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Clive Palmer and the United Australia Party: third option or Liberal spoiler?

By James English - posted Monday, 6 May 2013


Former Liberal National Party (LNP) life member Clive Palmer has reformed the United Australia Party (UAP) and has now been joined by two other LNP defectors, Alex Douglas and Carl Judge. Palmer's talk of running as a third option creates a possibility of reinvigorating Australian politics, but it's one that is likely to fail.

The bulk of the UAP's votes will inevitably come from the Coalition. There is also a chance of the UAP gaining some of what would otherwise be an increased informal vote, as it presents another option to disillusioned voters. Some voters, however, are likely to shift back to vote for Labor as a result of Palmer's move giving credibility to the claim that politics is being run by vested interests.

The UAP's policies

Palmer is doing little to distance his policies from those of the Coalition, admitting on Lateline that his policies were essentially Liberal policies, with five key differences. But even those differences are likely to appeal to Liberal/National voters.

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First, he would ban lobbyists from the UAP. This is a harmless ideal, with the message that Palmer would be a purer alternative to the present options.

Second, Palmer would abolish the carbon tax retrospectively, an approach the Coalition is unlikely to take. Palmer's aim is to take the votes of people who see the abolition of the carbon tax as the single most important issue in this election – something which the Coalition has consistently attacked by repeating Gillard's pre-election statement that it would not be introduced.

Third is refugee policy. Palmer stated that his party would allow asylum seekers to fly to Melbourne rather than face the expense of naval interception of boats. Nuances of refugee policy aside, the fact that Palmer is targeting the cost of refugee policy is also likely to influence Coalition voters who believe in small government and a budget surplus.

The fourth difference is that resources should be exported at a higher value to generate more wealth for Australia. This and the fifth difference, that wealth be directed back to the regions where it was generated, are both likely to influence those who are working in mining and other resource industries and oppose the Minerals Resource Rent Tax – again, Liberal/National voters.

The UAP's carbon tax, resources and regions policies are all essentially Coalition policies, taken one step further. It creates a greater differentiation between Labor and the UAP than there is between Labor and the Coalition by targeting the Liberal priority of tax minimisation and the National's regional focus. Manager of Government Business Anthony Albanese has said that Palmer is targeting a 'niche market' of former Coalition voters. This is not an attempt to take votes from each side of politics; it is an attempt to take votes of those who oppose Labor policies and therefore would otherwise vote for the Coalition.

Someone else

The second group Palmer will be targeting are informal voters from the last election. There was a strong informal swing in 2010, up from 3.95% in 2007 to 5.55%, higher than the peak under the Howard government, at 5.18% in 2004.

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Both figures can be traced to leadership. In 2004, Mark Latham proved too vitriolic and Howard won a majority in both houses. In 2010, both Gillard and Abbott were unpopular, and have maintained low approval ratings in the three years since. Gillard lost credibility as a result of the carbon tax while Abbott is seen as too repetitive and lacking substance.

This all suggests that Australians are further disillusioned than in 2010 and do not wish to vote for either of the major parties. The Greens and independents will not benefit from this disillusion because of their part in the minority Gillard government. As a result, the informal vote is likely to increase.

This is Palmer's opportunity. He does not belong to one of the four main parties and nor is he independent. Voters are looking for someone else, and Palmer is declaring that he might be that someone. The UAP is looking for protest votes, either from people who would have voted informally, or are otherwise questioning whether they want an Abbott government.

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About the Author

James holds degrees in Law and Arts (Politics) from the University of New South Wales. His research interests include Australian politics, political philosophy, human rights and public law.

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