When Clive Palmer’s dad, George Palmer, was heading toward retirement, he had the last of his many great ideas. Noting the growing popularity of caravan travel, and the cramped quarters of said vehicle, he invented a sort of plastic fabric caravan extension, which attached to the caravan itself with suction cups along the join. They’re still around, but readers getting a bit long o tooth will recall them in profusion; for about twenty years they were everywhere. It was the crowning achievement of a man who had been among other things, a feature filmmaker, a Hollywood scriptwriter, a pioneering radio station engineer-manager, the first modern press spinner in Australia (for Joe Lyons, when the UAP was established)—and, almost certainly, an ASIO asset.
At the start of World War II, George was running a fleet of intercity buses. By the 1950s, he was running a travel agency specialising in global cruises, whose ships visited the ports of the world. ASIO had set him up in the company, as a way of soft surveillance and back channel diplomacy. The Palmer family spent months moored in China, when official relations between ourselves and the people’s republic were non-existent and some form of connection and surveillance was required by both parties.
One wonders what George would think of the efforts of his son in the most recent election. On the surface it has been an exercise in folly, drift and futility, a grand programme so soul-crushingly pointless that it didn’t even rise to the level of the amusing. In 2019 it was clear that the UAP’s direct transfer of preferences to the Libs, may have helped them to victory, in a fairly targeted way. This year, wha?
There’s been something almost nauseating about this vast flow of money, floating this repeat offender zombie-insta party, coming and going on Clive’s whim. The sheer volume of it set in saturation very early. It’s more than possible that the amount of UAP advertising turned some people off it, as the alleged maverick party came to appear like an omnipresent Big Daddy. Trying to appeal to people who saw themselves as excluded by the establishment, it soon became a rival one. Some people whom Clive thought were identifying with his low rent FREEDOM FREEDOM FREEDOM schtick were probably being turned off it.
In other aspects, well it certainly gathered together a mix of the naïve, well-intentioned, beaten-down, and menacing and sinister. Those last groups were far more in evidence in the UAP than in its last outing. Then, it was largely a collection of grinning fools, who had no understanding of politics, and such as they had were more or less social democratic in their demands for more spending on health, education and the likeall running in a party helping out a government trying to shrivel such. Now, after Covid, and with the anti-vax agenda front and centre, the UAP filled with a disproportionately nasty crew, a not insignificant number of them ornery and pugnacious at polling booths. Delusional narcissism is a big problem in the UAP. Quite a few of its candidates think they’re going to win, and they are really too blithe to do the hard campaigning that might get them from 4% to 6%, because they think it’ll just happen.
The anti-vax movement arising out of lockdowns gave the UAP a core idea, and the core idea gave the UAP a party they could identify with. Trouble was, there was already a party with that profile, which was One Nation. The latter party had been slowly building a branch structure and base of anti-vaxxers and anti-statist, anti-woke economic nationalists, on relatively little money. Clive’s cash-fuelled juggernaut blew them off the road (I know, I’m devastated too), offering bountiful spending and expenses to new recruits, and drawing some of the more dashing types away from One Nation.
The dual result was to weaken the overall anti-vax type vote through preference leakage—two parties getting 3% each of the 6% anti-vaxx vote will leak 20-30% of the collective vote to other parties, through second preferences going elsewhere—and also to deny One Nation the opportunity to party-build and consolidate through steady gains. Quite aside from the 4% result a party candidate needs to regain their deposit, and public matching funds, the split result held both these parties (and the half dozen other anti-vax parties) below the 5% mark. A 5% vote seems to be a certain psychological crossing-point for small party activists. Once you’ve passed 5%, you’re pointed down the road to 10%, and that starts to feel a bit real.
The UAP has no interest in party building, and Clive’s vast supply of sugar water to its raddled masses keeps them dependent, saps them of the stamina and determination you need to build a party. There are some in One Nation who have that, but they have just been undermined by UAP’s direct competition. Electorally speaking, the Australian hard right is no further advanced than it was a decade or more ago.
That is an extraordinary piece of good luck.
Should the global money squeeze under way hit Australia hardish, via hitting China, then the hard right will have far more opportunity to recruit a genuine mass base. If they have no single party apparatus in place—of the order of UKIP for example—then they can be more easily, actively, frustrated, and might miss the opportunity altogether.
Has Clive wittingly or otherwise performed a service as whimsical or paradoxical as his one of his father’s fancies? He might want to hope so, because if not, it has been the most exhausting display of ultra-rich boredom and directionlessness seen recently. Will he be able to fashion a real party from the banana-shaded flash mob he brings into being every three years? One doubts it because the very insta-gratification he offers saps any strength his affiliates might have for the long haul. Simply by joining with Clive they sap their own political strength. Like his sainted father, was Clive a secret agent man? Like his father, he sought to create a new type of big tent, and based it on an essential element in easy supply, a line of suckers.