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

Clive Palmer is one of Australia’s premier bullshit artists. So it’s best to take whatever comes out of his mouth with a grain of salt until independently verified. 

“Scott Morrison has been returned as prime minister and he’s only done so because of the 3.5% vote of United Australia Party,” Palmer said on the weekend. “Our Shifty Shorten ads across Australia … have been very successful in shifting the Labor vote.”

Yesterday he said “we decided to polarise the electorate” with UAP advertising targeting Bill Shorten. Maybe Palmer isn’t lying, though it was only in April that he declared “United Australia Party will win Government”, warning, aptly, “Australians should not read or believe fake news.”

When’s he bullshitting and when’s he being honest? Good luck working that out.

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Labor is happy to also attribute its woes to Palmer, with Wayne Swan attacking Palmer as a “preference recycling scheme” for the LNP (of whom, let’s not forget, Palmer was a lifelong supporter until splitting with them in 2012). Tanya Plibersek said Palmer’s advertising campaign was designed “not to, it seems, win himself a spot, but to trash Labor”.

Labor MPs are now calling for limits on campaign advertising spending — we’ll only find out next February how much Labor itself spent, but it will also be in the tens of millions — and expanding the pre-election blackout to social media (the blackout should be junked altogether, not expanded, but that’s a different story). There were even warnings ahead of the election that Palmer might help the Coalition, with veteran pollster John Scales outlining how Palmer could help the government hang on.

But Scales’ argument was based on UAP managing a primary vote of 6%. Nationally it managed 3.37% on the current count. In Queensland, Palmer’s home state, it was still only 3.47%. Palmer himself, who looked a strong chance to grab the final senate spot in Queensland, isn’t even in that race.

And it’s hard to find a seat where UAP preferences got LNP candidates over the line. Labor was thumped in Herbert (which had been conceded by Labor insiders even before the election) with Palmer’s high-profile candidate managing less than 6%. The surprise performer there was the Katter candidate, who managed 10%, a swing of more than 3%. The LNP itself rose 1.4% on primaries. In Petrie, which Labor hoped to pick up, the LNP also got a substantial swing to it. In Longman, another seat Labor lost, it was One Nation that scored the big swing, reaching 13%, while UAP managed just 3.1%. In Lilley, formerly held by Swan and where Labor only leads by 840 votes, the LNP itself picked up a swing and One Nation more than doubled the paltry 2% achieved by UAP.

So Palmer’s preferences seem to have had little direct impact on results in Queensland. The voters Labor lost sprayed all over the place, but mostly to One Nation, to whom we’ll return in a minute. What about his advertising barrage? Did the relentless targeting of Shorten materially damage Labor?

In that case the polls would — if Palmer is telling the truth about switching the focus of his advertising barrage to target Shorten mid-way through the campaign — theoretically show a late swing away from Labor. Alas, every single poll has been discredited by Saturday, leaving us in the dark. Some commentators keep talking, strangely, of a “late swing to the Coalition” when in fact the polls seemed to firm in Labor’s favour over the final week, including exit polls on Saturday.

But let’s look at Victoria. You wouldn’t know it from the media coverage, but Palmer did better in “Australia’s most progressive state™” than he did in Queensland, with a state-wide vote of 3.59%. That may be down to the fact that Victorians haven’t had as much exposure to Palmer’s antics, such as with Queensland Nickel, as Queenslanders have. Yet Labor also picked up a substantial swing of 1.66% off an already high vote there. Palmer did even better — 4.2% — in South Australia, but Labor got a statewide swing of over 4%. That’s skewed by the absence of Nick Xenophon, so there was a strong swing back to both major parties. The impact of Palmer’s advertising, if there was any, appears selective.

The other issue is that if Palmer’s advertising chipped off soft Labor voters, a huge swathe of them went not to Palmer himself, or even directly to the Coalition, but to One Nation and other far-right parties, especially in Queensland.

This is where the argument about Palmer’s advertising gets even messier. Somehow the targeting of Shorten turned off 3.74% of Queensland Labor voters (that’s the swing from 2016, when Shorten was also leader, and also targeted by Coalition advertising) and sent them not to the party responsible for the ads but to another, even more extreme party, and then got them to preference the Coalition.

It’s possible. In-depth academic work on voting patterns in the election might confirm it. But blaming Palmer at this point seems too simplistic. Having a billionaire using the democratic system as combined ego massage and obstruction of reforms in the national interest is undoubtedly deeply unhealthy. Palmer’s own, fortunately brief, period in parliament demonstrated a man who offered nothing to public life but a relentless stream of bullshit.

But like US progressives insisting that Trump won because of the Russians, fake news and Cambridge Analytica, attributing too much to his role obscures deeper problems with what Labor offered, even if Labor was far more engaged with the discontent of working Australians than Hillary Clinton ever was. When one in 11 Queenslanders, even now, thinks it’s OK to vote for a racist, treacherous rabble like One Nation, there’s something very crook in the political and economic system.

That’s what Labor, whether under Anthony Albanese or anyone else, needs to focus on.