Clive Palmer’s Palmer United Party is facing electoral oblivion, mere months from its key election test in Queensland, where the party was established as a vehicle for Palmer’s personal vendetta against the party he helped found and bankroll, the Liberal National Party.

State-based polling taken over four weeks in October by Essential Research showed that PUP had continued its freefall in public support in its home state, down to 5% in October after consistently losing 1-2 points every month for much of the year, having peaked at 12% in May. Nationally, PUP has been hovering at a dire 3-4% for two months, although as recently as August, it had managed 6%. In contrast to its performance in the 2013 election, PUP is no longer performing noticeably better in Queensland than elsewhere.

Other polling backs up the decline of PUP. Today’s Fairfax Ipsos poll has PUP on just 3% nationally, whereas Nielsen polls from earlier in the year had it regularly managing 5-6%. Newspoll doesn’t separately track PUP, but “Others” reach 16% and 17% after the budget and are currently on 14%. As “others” tend to average around 7% in polls with PUP, that suggests Newspoll is also picking up the fall in PUP’s vote nationally. Similarly, in Newspoll’s Queensland state polling, “Others” fell from 24% back to a more typical 18% between June and September.

At that level, Palmer will barely trouble the scorers in next year’s Queensland state election, even assuming his now-standard late-campaign advertising blitz lifts the party a couple of points. Indeed, Palmer has been distancing himself from PUP’s Queensland campaign, even though revenge on Campbell Newman was the principal reason for the establishment of the PUP.

What’s happened to Clive? For starters, the Palmer model has some problems built into it. Palmer’s approach to politics has been shark-like, not so much in terms of its ferocity as in the need to keep moving. Clive is always in search of the next headline, making announcements and prognostications but never sticking to one issue so that there’s a risk of someone spotting his inconsistency or incoherence. But this sort of approach is ultimately self-limiting — you can only ramp up the hype for so long, you can only flit from subject to subject for a limited period, before voters start to wonder about the detail and the substance, even in our ADD-based polity.

“PUP’s fate threatens to be that of other minor parties that have made an initial splash politically but then failed to follow through …”

And the PUP has also suffered from the inevitable problems of small but initially successful political parties: ego, cliques and division. Palmer has lost not one but, carelessly, two state leaders in Queensland, with Alexander Douglas and Carl Judge both walking out on him. Then, of course, there’s Jacqui Lambie, who has been busily differentiating her own product as a latter-day Pauline Hanson, an impressive feat for a party that was founded on the principle of welcoming asylum seekers. Lambie’s status as the political equivalent of the flatulent, ranting old relative at Christmas dinner might improve her voter recognition when she has to seek reelection in Tasmania in a few years’ time, but hasn’t done the party any particular good among mainstream voters.

Meanwhile, the Coalition, which initially struggled with all this confusing “negotiation” stuff in the Senate, has worked Palmer out, realising that the mining magnate’s vociferous and colourful objections to its policies count for little when it comes to securing his support — indeed, the more abusive and graphic Palmer is about government policies on asylum seekers, financial planning regulation or climate inaction, the more likely it seems that he will fall into line with some token concessions. The fall in Palmer’s support appears to have increased as he has made more deals with the government, suggesting that dealing with the government has contradicted the essential selling point of PUP as a disruptive force of populist political outsiders refusing to engage in business-as-usual politics and holding the line against unpopular policies.

Who has benefited from PUP’s decline? Like other non-maj0r party voters, PUP voters appear to be economically Leftish — supportive of traditional economic interventionism and opposed to privatisation — but socially conservative. The numbers are too small to make a sound assessment, but Essential’s Queensland polling shows the “Other” vote declining as PUP grew, then rising again as PUP has declined. The interventionist/conservative segment of the electorate is still looking for a politician that can carry its standard, with Pauline Hanson, Bob Katter and now, seemingly, Clive Palmer failing to retain its hopes for the restoration of a golden age of 1950s economic and social certainty.

In short, PUP’s fate threatens to be that of other minor parties that have made an initial splash politically but then failed to follow through on their initial success, partly because of the impossibility of permanently playing the role of outsider, partly because the process of actually operating effectively as a party is difficult for small groups without formal mechanisms. And that’s even more so when ultimately the party is centred on one individual and his own agenda.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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