palmer at the United Australia Party’s campaign launch on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland last weekend.
Credit: AAP / Darren England

Clive Palmer writes his own ads. The mining billionaire, who has spent a lifetime seeking and wielding political influence, is proud of this fact.

“I write all the ads personally,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “Because I originally started in campaigning with the National Party years ago, I ended up becoming [campaign] director and state spokesman, so it’s easier for me to write the ads than it is for me to instruct someone to do it.

“If you see the ideas, they’re very short and to the point and a lot of other advertising styles are geese flying across Sydney Harbour through mist or something. And they pay a couple of hundred thousand dollars for that to happen and they take days to put together.”

In a federal election campaign that will replicate, at least in part, the distortionary effects of Clive Palmer’s $80 million advertising spending spree in 2019, this is a significant detail. The United Australia Party founder and chairman might be promoting ideas that are anti-vaccination, anti-government and anti-science, but even his mainstream political opponents concede the marketing of those ideas is second to none.

“His messaging is spot on and the layout of the ads looks good,” one Labor MP tells this newspaper. “Palmer messages really well online. His messages are really pure and you’ll notice he’s never trying to sell his candidates like the majors do. He doesn’t do any of that, he just says: ‘Here’s a reason to be angry.’ ”

Palmer has created an efficient production line for the UAP message of mistrust and disaffection. He writes the copy and the content is produced by David Wright’s Gold Coast-based company Atomic Pixel, which Palmer has been using since the 2013 federal election.

“We might shoot 30 ads in a day, for example,” Palmer says. “Because it’s only me or Craig Kelly before a camera and, having written the ads, I know them pretty easy, we don’t do a lot of takes.”

The bookings for the commercials and digital placements are all handled by Theo Coroneo, the managing director of Chrome Advertising, and Palmer says, “I think we’re the only client.” Palmer laughs: “I think he’s probably the wealthiest advertising agent in Australia. Our ad campaign on the TV and all that is under way and it is hard to say how effective it has been until it’s over, I suppose.”

Although Palmer says he likely won’t be spending more on this campaign than the previous one, the output will be the same. The reason, he chuckles to himself, is “because newspapers have gone down in price because their circulation has got smaller”.

“I think we’ll have a bigger campaign but it’ll cost less,” he says.

That will be small comfort to the major parties, especially Australian Labor, that have been outgunned and squeezed out by the Palmer machine before.

 

Since August last year, Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party has spent an astonishing $40 million on political messaging, according to Nielsen Ad Intel, although most of this space was booked before the election was called.

The ubiquitous yellow-and-black billboards cost anywhere from $3000 a month to $80,000 for large spots in high-traffic metropolitan areas. Palmer’s ads are in the cities, at airports, train stations and on country back roads. There are several, for example, between Grafton and Casino.

The party has booked almost $1 million in advertising through Facebook since August 2020, although almost all of this has been scheduled since late last year. This is three times as much as the $366,000 spent by Labor during the same period and four times the Liberal Party’s $250,000 outlay. The National Party has spent just $15,000.

A new monied force in politics, Climate 200, has also dropped nearly half a million dollars on Facebook product advertising, but even this is dwarfed by the Palmer operation.

Over at Google, which owns YouTube, the figures are even larger.

Of the $11.6 million in political advertising booked through the search giant and its subsidiaries since November 2020, 90.9 per cent is from UAP – totalling $9.93 million. Here, Palmer’s outfit has spent more than 22 times the $340,000 in ads placed by Labor. The Liberal Party has spent $37,000 and the Nationals just $150.

In its review of Labor’s demoralising 2019 election loss – when then leader Bill Shorten was widely expected to win against Scott Morrison – Dr Craig Emerson and Jay Weatherill found that Palmer’s advertising blitz “disrupted” Labor’s own campaign.

“Although Labor succeeded in competing with the Coalition in the major advertising markets, the sheer magnitude of Clive Palmer’s expenditure through the United Australia Party disrupted any impact this might have had,” the review says.

“The United Australia Party did not need to win seats or deliver preferences to have a significant impact on the ability of other parties to have their message heard. Palmer’s expenditure led to a major downgrade in Labor’s share of voice across every major television market in the country, despite the increase in Labor’s advertising spending.”

In digital advertising, the major tech companies such as Google and Facebook offer bookings through an auction system. This had an especially pernicious effect on major party reach.

“Prices automatically increase if there is more competition. In addition to his television and outdoor expenditure, Palmer spent an unprecedented amount on digital media,” the Labor post-election review says.

“This significantly pushed up the prices Labor paid for online advertising and limited the paid reach Labor’s advertisements were able to achieve as they were competing for the same audience as the United Australia Party.”

There are some Labor MPs who believe the review did not go hard enough, or strike honestly, at the true impact of Palmer’s influence. Predictably, some but not all of these views are held among Shorten backers.

