Clive Palmer preference deal
(Image: AAP/Glenn Hunt)

The preference deal between Clive Palmer and the Liberals, expected to be announced with great fanfare by Palmer today, is likely to prove significant in two ways — neither of which involve the actual flow of preferences from the former to the latter.

Certainly the deal is of use to Palmer in his bid for a Queensland Senate seat, which had hitherto relied entirely on his multimillion-dollar strategy of shouting loud nothings into the ears of disengaged voters through every available media platform.

If Palmer can get ahead of the third candidate on the Coalition’s ticket, who will have what remains after the first 28.6% is spent electing its top two candidates, a quarter of their vote will then flow to Palmer, if Coalition voters’ rate of adherence to the how-to-vote card in 2016 offers any guide.

That could give him a decisive edge over Malcolm Roberts of One Nation, his main competition for a third seat likely to be won by parties of the right.

But so far as the Liberals are concerned, the significance of the deal is in showing up what a dim view they must be taking of their prospects, and their readiness to grasp at any straw that happens to come within reach.

Newspoll has taken a somewhat generous view of the likely flow of preferences from Palmer’s United Australia Party (UAP) to the Coalition, which is most of the reason its poll today has ticked a point in their favour, encouraging much talk of momentum their way.

This is the first time Newspoll has treated the UAP as a discrete entity in its preference calculations, and it has settled on an educated guess that those preferences will split 60-40 between the Coalition and Labor.

However, the Coalition received only 53.7% of the Palmer United Party’s preferences in 2013, despite the fact that it put Labor last on most if not all of its how-to-vote cards, and did so in a political environment that was particularly unfavourable to Labor.

Palmer’s money may talk during commercial breaks, but it doesn’t provide him with the army of volunteers needed to get how-to-vote cards into voters’ hands on election day, or the still more burdensome task of doing so through the increasingly important three week pre-polling period (which starts today).

A report in The Australian last week mentioned “speculation the Queensland-based businessman may pay ‘volunteers’ to perform the service on May 18”, but since the advantage of him doing so would accrue mainly to the Coalition, it’s hard to see why he would.

Whatever gain the Liberals may make in preference flows is likely to be overwhelmed by the brand damage caused by its new association with a personality who, in another poll published on the weekend, recorded a 69% disapproval rating.

That danger can only be amplified by news reports asserting that this exercise in shady back-room manipulation could potentially deliver the Coalition a swag of marginal seats.

Someone who understands this all too well is former Western Australian premier Colin Barnett, who watched the floor drop out from under his already floundering re-election bid in 2017 after his party cut a deal with One Nation.

Speaking to the ABC on Thursday, Barnett brought his experience to bear by calling for “wise heads” in the party to scotch a repeat performance with Palmer.

The WA precedent demonstrates that there’s a risk in this for Palmer as well, as One Nation’s deal with a wildly unpopular governing party was immediately followed by a slump in its poll ratings.

Palmer, however, seems far more reasonable than the Coalition in his calculation that he stands to gain more on the swings than he loses on the roundabouts.

Peter Fray

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