Clive Palmer (Image: AAP/Dan Peled)

What a fickle master politics can be. Until recently, One Nation was the star attraction of politics’ idiot fringe, the group set to disrupt the plans of the major parties in Queensland. Now, based on one poll, Clive Palmer’s ad spending and his relentless self-promotion, it’s his United Australia Party, or whatever it is called this week, that has been deemed the new disruptor set to dictate terms to the major parties and even secure the balance of power. He’s already locked in a preference deal with the Coalition, with talk it could help Palmer beat One Nation conspiracy theorist Malcolm Roberts to the last Senate spot in Queensland.

The origin of the current Palmer boomlet was some marginal seat polling by Newspoll showing 14% for Palmer’s party in the Labor-held seat of Herbert in Townsville, making his preferences there crucial. Palmer himself has also been talking up his prospects, and journalists of all stripes are wary of repeating the mistake of 2013 and failing to spot that Palmer’s advertising blitz got several of his Senate candidates and (in Fairfax) he himself over the line.

What followed, of course, was a grenade-like fragmentation as his newbie senators Jacquie Lambie and Glenn Lazarus abandoned him, but the path to rapid estrangement and defection in minor Senate parties is now so well-trodden we may as well put handrails on it. Instead of Lazarus, this time around Palmer, continuing his Australian rugby league props-only policy, has Greg Dowling running for him in Herbert. In an novel take on the minor party split story, Dowling has already threatened to leave UAP before the first vote is cast. 

But there are some problems to deal with in the Palmer story before we get there. First, seat polling has a rotten record, despite the media’s fascination with it. Just how bad its record is has been explored a couple of time by William Bowe, who today has updated his analysis of single seat polls to incorporate last year’s byelections and the Victorian state election.

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Such polls, Bowe notes, tend to have a much greater margin of error than national polls — even ones with large sample sizes — and tend to err on the side of the Coalition, though “their record is so erratic that any given poll could fall either way”. In a campaign unusually barren of polling due to the timing of the long Easter break, UAP has only featured on the radar of the Morgan poll, where it managed 2% compared to One Nation’s 4.5%.

There’s also the problem that Palmer no longer has the benefit of being an unknown quantity. Voters now know what he’s like, they watched the chaos and bluster last time around, the tendency to keep moving from issue to issue lest his inconsistencies and bullshit catch up with him. And the voters of Townsville know Palmer all too well, as the man they blame for the loss of the entitlements of Queensland Nickel workers — a loss Palmer now insists, wrongly, has been made good. 

The other problem is One Nation. There’s yet to be an electoral test for Hanson in the wake of revelations the party is seeking to undermine Australia’s gun laws with help from foreign extremists, but the level of support from the far-right and from protest voters for her shouldn’t be underestimated given the party’s strong performance, along with the Shooters party, in the NSW state election last month. That was achieved despite a relative lack of funding and advertising; unlike Palmer, Hanson hasn’t needed advertising blitzes to get her vote into double figures. And while Palmer may be in the same business of harvesting electoral discontent as Hanson, outright racists may be turned off by his once-strident support for refugees and denunciations of the Coalition’s asylum seeker policies when last in parliament. 

In north Queensland House of Reps seats, however, if UAP is indeed polling in double figures, Palmer’s preference flows will be crucial in helping the LNP retain its seats against a swing to Labor in Queensland. Member for Manila George Christensen is, by common agreement, in deep trouble in Dawson; Palmer preferences may be his only hope. And Palmer preferences could get the LNP’s Phillip Thompson — who has his own record of Islamophobia — over the line against Labor incumbent Cathy O’Toole in Herbert, despite unemployment soaring in Townsville under the Coalition.

Apart from using candidates with name recognition, Palmer’s other key tactic is the last-minute ad bombardment that boosts his party profile right before voters go to the polls. In other words, his tens of millions of advertising spending are just a taste of what voters will cop from here on in, and especially in the last week of the campaign. It worked in 2013, but can it work twice?

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