A glance at the Facebook page of former politician and business mogul Clive Palmer illustrates a world that would seem absurd and unprofessional to most. Low-res images seemingly created on Microsoft Paint. Videos espousing Clive’s love of Shrek 3. Constant references to a “dog on the grog”.

From when this initially started in early 2017 until very recently, it was waved off as the irrational actions of a political figure way past his prime. His Facebook posts have been described in the media as “bizarre“, “insane”, and even “post-modern poetry“. These asides all have a similar underlying critique: Palmer is fighting to retain his relevance in a political sphere that not only cast him out, but did so in no uncertain terms. He spent only a term in parliament, during which almost his entire party left his side.

Or so he’d want you to think.

Palmer’s use of “shitposting” (the deliberate posting of low-quality, unfunny images and memes) in 2018 serves a clear purpose. Palmer and his team have been able to communicate directly to a new audience of potential voters, unburdened by his previous political failings. He is mastering the one area of Trump’s campaign few Australian conservative movements have yet to successfully tap into: memes.

There is already a precedent for using memes to assist in conservative movements. In a leaked style guide for white supremacist website Daily Stormer, a specific point was made around the idea of “Lulz” (it even gets its own subheading). They specify that their posts must be covered in irony at all times, making it virtually impossible for the casual observer to tell if they’re joking or sincere. Similarly, Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey was caught posting on Reddit about funding efforts to win the 2016 election for Donald Trump via memes. While there’s no sign whatsoever of Palmer being affiliated with either of the aforementioned (or even that he posts the memes on his own page), his memes have recently become more political in nature.

Recent offerings on the page suggest the left wing (including, but not limited to: Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, The Greens, and progressive talking heads such as The Project’s Waleed Aly) are weak, unpatriotic, or trying to turn Australia into a communist state. Left wing media, including the likes of Junkee, BuzzFeed, Vice and Pedestrian, are seen as safe spaces for those who cannot think for themselves. The ABC and SBS are mere government propaganda.

The moderate conservatism of the current government, especially of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, is also a frequent target. Turnbull is characterised as a weak-willed leader who is governed by lobbyists and the mainstream media, in charge of an incompetent and mismanaged government. Or, as one meme puts it, he is the “Virgin Turnbull”, compared to the “Chad Palmer”.

Not all Palmer’s pot-shots are strictly conservative in nature: he also laments on the ongoing car-crash that is the NBN rollout, while criticising the ubiquity of Rupert Murdoch in the Australian media landscape. That said, some of his posts, whether intentionally or not, come off with undertones of something more nefarious. This post, in particular, uses anti-Semitic imagery to argue for lower taxes:

All this goes to show that Palmer’s posts aren’t just bizarre for bizarre’s sake. They serve to rebuild his image of a potential populist leader. Specifically, he is aiming at a younger audience than he was when he ran for the federal seat of Fairfax in 2013. His attention now has turned to a potential electorate of younger millennials, who may not see themselves in the ageing faces of Australia’s political conservatives, yet may also feel ostracised by the politics of progressive movements.

Not only is he speaking the language of millennials and Gen Z, he’s also actively recruiting them. As BuzzFeed reports, a private Facebook group called the “Palmy Army” was recently launched to source memes. While some of the user-generated content is reportedly racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic, the group’s rapid growth — over 8,000 members joined in less than a week — demonstrates the type of capital Palmer has raised.

As younger generations reach voting age, memes like the ones used by Clive Palmer or Donald Trump will become more vital to political survival. Both major political parties already have dedicated “meme” pages: the Coalition’s “Innovative and Agile Memes” and the “ALP Spicy Meme Stash”. Previous methods of reaching out to the youth vote will no longer cut it; to survive politically, you need to get into meme culture.  

Despite his recent announcements to re-enter politics, Palmer continues to face a variety of obstacles to returning to Canberra, including his legal woes with Queensland Nickel and his unsuccessful first run at political office. But, as the success of Trump has highlighted, memes aren’t just there for the lulz; they can very well be a strong foundation for political campaigns. Only time will tell if Palmer’s Facebook page will become the foundation for another.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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