How Clive Palmer’s deep pockets are building a yellow, slick road straight through One Nation’s heartland
Take a wrong turn on the back roads through central Queensland, about 40km from Banana (population 354), and the road turns to gravel. A few clicks further on, over a couple of cattle grids, there’s a bright yellow United Australia party sign – but not another driver to see it for miles.
This particular spot is close to smack bang in the middle of the 133,000 sq km electorate of Flynn.
Three years ago, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party polled about 20% of the primary vote in the seat. This time around, minor party voters in some places appear to be coalescing around Clive Palmer’s big-spending UAP.
Outside the area, the narrative around the rightwing minor parties seems clear enough. Hanson, Palmer, Campbell Newman and Bob Katter’s parties are competing for the same subset of voters in Queensland (and likely a single senate seat), with One Nation the most likely to prevail.
The recruitment of LNP defector George Christensen – though he’s running in an unwinnable place on the One Nation ticket – was thought to boost Hanson’s own chances of returning to the senate.
But what One Nation doesn’t seem to have – at least in comparison to the UAP – is much money. A One Nation candidate, speaking on condition of anonymity, says her campaign is self-funded. Corflutes for supporters’ front yards costs her $8 each.
Meanwhile Palmer’s UAP has bought every available billboard space, and has signs on dusty dirt roads in the middle of nowhere. In bigger towns and tiny towns, Guardian Australia spoke to more than a dozen disaffected voters. Most say they are leaning towards the UAP.
In Biloela, Cass Sorensen and Tamara Francis were about to drive 90 minutes to attend a rally with UAP MP Craig Kelly.
“It’s the very first time in my life where I have joined a political party,” Francis says.
Both say they like One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts and that Hanson’s party would get their preferences. Neither had seen or heard much from the seat’s One Nation candidate.
This seems to underscore a problem for Hanson. A significant number of people who are ideologically close to her party might put their first preference elsewhere in lower house seats.
If the UAP manages to cement itself as the rightwing party of choice in electorates that attract significant minor party vote – or in places One Nation candidates are not active – Palmer would then become the logical frontrunner for the last Senate quota.
That possibility would be particularly acute in places like Townsville, where One Nation has always had significant support, but where the party’s candidate for Herbert actually lives in Melbourne. There are few things conservative voters in north Queensland would dislike more.
While conversations about coal and climate have noticeably changed in regional Australia, some LNP voters told Guardian Australia this week that they are leaning towards the United Australia party because of mixed messaging within the Coalition on net zero.
In Gladstone – an industrial, Labor-voting town – some of the campaigning at the Labor Day march this week seemed to acknowledge Palmer and the UAP as a tangible electoral factor. In her speech to about 1000 unionists, the Australian Council of Trade Unions president, Michele O’Neil, singled out Palmer over the failure of Queensland Nickel and payout contracts that gagged workers from criticising the billionaire, in exchange for their outstanding entitlements.
Political billboards calling Palmer “a distraction” were driven around the rally.
On past history, it’s easy to dismiss the UAP as a non-entity. Palmer spent $80m on the 2019 election, for a return of about 3.4% of the national vote. He later claimed that he decided to “polarise the electorate” with anti-Labor ads rather than win seats in 2019.
A former UAP official, Jen Sackley, called the party’s 2019 iteration “a lobby group for the Liberal party in yellow shirts”.
The UAP advertised heavily ahead of the Queensland state election in 2020 and won 0.62% of the statewide vote.
Those joining up, if they read the party constitution, will find that its branches, committees and state executive have little effect, due to an “interim” arrangement –running to 2026 – giving all power to an executive controlled by Palmer.
Prof Graeme Orr, an expert on political funding at the University of Queensland, told the Guardian last year the party was “designed to create the veneer of a genuine party, but also effectively so he and his family can never be voted out of office”.
And yet, having spent the best part of the past week on the ground in central Queensland, it’s clear there is at least some real-world momentum this time around to justify the massive typeface on the billboards.
That may have little impact on the broader election story. Voters leaning towards the UAP – at least the ones we spoke to – had already parted ways with the major parties. But it would be particularly worrying for Hanson, whose political career would be all but over if she can’t finish ahead of Palmer, Newman and Katter in the four-way contest for the rightwing fringe.