epa06755110 A billboard featuring Australian businessman and former politician Clive Palmer is seen on Vulture Street in the Brisbane suburb of Woolloongabba, Queensland, Australia, 22 May 2018. Palmer was the leader of the Palmer United Party and held the seat of Fairfax in the federal parliament until 2016. EPA-EFE/DARREN ENGLAND AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT
An election billboard in Brisbane features populist businessman-turned-politician Clive Palmer © EPA

A controversial businessman has emerged as a powerbroker in Australia’s election following a remarkable turnround in his fortunes, which has seen his political party clinch a voter preference deal with the governing Liberal party and surge in opinion polls. 

Clive Palmer, a mining magnate whose nickel business went bust in 2016, forcing his retreat from politics, is in the running to win several seats in the Senate with his recently formed United Australia Party — a result that could give him significant influence over legislation.

The UAP and a number of minor parties and independent candidates are tipped to attract a record number of votes in the May 18 election, highlighting the growing disillusionment with the mainstream Liberal, National and Labor parties that could be instrumental in how Australia is governed.

“In the last two federal elections, around one in four voters split their votes between different parties in the upper and lower houses — in effect, registering a protest against the major parties,” said Ian McAllister, politics professor at the Australian National University in Canberra. 

“In this election, it is likely to be more than one in four, perhaps as high as one in three,” he added. 

The shift away from established parties mirrors a trend in Europe and the US, where a populist wave has catapulted maverick politicians and parties into power. 

This is unlikely in Australia, where the preferential voting system for the House of Representatives, the lower house of parliament, favours mainstream parties. But it could enable enough independents to win seats to prevent Labor or the Liberal-National coalition from forming a majority government — and hand maverick MPs the balance of power. 

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“There is a chance of a minority government, but where we really see the influence of the micro-parties is in the Senate due to the peculiarities of its electoral system, as well as dissatisfaction with the older parties,” said Sarah Maddison, politics professor at the University of Melbourne. 

No government has enjoyed a Senate majority since 2007 and its preferential proportional representation electoral system — which has no threshold on minimum votes to weed out small parties — has helped Mr Palmer, the Greens, the rightwing One Nation and a host of others to win seats.

These parties are increasingly willing to block legislation — a trend that severely hampered former prime ministers Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd, who both failed to pass key budget and climate legislation. Analysts say this is one of a range of factors that have destabilised politics in Australia, where several prime ministers have been ousted during a decade marked by bitter internal wrangling in the main parties.

Gareth Evans, a former Labor foreign minister, said the micro-parties in the Senate resemble the type of “oddballs from the bar scene in Star Wars” and represent a problem for one the most powerful upper houses in the democratic world. 

“You have people elected who have no sense of wider responsibility in an institution that can block budget legislation and create a government crisis,” he said.

Several far-right politicians sit in the Senate, including Fraser Anning, who called for a “final solution” to “Australia’s immigration problem” in his maiden speech. Pauline Hanson, the leader of One Nation, which had a record four senators elected in 2016, campaigns against immigration and has caused offence to minority groups throughout her 20-year political career.

Her more controversial stunts include wearing a burka in parliament in 2017 to protest against Muslim immigration and calling for a public inquiry into Islam.

Mr Palmer, who made a fortune selling mining rights to Chinese company Citic Pacific, is hoping to emulate his success in the 2013 election when his Palmer United Party won three Senate seats and he was elected to the lower house. PUP was wound up in 2017 after the loss of its senators — one lost a re-election bid and two quit to sit as independents — and the liquidation of Queensland Nickel, which collapsed, costing A$70m ($49m) to taxpayers.

The party has announced few policies beyond cutting taxes, supporting the coal industry and building a 1,700km high-speed rail link between Melbourne and Brisbane but is financing a Donald Trump-style national advertising campaign asking voters to help Mr Palmer “Make Australia Great”.

Mr Palmer has spent about A$30m on political marketing — almost the total amount spent by Labor on the 2016 election. The strategy appears to be working: a poll last week suggested UAP could win three Senate seats. 

In a sign of his growing influence, he clinched the voter preference deal with the Liberals despite once comparing Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister and the party leader, of behaving like Nazi war criminal Heinrich Himmler. The deal would boost the party’s prospects by diverting surplus Liberal votes to UAP candidates.

Mr Morrison defended the controversial preference deal. “The honest truth is Labor and the Greens present a far bigger threat to the Australian economy and people’s jobs than the UAP does, that’s just a simple fact,” he said.

“Palmer is like the Nigel Farage of Australian politics and is not to be underestimated, given that he is outspending the established parties,” said Tim Fischer, a former deputy prime minister, referring to the populist UK Brexit politician and former leader of the UK Independence Party. 

“He is articulate, bursts on to the field prior to an election, scores a few early points and targets voters unhappy with established parties,” Mr Fischer added.

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