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Did Clive Palmer buy an election for $84 million?

Feb 11, 2020 • 13m 25s

From the point of view of his failed candidates, Clive Palmer’s campaign was a success. So what does $84 million buy you at an election?

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Did Clive Palmer buy an election for $84 million?

160 • Feb 11, 2020

Did Clive Palmer buy an election for $84 million?

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

We now know Clive Palmer spent $84 million dollars of his own money on the last federal election - and didn’t win a single seat. But his campaign still played a key role in helping elect Scott Morrison. Today, Mike Seccombe speaks to Palmer’s candidates and explains why our donations system needs reform.

Archival Tape -- Palmer AD:

“Uncle Clive wants you, now, to join the united Australia Party. It’s free, doesn’t cost a thing but we can marshall our resources right across the country. We know where you are, where to contact you when the time is right. If you think you can be a candidate…”

RUBY:

So Mike, you’ve been trying to track down some of the people who stood as candidates for Clive Palmer in the election.

MIKE:

There are nearly 200 former Palmer candidates around the place who ran at the last election.

Archival Tape -- Palmer AD:

“That's what we mean, why do you think we’re standing in 151 seats across this nation, cause we intend to win.”

MIKE:

But most of them, of course, have faded out of public view, subsequent to the election and subsequent to Palmer's party, the United Australia Party winning 0 seats in spite of all the money it spent.

Archival Tape -- Palmer AD:

“As I said, my wealth’s four thousand million dollars. Do you think I give a stuff about what you personally think or anyone else? I care about this country…”

MIKE:

So anyway, I tried to find them to see how they'd felt about the experience.

RUBY:

Mike Seccombe is the national correspondent for The Saturday Paper.

MIKE:

I started by going online and looking at the UAP website, which is still up, but it exists in sort of zombie form and appears not to have changed since the election.

Archival Tape -- Palmer AD:

“What matters is Australia what matters is your children and that they get a better future and that’s what they will get after the 18th of May when the United Australia Party is in government in Canberra.”

MIKE:

So all the names of the candidates are there and there's only the very sketchiest biographical detail for some of them and no biographical detail at all for most of them.

Anyway, one of the candidates I did track down, his name was Peter Cozyn, who ran for the safe Labor seat of Ballarat.

He's an electrical engineer and was keen to burnish his credentials as a smart guy. But then he went on for some odd reason to add that a lot of al-Qaeda operatives like him were smart and engineers as well.

So I don't quite know what he was trying to convince me of with that… but anyway, unlike a lot of other UAP candidates, Cozyn came in with a bit of a political history.

He'd previously been a member of Pauline Hanson's party. So that was another thing that made him a bit easier to track. But he fell out with Hanson's people. So so anyway, the story is Cozyn went to the UAP and after an interview, he was appointed to be the candidate for Ballarat, notwithstanding the fact that he didn't live in Ballarat but lived in Melbourne.

RUBY:

So who else did you track down, Mike?

MIKE:

Another interesting one was, was the United Australia Party candidate in Gilmore, which is on the south coast of New South Wales, essentially where the fires were among their fiercest this summer. And his name is Milton Leslight.

Archival Tape -- Milton Leslight:

“I’m here tonight because I genuinely believe that our system is broken…”

MIKE:

And he's a real estate agent and a former councilor on the Eurobodalla Shire Council.

Archival Tape -- Milton Leslight:

“As far as the party’s concerned, naturally Clive Palmer is a colourful individual, and very passionate, to be fair, very passionate about Australia.”

MIKE:

And he got 3.38% of the primary vote. So he didn't do that great either. But just like Cozyn, he was happy with that. And also just like Cozyn before the UAP was a member of Hanson's party and he still speaks glowingly of Hanson herself. And and he's very admiring of her colleague, Malcolm Roberts, most notable for his absolutely trenchant denial that there is any such thing as climate change. So essentially, if I had to sum up less light, he doesn't particularly love the Liberals, but he likes Labor less and he really dislikes the Greens.

RUBY:

So Mike the candidates were happy about their time in Palmer’s party, even though none of them got close to getting elected?

MIKE:

Well, that's right. Nationally, Palmer's party got just 3.4% of the vote.
So they did not do at all well, but the broad picture I got was that these people were all pretty happy with the outcome. Cozyn got 4.6% per cent of the primary vote. Nonetheless, he said he felt like a winner. And he told me that before the election he actually said on the record to a paper that, you know, if he got 5% of the vote, he would consider it a victory.

They were all keen on keeping Shorten out of government and that was essentially their prime comfort. I guess you would say in the election outcome, even though they didn't elect a single MP or senator.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“Despite spending $60 million on advertising, the United Australia Party didn’t win a single seat.”

MIKE:

A bucket load of money was spent. Clive's ads were everywhere, but it didn't achieve anything for his party, but it achieved a great deal for the conservative side of politics over all.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“The election was held, that cost us a lot of votes, but it improved the government’s position. We got 3.5% and 90% of those preferences have flowed to the Liberal party, so our votes got them across the line.”

MIKE:

It turns out the Australian Electoral Commission finally, belatedly released the figures for donations during last year's election.

And we learnt that Palmer or more properly, his flagship company, Mineralogy, forked out about 84 million dollars of money to fund his own party in its own campaign.

At first blush, that seems like a very, very big amount of money to spend for no return.

But after the election, of course, Palmer himself said one of his goals wasn't to actually get in and form the government. It was just to keep Labor out.