“They hurt us badly last time,” one MP tells The Saturday Paper. “Palmer was disastrous for us, no question. They [the ALP reviewers] went soft on him. If you spend enough money, Jesus is unpopular.”

One of the recommendations of that Labor review was that the party “pursue measures to prevent high-wealth individuals essentially buying elections, as this represents a threat to our democracy”.

Unlike in 2019, it has been noted that the ALP has refused to engage UAP in this campaign, attempting to avoid a Labor versus Palmer framework that puts the party in the spotlight.

As one senior Labor source told The Saturday Paper: “There is nothing we can do to influence them. We are concerned bystanders.” Another says: “We have sort of hoped Clive Palmer doesn’t exist. He’s been wished away as an inconvenient truth.”

It is difficult for any observer to predict what the UAP strategy is in this election. If it even remotely resembles 2019, however, then a possibility is that Palmer will use his advertising blitz that currently attacks every major party as leverage for Coalition preferences.

In the previous election, following a preference deal struck between Palmer and the Coalition, the UAP ad campaign pivoted from spraying both major parties to running a mind-boggling number of “Shifty Shorten” spots.

“Palmer’s advertising blitz strongly amplified the Coalition’s anti-Labor message to economically insecure, low-income voters,” the Labor review says.

“In focus groups of soft voters, Palmer was described in the most derogatory terms, helping explain the poor vote he and his party received, but his blitz against Shorten took its toll on Shorten’s leadership standing.”

Things might be different this time around, but there is no way of knowing for sure.

“You know, Palmer and Craig Kelly are going around saying things are different now and it’s sort of a ‘pox on both your houses’-style campaign,” a high-ranking Labor source says. “But we just don’t know what is going to happen.”

Another Labor MP who spoke with The Saturday Paper is of the view that Palmer himself needs preferences from the Coalition to win a spot in the senate, where he has vowed to run. This makes a deal with Morrison more likely.

The MP suggests Palmer is attempting to establish a “pattern vote” similar to that enjoyed by Pauline Hanson. Essentially, if you can win a seat in consecutive elections, you get baked into the system and become more likely to keep winning.

“He needs the Libs if he wants that last senate spot in Queensland; he needs them to top him up,” the MP says.

“His most powerful negotiating position now is if he shifts his advertising to attacking Labor. That is even more valuable to the Libs.

“If Palmer manages to get people to vote for him a second time, after already being elected to the seat of Fairfax, then he starts to build a pattern vote, which is what Hanson did.

“So essentially, he factors that thinking among voters into the pattern of federal elections. But he needs to gain a spot [in parliament] somewhere.”

 

Clive Palmer and Craig Kelly, the former Liberal who is UAP’s parliamentary leader, now claim UAP is the largest political party in the country, with some 80,000 members, although doubts have been raised about this after multiple reports of people – including Liberal senator Eric Abetz – receiving unsolicited emails from the party acknowledging their “successful” membership applications.

Even so, as Palmer notes, the party is fielding a candidate in every electorate and has a “full senate team”. Each of these candidates has a volunteer campaign team led by a manager “responsible for local media and also for manning the booths and the prepoll as well as erecting of signs”.

Palmer, who started his business interests as a property developer during Queensland’s 1980s “white shoe brigade” era, became the media director for the National Party when corrupt politician Joh Bjelke-Petersen was premier of the state. The pair were close.

In the decades since, the mining magnate has propagated the style and political acumen of his mentor, keeping the Bjelke-Petersen family close.

Despite a trail of broken promises – this is a man whose company received more than $100 million from a nickel refinery in Queensland before it went bust; who promised to buy and turn around the Coolum Resort golf course and instead let it fall into disrepair; who courted media buzz by announcing a plan to build a replica Titanic and never did; who started and almost ruined the Gold Coast United Football Club; who attempted to destroy the Queensland LNP because it refused to give him exclusive access to a rail corridor in the Galilee Basin; and who, in 2020, was accused by the corporate regulator of fraud and breaching director duties, a charge he is fighting – Palmer is confident. Perhaps his self-assuredness stems from the remarkable ability, powered by extreme wealth, to survive scandal the way a cockroach might survive a nuclear winter.

“So I think we are likely to get the balance of power for sure,” he tells The Saturday Paper about the coming election.

There are few certainties in politics. One curious fact about this election, however, is that neither Palmer nor Pauline Hanson – who both claim to be unvaccinated – will be able to physically campaign in Western Australia. As it currently stands, the unvaccinated are not permitted entry into the state where Palmer also has significant business interests.

Despite bringing, and eventually losing, a case arguing the state’s pandemic-related border closures were unconstitutional, the physical campaign is not one for Palmer. His strength, as ever, is in money.

And with billboards and the TV spots, the constellation of Facebook and Google ads, newspaper front-page displays and automated mobile phone messages from UAP, the billionaire has managed to achieve in WA, and all around the country, a pervasive sense that he is really there – always – in front of voters. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 23, 2022 as "‘ I write all the ads personally      … it’s easier for me ’".

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Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.

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