Federal Election 2019: Clive Palmer’s second coming shows those with deepest pockets win Senate seats

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Paul MurrayThe West Australian
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VideoClive Palmer has so far spent $31 million in advertising to ensure his return politics and he could decide the outcome of four key seats

It appears that those Pauline Hanson One Nation cowboys who went on their embarrassing jaunt to get dirty political funding in America were not as stupid as Al Jazeera made them look.

This week’s shock opinion poll, showing the equally haphazard Clive Palmer circus still pulls considerable support from some Australian voters, suggests what the One Nation pair believed: that you can buy your way into the Australian Senate.

Remember the conversation between Al Jazeera’s undercover reporter Rodger Muller — posing as a heavy from the National Rifle Association — and One Nation’s James Ashby and Steve Dickson?

Muller: “If One Nation could get $10 million ...”

Ashby: “You’d pick up eight Senate seats.”

Dickson: “That guarantees you balance of power. I mean, you’d have the whole government by the balls.”

And that unfortunate spectacle appears to be what Palmer and his United Australia Party could achieve by spending more than $30 million bombarding voters with vacuous political advertisements.

Along with a seat in the Senate for Palmer himself.

While even Ashby and Dickson admit they were acting like drunken idiots, they are hardly political neophytes.

Dickson entered the Queensland Parliament with the Liberals in 2006 and rose to become a minister in the Newman LNP government from 2012 to 2015 before decamping to One Nation in 2017 and subsequently losing his seat.

Ashby is the Machiavellian backroom adviser who came to national prominence in 2012 thanks to his former boss Peter Slipper, before popping up with One Nation in 2015 and becoming Hanson’s chief of staff.

This week’s Newspoll on UAP — which comes with the important caveat that it was only in four electorates — is being interpreted as showing Palmer with enough support in Queensland to return to Parliament as a senator.

So have we now arrived at the awful reality in this country that our democracy is for sale?

How comfortable are Australians with the prospect that those with the deepest pockets will win a seat?

There have always been arguments in Australia about the imbalance in political donations and how it might skew election results. But that debate is generally around buying influence, not buying government.

In the case of Palmer, massive spending is being used specifically to advantage one person in one race: the sixth Queensland Senate spot.

The Australian reported this week that Palmer has spent $33.7 million nationally on political advertising since September, compared to Labor’s $6.29 million and the Liberals’ $6.16 million.

The Newspoll result shows UAP’s support ranging from 5 per cent in Victoria’s Deakin, 7 per cent in NSW’s Lindsay, 8 per cent in WA’s Pearce to 14 per cent in Herbert in Queensland.

There has been a big focus on Herbert because it is where Palmer’s failed Townsville nickel refinery is located.

Interestingly, the poll shows One Nation there at just 5 per cent — the same as the Greens — in the wake of the “guns and money” scandal. Last election it scored 12.7 per cent.

UAP’s predecessor, the Palmer United Party, imploded before the 2016 election and its leader relinquished his Lower House seat of Fairfax. The PUP Queensland Senate team — headed by James McDonald, who now leads UAP’s WA ticket — got just 0.18 per cent.

But a lone Lower House candidate did run for PUP, in Herbert, and got 315 votes — 0.36 per cent of the electorate. He was Palmer’s nephew, Martin Brewster, who had been a senior manager at the failed Queensland Nickel plant.

While many people might see that history as a reason for UAP to poll lower now, the reality is that many people in Townsville relied on the refinery for a job and Palmer has written letters to hundreds of them promising he will reopen it after the election.

They are obviously meant to forget his workers were left languishing for their entitlements when the refinery closed.

And then there’s the other nephew who remains overseas away from uncomfortable questions by lawyers while still on the Palmer payroll ...

So what part of the words “politically discredited” don’t those people considering a vote for UAP understand?

Palmer has thrown considerable funds at elections before, especially in the 2014 WA Senate poll when his employee Dio Wang won fifth spot, but nothing like this current spend.

And we knew a lot less about the man then.

It’s clear many people don’t want to vote for the major parties, but surely there are other less tainted receptacles than the UAP? Which one of the election lines do these gullible people swallow?

That the Chinese might invade through an airstrip on land he leased to a Chinese company in the Pilbara?

Some policy turds just don’t stand scrutiny, no matter how hard Palmer’s advertising people polish them. But Palmer’s get very little scrutiny.

Which leaves open the suggestion that his appeal falls into that most unworthy of all modern phenomena, the cult of celebrity.

Frankly, any political party with a person’s name in it should be avoided. Lambie, Lazarus, Xenophon, Katter, Hinch. What a bunch.

Palmer so damaged his political reputation the first time around that he deep-sixed PUP and had to seek reincarnation by assuming the political identity of an ancient precursor to the Liberal Party.

He even claims the UAP’s former prime ministers though there is no direct link between the parties. The man has no shame when it comes to politics.

The development of a presidential style of electoral competition between the leaders of the major parties has been bad enough for democracy. It leads to less scrutiny of policy offerings and more reliance on the likeability and sales skills of the incumbents.

Which is why Australians get so disappointed when leaders are rolled mid-term.

These developments all funnel down to a need for lots of money to drive the political machines and their reliance on advertising.

And the love of money is the root of all evil, as someone once said.

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