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The Guardian - AU

United Australia Party may have more backing than polls suggest, with voters too embarrassed to voice support, analysis shows

The United Australia party’s hour-long election commercial aired on Channels 10, 9 and 7flix before the 2022 federal election media blackout took effect.
The United Australia party’s hour-long election commercial aired on Channels 10, 9 and 7flix before the 2022 federal election media blackout took effect. Photograph: United Australia Party

Clive Palmer’s United Australia party is burning through its projected $70m election advertising spend, including hour-long television commercials, as a data analyst warns the fringe party could have more backing than polls predict, with some voters embarrassed to voice their support.

At 9.45pm on Wednesday – hours before the blackout for election ads on broadcast media came into effect – Channel 10 ran an hour-long UAP ad which marketing analysts believe cost up to $600k but would have been discounted due to the mammoth ad spend by the party.

It was the third time the UAP had paid for the hour-long ad, which ran on Channel 9 and 7flix in recent days.

Billed as the UAP campaign launch that had happened weeks earlier, the broadcast featured speeches from Palmer – who is running as a Senate candidate for UAP in Queensland – and Craig Kelly – the party’s head who is widely expected to lose his lower house seat of Hughes. The speeches were delivered in front of a raucous, applauding crowd wearing yellow party hats.

The speeches were broken up with what appeared to be ad breaks showing short promotions of different UAP policies, such as capping mortgage repayment rates at 3%, permanently freezing the fuel excise, and warning that “mass biometric surveillance” was in use in Australia.

The cost of the hour-long TV ads pales in comparison to the eye-watering $70m Palmer had vowed to spend on advertising by election day.

On YouTube, the UAP spent $9.58m on ads from the beginning of February until 8 May. The party spent $2.38m in the week ending 8 May, according to the most up-to-date figures available, and this weekly spend is understood to have increased since.

Meanwhile, the federal Labor party has spent about $1.9m on YouTube ads since the beginning of the year, while the Liberal party has spent about $750,000.

Parties have spent less on Facebook and Instagram, but the UAP and Palmer’s personal pages spent $874,000 in ads between 15 February and 15 May, more than double the Liberal Party’s $402,000 in that period, while Labor has spent $1.73m.

On Thursday, Guardian Australia reported that experts have denounced a “misleading” claim perpetuated by the United Australia party, and some government MPs, that the World Health Organization will use a possible pandemic treaty to control Australia’s health system, including to arbitrarily impose lockdowns.

Now that the broadcast blackout is in effect, the UAP – like the other parties and candidates – is expected to ramp up its ads on social media and other mediums.

However as Palmer and Kelly travelled across the country this week to spruik candidates, the party’s image was dealt a blow with reports detailing how more than 20 of UAP’s 173 candidates across the lower and upper houses have faced court in the past or face ongoing matters.

They include offences such as unlawful assault, domestic violence, stalking, burglary, intentional destruction of property, trafficking of a controlled drug and medium range drink-driving. Kelly and a party spokesperson defended the party’s vetting process reportedly saying that the UAP had conducted police checks, social media checks and formal interviews to choose candidates.

On Wednesday, the party’s candidate in the Melbourne seat of Higgins was granted bail in time for election day.

This election, the UAP is directing voters to preference Liberal and Nationals candidates ahead of Labor in a swathe of key seats. UAP preference flows were viewed as helping the Coalition retain seats and enjoy swings at the 2019 election.

When the Guardian visited an early polling centre in the eastern Sydney seat of Wentworth last week, more than a quarter of those exiting saidthey voted in favour of the UAP.

Several said they were previously swing voters but were attracted by the anti-vaccine mandate and Covid restriction policies of the party.

Data analyst Elisa Choy said she believes most polling companies are not capturing the real level of support for the UAP.

Ahead of the election, Choy’s company, Maven Data, has scraped thousands of terabytes of information from social media, search trends, news sites and blogs, in an attempt to gain insights into voter sentiment.

Maven then scans the data for emotive language, and applies an artificial intelligence tool to gauge the popularity of different political issues and parties.

“What I’m seeing is that we, Australians, are not enamoured with either of the major party leaders,” Choy said.

“The hard views I have based on the data is that while we are seeing the rise of teal independents in key seats, the UAP appears to be successful in tapping into the great deal of disillusionment across many seats.”

Choy said she believed polling participants often don’t respond truthfully, and don’t talk openly about their views, if they think they’ll be judged.

“The silent majority of Australians don’t signal things in person or comment their views on social media, but we can look at what they’re reading or watching and what they’re searching on Google when they feel safe that no one is watching them,” she said.

While the number of hardcore anti-vaxxers yet to receive any Covid-19 vaccine is low across the country, Choy said that voters sympathetic to UAP could include a much larger share of Australians who felt nudged into getting vaccinated due to government vaccine rules, while others resented harsh Covid restrictions.

Choy said her analysis points to topics such as climate change, integrity, interest rates and the cost of living as being most likely to influence voters.