By Melanie Burton and Jonathan Barrett
MELBOURNE/SYDNEY, May 17 – A billionaire who built his own Jurassic Park and promises a replica Titanic may hold the balance of power in Australia’s parliament if his populist campaign wins enough votes in Saturday’s general election.
Clive Palmer, whose slogan “Make Australia Great” echoes U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, has spent tens of millions of dollars on a campaign aimed at disaffected voters in a country where casting a ballot is compulsory.
The unprecedented spending in an Australian election could help the businessman capture a powerful bloc in the upper house Senate, analysts say, and force a new government to seek his help to pass legislation.
“There’s a strong possibility that he could hold the balance of power,” said Rohan Millar, an academic at Sydney University.
Palmer’s United Australia Party promises fast trains for the east coast cities of Sydney and Brisbane, and a 20% increase in pension payments for the elderly.
Full-page spreads in major newspapers promote the party platform, while Palmer’s portly visage, thumbs up, peers down from canary yellow billboards across the country.
“It’s a very simple platform. As the major parties are engaging in negative campaigning, he’s got the bright yellow colours, offering a new direction, a return to jobs and prosperity,” Millar said.
“There’s large tracts of Australia where he resonates,” he added, though the party has not said how it will pay for its promises.
It has spent A$44.4 million ($30.7 million) in TV, print and radio advertising since September, according to Nielsen Ad Intel Portfolio data, compared to a combined A$22.4 million by the incumbent Liberal-led coalition and opposition Labor party.
The data did not include online advertising or the campaign’s final week when Palmer ran prominent newspaper ads.
LARGER THAN LIFE
He first entered parliament in 2013 when his Palmer United Party captured a crucial handful of seats in the Senate, where the party held the balance and was able to block or pass legislation as an unlikely power-broker.
But his influence waned after two senators quit the party. Palmer did not seek re-election after the worst attendance record of any politician, parliament records show.
Palmer, who made it back onto Forbes’ rich list after a five-year hiatus, has stood out even in a country known for its larger-than-life tycoons.
He has hosted glamorous parties in New York and Townsville in his home state of Queensland for his proposed Titanic II, which he says will be built in shipyards in China.
He created a theme park with robotic dinosaurs on Queensland’s coast. The park and a nearby resort now lie vacant and in disrepair.
Palmer cultivates a jovial image, poking fun at himself by writing haiku about hamburgers and on the campaign trail creating a videogame in which players binge on biscuits and dodge political opponents portrayed as cockroaches.
That irreverence extends to the electoral process. He spammed hundreds of thousands of voters this year with text messages pledging to stop political phone spam if elected.
But behind the jocularity lies a controversial businessman.
Before laying off 800 workers and devastating the local economy, Palmer’s Queensland Nickel refinery, which went into administration in 2016, donated A$20 million to his first election campaign.
Palmer, who said the matter was out of his hands, has now begun to settle the claims of former workers but the government is pursuing him to recover a A$66 million bailout package, just as the winner of Saturday’s election may need his help to pass legislation.
Palmer also owns a coal deposit in Queensland’s remote Galilee basin, where India’s Adani Enterprises is struggling to gain final government approvals for a hugely controversial heating coal mine.
If approved, Adani plans to build a new rail line that would connect the basin to the port and ease development of new projects, including Palmer’s deposit.
Analysts say his expensive campaign does not guarantee electoral success on Saturday.
It’s difficult to win a Senate seat, let alone a bloc of seats, in a system dominated by two major parties, said John Warhurst, emeritus professor in political science at the Australian National University.
“If he does get in, he would be influential,” Warhurst said.
“He would be tricky to deal with, super-confident, a bit unpredictable, but potentially a good negotiator.” ($1 = 1.4522 Australian dollars) (Reporting by Melanie Burton in MELBOURNE and Jonathan Barrett in SYDNEY; editing by Darren Schuettler)