The Will of the People?

Jun 17

The Will of the People?

Posted by: George Grundy

Something’s not right here. Scott Morrison’s ‘miracle’ win in May was touted as one of the great political comebacks, but several aspects of the election now appear of questionable legitimacy, and it may just be that someone other than the Australian public was instrumental in putting ScoMo back in the big chair.

First, it’s worth reflecting on how the mechanics of Australia’s famously opaque electoral system no longer reflect the will of the people. The Liberal Party itself got just 28% of the vote, their poorest primary vote tally in Australian history, yet Morrison gets to lead the country again and claim a mandate from this apparently miraculous win. 10% of Australians voted for the Greens who only get one seat in the lower house, but the Nationals with just 4.51% of the vote, somehow retain ten seats. More than double as many people voted for the Greens than the Nationals, yet the Nationals have ten times the number of seats. That’s crackers.

But it’s not just the Australian electoral system that’s got issues. Clive Palmer appears to have exposed a flaw in our election laws that threatens to functionally end the idea that this country is governed by the will of the people. Because Clive says he just bought himself an election.

Flamboyant Mr Palmer has another egotistical billionaire’s lazy habit of overstating his considerable wealth. Palmer claimed throughout the election cycle that his net worth is $4 billion (or ‘four thousand million dollars’ as he insisted on calling it), although Forbes estimates his wealth at less than half that. Either way, Palmer and his money has been a baleful presence in Australian political life ever since he took the nation’s most marginal seat of Fairfax in 2013. The modestly named Palmer United Party (PUP) peaked at three Senators in 2014 then appeared to be on a slow crawl towards obscurity, as unhinged candidates and erratic hangers-on defected or resigned, often due to Palmer’s alleged bullying behaviour. By 2017 the party was deregistered, and it seemed another of Australia’s malign political movements was at an end.

Not so fast. In June 2018 the party was rebranded as the United Australia Party, and the money spigots were turned on in spectacular fashion. The party chose to contest every lower house seat in the 2019 election, but from the start it looked a pyrrhic proposition. UAP advertising espoused very few concrete policies save for a vague appeal to patriotism and ‘change’ that reminded many of another man’s ‘Make America Great Again’ inanity. The 2013 PUP policy package was rebranded and presented to the electorate as new ideas, an eclectic mix of social progressivism and fiscal conservatism, the type of political smorgasbord that is the hallmark of a movement emanating from one person. Notably, Palmer (the mining magnate) still opposes a carbon tax and wants lower taxes for rich people like himself.

There are examples in history of rich men getting involved in national politics for genuinely altruistic reasons. Clive Palmer is not one of them, and that became clear in the final few weeks of the 2019 election campaign. Recognising that the UAP was unlikely to get the kind of concrete results he sought, Palmer says he ‘decided to polarise the electorate’ instead of actually trying to win seats. Two weeks before the election, he claims that internal polling showed UAP would win four Senate seats – very few other polls suggest this was remotely realistic. Either way, Palmer says ‘we thought (a Labor win) would be a disaster for Australia so we…thought we’d put what advertising we had left…into explaining to the people what Shorten’s economic plans were for the country’.

This patriotism didn’t negate the odd tax dodge – UAP workers handing out ‘how to vote’ cards on election day were reportedly asked to register as Warratah Coal employees in order to pick up their pay. This meant they were effectively a tax deduction. Your tax dollars may have paid for Clive Palmer’s advocates standing outside polling places when the election took place.

Clive Palmer had already cut a preference deal with the Liberals early in the campaign. Across the election cycle, he is estimate to have spent around $60 million, most of it on advertising. To put this financial profligacy another way, Palmer’s UAP diverted all its considerable resources into a singular focus – making sure the Liberal Coalition retained power. Depending on your view of Palmer’s riches, this represents around 1-3% of his net wealth – a mere bagatelle to a man of such means, and a figure that could quite easily be expected to be recouped (and more) under favourable business conditions.

What is startling about this political investment is how overt Palmer has been about his intentions. He thinks he won the Liberals the election (an argument that is hard to refute) and is happy to tell everyone about it. ‘Ninety per cent of (UAP) preferences flowed to the Liberal party, and they won by about 2%, so our vote has got them across the line’, he said.

What remains to be seen is the benefits Palmer now reaps from his purchase of Australia’s new Prime Minister. His company Warratah Coal is hoping to get approval for a proposed coalmine in the Galilee Basin. Several other key tax and environmental decisions are due in the next few months that will materially affect Mr Palmer’s nebulous net worth. As Prime Minister, wouldn’t you feel a certain debt of honour to a man who so selflessly spent his money in order to keep you in your job?

The rest of us voters can sit back and watch. Watch as our national broadcaster is ripped to shreds. Weep as the new government sparks an epidemic of self-harm on Nauru and Manus Island. Worry as Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions increase for a fourth year in a row. Wonder if our great river systems can ever be returned to life. And wish that Australia could be spared another three years of becoming a more insular, racist, conservative, divided country.

A nation split down the middle, politically, is fodder for malign influence. As Clive Palmer has shown us, in elections like that of 2019 a swing of 2% this way or the other can change the entire outcome. We now live in a country where a billionaire can overtly attempt, and succeed, in selecting the Prime Minister of his choosing.

This is not how democracies are supposed to work. The word ‘democracy’ derives from the Greek meaning ‘power to the people’. But in 2019 we have an Orwellian political system, where all people are equal but some are more equal than others. What is to become of us should the polls in 2022 suggest another squeaker? What is to stop Palmer, or Gina Rinehart, James Packer or any other member of Australia’s ultra-rich deciding to throw a tiny percentage of their wealth at our democracy in the hope of securing more favorable business conditions, in a way that will more than recoup their investment?

I would argue that Clive Palmer’s actions in 2019 present a very real threat to the future of Australia as a functioning democracy. Even in America, where political money is absolutely king, Donald Trump at least tried to hide some of the money flowing into his campaign. In Australia the buying of our elections is overt. Clive Palmer seems to think it’s all kind of a joke.

Shouldn’t spending $60 million on an election with the stated goal of diverting preferences but not winning any seats be illegal? What if we discovered a document tomorrow showing that Scott Morrison and Clive Palmer had discussed this before the election campaign started. Is that against the law? If not, shouldn’t it be?

You know what, I’d like to find out. So I’ve written to the Australian Electoral Commission, asking the following questions.

– Is there a limit on how much private money can be spent on one election campaign?
– Is there any law that says that a political movement must actually try to win seats in Australia’s parliament, or can unlimited funds be spent simply trying to win influence and divert preferences?
– Is it legal to pay people on election day to hand out political materials via a privately held company, or to claim that as a tax deduction?
– Is there a law precluding the collusion between a political party and a private individual for electoral gain, and if so what is it?
– What is there to stop a rich private individual receiving preferential treatment from a government following the spending of private money on a campaign whose goals aligned with the successful political party?

I’ll keep you posted on the response I receive. Without good answers, there’s every chance that Scott Morrison may be standing there smiling in 2022, courtesy of another rich individual who thinks they have the right to pick who leads this country, and sod the rest of us.

This is not how it’s meant to work.