When Clive Palmer was member for Fairfax between 2013 and 2016, he attended fewer than two-thirds of sitting days, was rarely seen in his Sunshine Coast electorate and once famously fell asleep during question time.
The 2013 election first introduced Australians to politician Palmer — carpet-bombing the country with that sickly shade of yellow, twerking on talk radio and buying his way into Parliament. The Palmer United Party (PUP) even briefly had three senators.
Australians were properly introduced to “political chaos agent” Palmer in those three years. The PUP effectively collapsed as two of its senators quit. Palmer decided not to recontest a seat he was bound to lose.
The demise of the PUP didn’t end his involvement in politics. Instead he’s since leaned in hard to the political chaos agent tag which has remained a constant throughout several recent iterations of Palmer. There was “meme-lord Clive”, where the mining billionaire tried to Trumpify his image through a series of edgy (and increasingly racist) shitposts. Then there was United Australia Party (UAP) Palmer, where the yellow billboards, YouTube ads and newspaper takeovers returned with force.
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There’s a through-line to Palmer’s political antics. Like former US president Donald Trump, who it’s clear he’s been trying to ape, Palmer masks a pretty standard set of rich-guy reactionary ideas behind a facade of goofiness. The goofiness helps endear him to a particular class of disengaged voter who rightly views mainstream politicians as a bunch of untrustworthy careerist dorks. And it obscures the fact that Palmer is just a very rich guy who wants very rich guy things.
It also disguises the reality that Palmer has been around politics a very long time. In the 1980s, he was a Nationals state director in Queensland, helping Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s government win elections.
A dose of old political nous coupled with an obscene, bottomless well of cash can go a long way. When the UAP’s $80 million ad blitz failed to deliver it a single seat at the 2019 election, some pundits wrote it off as a wasted investment. But the ubiquitous UAP yellow seriously dampened Labor’s primary vote in parts of NSW and Queensland, and helped cement a narrative of Bill Shorten’s shiftiness that paved Scott Morrison’s return to the Lodge.
It’s what makes the latest iteration of Palmer so worrying. Since the pandemic hit in 2020, he’s opposed COVID restrictions, vaccines and vaccine mandates, and has emerged as a vector of disinformation. He’s made former Liberal MP and conspiracy theorist Craig Kelly party leader. Despite Australia’s world-leading vaccination rates, he’s trying to tap into a muddled rump of malcontents — COVID deniers, anti-vaxxers, far-right grifters — the kind that make up the ranks of UAP’s candidate list and who descended on Canberra in their thousands.
It’s a small, vocal rabble. But in a tight election where the only constant is Palmer’s money — he’s already spending 100 times more than the major parties on advertising — the UAP vote and preference flow needs only to make a dent in a few marginal seats to be influential.
Anti-vax Palmer was meant to speak at the National Press Club today, outlining his views on the state of the Australian economy and the UAP’s financial policy. The speech was canned at the eleventh hour because Palmer was displaying “COVID-like symptoms”.
The address would have given the media a practice run at covering his bogus claims ahead of the election. Already the ABC, concerned about the spread of disinformation, had committed to a delayed broadcast.
That decision is a clear sign the latest version of Palmer is clearly the most concerning, a corrosive force on the public discourse. But it’s also Palmer at his most rogue and unpredictable.
In 2013, he wanted a presence in Parliament. He got it. In 2019, he wanted Shorten gone. He got it. This time, he and Kelly want an approach to public health most Australians have rejected. It’s unlikely his millions will change their minds on this.
But this is an unpredictable Palmer. So far he’s relentlessly attacked both sides of politics. “I get up at 2am … and spend my first hour thinking about all the nasty things I can do to the Liberal Party or the Labor Party,” he recently told The Australian.
But if he chose to turn his blowtorch on one side, he could do the damage he did in 2019. He could still get enough senators elected to create a mess of a crossbench. Even if Australians reject his message, Palmer as chaos agent will continue for at least another three years.