Archival Tape -- Palmer:

“I think we’ve been very successful in suppressing the Labor vote…”

MIKE:

So like his candidates, he pronounced himself well satisfied with the result. In a nutshell, you might say Palmer spent 84 million dollars in an attempt to buy an election, but to buy it for someone else.

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RUBY:

Mike, you've been looking at how much money was spent on the last federal election campaign since those figures were released last week, can you talk me through them?

MIKE:

Sure. Overall, the political parties spent around 430 million dollars in the election. 41% of that was spent by the coalition parties. Labor spent 28% and Clive Palmer spent 21%. The other roughly 10% was, you know, divided among various minor parties, the Greens etc.

Big spending by Coalition and Palmer in particular, you know, being noteworthy.

Archival Tape -- Palmer AD:

“Bill Shorten wants to tax us an extra trillion dollars… Tell Shifty he’s dreamin.’”

MIKE:

As anyone who has, you know, saw the Palmer billboards or heard or saw any of his advertisement advertisements during the election, the great bulk of that money was spent on anti Labor advertising.

Archival Tape -- Palmer AD:

“Put Australia first - Vote 1 The United Australia Party. Authorised by Clive Palmer for the United Australia Party Brisbane.”

MIKE:

One might reasonably suggest you can edit Palmer's spending to the coalition's spending, given that they were both working towards the common goal of keeping Labor out of government.

So so when you take that into account, turns out the conservative side of politics outspent the progressive side of politics by better than two to one in the last election. And that's an unprecedented disparity.

RUBY:

Ok so do you think that that spending made a difference to the outcome of the election?

MIKE:

Well, that's a good question. And of course, it's hard to definitively answer it. But the imbalance in this election does shed new light on an old debate about the importance of money in determining election outcomes.

Over the last five federal elections, the winning party was the one that spent more. The only exception to that was in 2010, where the coalition outspent Labor, but Labor squeaked back into government, but the central question here has always been whether money buys electoral success or whether it follows the likely winner. So, you know, in other words, do big donors look at which party is ahead in the polls and then jump on its bandwagon in the hope that that will buy them influence when that party takes government?

I spoke to Kate Griffiths, who's a fellow at the Grattan Institute, who did a lot of this analysis. The interesting thing about 2019, as Griffiths points out, is that in this case, Labor had been consistently ahead in the polls right up until the time the election campaign began. So if we were seeing the bandwagon effect, we would have seen much more money flowing to labor. But in this case, it didn't. Most of the big money, including Palmer's, poured in behind the conservatives. And and, of course, they won.

RUBY:

Okay. So it sounds like the evidence points to Clive Palmer perhaps being a significant factor in Scott Morrison’s victory. But what does Palmer himself get out of supporting the coalition like this?

MIKE:

Well, he gets a tremendous amount of influence I think you'd have to say, because they will know that he played a major part in a victory, and essentially they owe him.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“Clive Palmer has submitted documents seeking federal government approval for a huge coal mine in Central Queensland.”

MIKE:

It's also worth noting Palmer has plans to build a huge I mean, huge new coal mine up in Queensland's Galilee Basin. It will be several times three or four times the size of the controversial Adani proposal, which is itself an enormous proposed mine.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“The Alpha North coal mine project would be a series of open-cut and underground mines, covering an area of about 144,000Ha in Central Queensland…”

MIKE:

That means that Palmer has a very good reason to back a coal friendly government. And as we've seen since the election, the Morrison government is a very coal friendly government.

RUBY:

So, Mike, what are the things that we could use to protect our democracy from the influence of major donors?

MIKE:

Well, the obvious answer to the problem as many academics and others who've looked at it have noted is electoral law reform. But that's not happening. I mean, there have been many attempts, some by Labor, some by minor parties like the Greens and others who are disadvantaged by this big money politics to get change, and they've all hit the fence.

Most recently in December, Parliament's joint standing committee on Electoral Matters, reported back on its inquiry into changes that were proposed in a bill by one of the crossbenchers Rebecca Sharkey from South Australia. Her bill would have required far more detailed disclosure of where money was coming from and it would've required it to be reported more quickly and so on. Bottom line is both the major parties rejected it.

The Greens put in a minority report supporting supporting the bill, but saying that it didn't go far enough because it didn't quote: “impose any restrictions on the source of political donations or the total amount that can be donated.” And they said that that was absolutely necessary.

Sharkey’s people are as we speak, working on another bill that will address those issues, but on past past form, you'd have to say it doesn't look very promising of it going anywhere.

So I guess the conclusion one has to draw here is that in Australia, the government is still for sale to the highest bidder.

RUBY:

Mike, thanks so much for your reporting on this.

MIKE:

My pleasure. Thank you for talking to me.

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RUBY:

Also in the news today… The South Australian ombudsman has released a damning report into the state of youth detention. The report found that two teenage detainees were locked in their rooms for more than 22 hours per day and denied humane care. The ombudsman said that the use of isolation techniques has the potential to increase the likelihood of reoffending.

And Parasite has become the first film in a language other than English to win the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards. The South Korean film, directed by Bong Joon Ho , also picked up awards for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature.

I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

Clive Palmer spent $84 million of his own money on the last federal election – and didn’t win a single seat. But his campaign still played a key role in helping elect Scott Morrison. In this episode, Mike Seccombe speaks to Palmer’s candidates and explains why our donations system needs reform.

Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe.

Background reading:

Inside Palmer’s campaign to thwart Labor in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Ruby Jones. The show is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, Elle Marsh and Michelle Macklem. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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160: Did Clive Palmer buy an election for $84 million?