‘Australia’s Trump’ splashes cash in election bid

A man (left) taking a selfie in front of a billboard of United Australia Party leader Clive Palmer in Melbourne May 15, 2019. — AFP pic
A man (left) taking a selfie in front of a billboard of United Australia Party leader Clive Palmer in Melbourne May 15, 2019. — AFP pic

GOLD COAST, May 16 — A brash, self-promoting billionaire with political ambition and a string of controversies in his wake, Clive Palmer not only sounds like Australia’s answer to Donald Trump, that is exactly who he is modelling himself on.

The businessman has adopted the slogan “Make Australia Great” for his United Australia Party, repeatedly bashed China and is positioning himself as an upstart outsider ahead of the country’s parliamentary election on Saturday.

A key difference between the two populists is that the now-US president campaigned with the backing of a mainstream political party, whereas Palmer has entered the electoral race on his own terms.

Australian politics is traditionally dominated by two major political forces: the conservative Liberal-National coalition and the centre-left Labor Party.

Palmer is giving them a run for their money, literally.

The mining magnate claims to be spending about A$60 million on election advertising — more than the two major parties combined — running primetime TV ads, plastering his face on bright yellow billboards across the country, and sending unsolicited text messages to voters.

His party has entered candidates in all of the 151 lower house seats, although at least one was sacked after peddling 9/11 conspiracy theories. Palmer started in the property business but made his fortune in Australia’s booming resources sector and is now worth an estimated A$2.6 billion, according to Forbes magazine.

The 65-year-old is currently building a modern-day replica of the Titanic, which he plans to put in service on the same route as the doomed original vessel.

He has been embroiled in a series of high-profile legal battles, including with a Chinese state-owned company and workers at one of his own mines, who have not been fully paid.

No stranger to Australian politics, Palmer was elected to the House of Representatives in 2013 on a wafer-thin margin of 53 votes.

Three of his party’s candidates also won Senate seats, but the alliance quickly crumbled and Palmer served just three years in Parliament — during which he was criticised for failing to show up regularly — before declaring he was retiring from politics.

Political rebirth

Despite only reviving the party in October 2018 he has displayed a Trump-style skill for hype, recently releasing a statement that claimed UAP “will win government”.

So will Australian voters follow their American cousins and pull the lever for a maverick billionaire?

Analysts say the party is not in serious contention to win even a single seat in the House of Representatives, where a party must gain 76 seats to form a government.

Palmer himself stands a fair chance of being elected to the Senate, or upper house — though many observers are questioning why he is spending so much money to do so.

His voting record may provide a clue: It shows only a few issues piqued his interest — mining, renewable energy and carbon tax legislation — subjects that hew closely to his business interests.

Paul Williams, an elections researcher at Griffith University, said there was “no doubt” that Palmer was keen to advocate for big business and speculated that he may also have missed being in the political limelight.

Palmer is betting that many Australians are fed up with the major parties and looking for a viable alternative.

Professor John Wanna, a public policy expert at Australian National University, said that UAP’s populist policies — which include tax cuts, pension increases and a more compassionate approach to asylum seekers — do not fit neatly on either the left or the right of the political spectrum.

“All the people he’s got to stand are either business associates or friends of business associates, there’s no unifying ideology,” he told AFP.

“They just don’t like the big parties — that’s the main rallying call of Palmer.”

That stance may prove popular, but the comparisons to Trump may ultimately limit Palmer’s appeal.

While early opinion polls showed support for Palmer — who has been photographed holidaying in the Pacific island nation of Fiji just days before the election — that appears to have tailed off as election day nears.

Palmer’s “blunt and clumsy” Trump-style messaging had brought him into the national discourse, Williams said, but its failure to evolve as the campaign progressed had cost him votes.

“Australians are well versed in Trumpian rhetoric, and they don’t like that Americanisation,” he said. — AFP