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How Clive Palmer showed that our democracy can be bought

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Clive Palmer's electoral advertising budget was used in the end to keep the Liberals in power (Image by Dan Jensen)

Clive Palmer's financial interference in the 2019 Federal Election is a sign of how weakened our democratic system has become, writes George Grundy.

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY about the health of a democracy if a rural party got ten representative seats for 4.5% of the vote, while the Greens got more than double as many votes but just one seat? How representative of the national mood would it be if a coalition of parties retained power by a tiny margin, then started implementing a hard-Right agenda despite a flatlining economy and unprecedented environmental threat?

What would it mean if a billionaire spent $60 million of his own money without actually trying to win any seats, then claimed to have changed the result of the election in his favour?

You don’t need to imagine these things, of course. This is Australia in 2019. A country famous around the world for its friendly, laid-back attitude, yet currently governed by people channelling adjectives like cruel, corrupt and dysfunctional. This year’s Federal Election starkly exposed a system now unfit for purpose. Indeed, it could be argued that the 2019 Election was the moment when Australia ceased to be a functioning democracy. Let me explain.

First, Australian electoral mechanics aren’t just opaque, they’re exclusionary. The House of Representatives instant runoff voting system makes it almost impossible for smaller parties to break through. In theory at least, the Greens could double their vote tally next time and get no seats at all. The LNP and ALP got around 75% of the primary vote in 2019, but that got them 96% of the seats. The system is designed to exclude entry to non-members of this two-party club.

Huge rural seats with low populations hold disproportionate power. In 2019, National Party votes were statistically worth more than 20 times those given to the Greens Party. Our country cousins hold the balance of power in Australia, despite 86% of us living in the cities.

Perhaps you feel that as a citizen of Australia your vote should be worth just as much as anyone else’s. Well, that would change everything.

A proportional voting system in Australia would have given the Greens 16 seats instead of one. With 22 seats shared among other minor parties, the chances are that Bill Shorten would be Prime Minister and the Greens would hold the balance of power. Australia’s Government would look completely different. This country isn’t shaped by its people’s politics, it’s the system that often decides the outcome.

None of this is sour grapes, just a plain observation of how profoundly our electoral system affects the nation’s fortunes. However, when a billionaire takes an interest in an already dysfunctional system, it can change things from unrepresentative to fundamentally broken. And that’s a problem.

Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party (UAP) spent an estimated $60 million on advertising in the 2019 Federal Election, the biggest spend on a single campaign by one party in Australian history. In the final three weeks, Palmer spent more than the Coalition and ALP combined. By his own admission, when it seemed unlikely that the UAP would win a single seat, the advertising budget was diverted with the aim of making sure the Liberals remained in power.

Palmer was overt about not actually trying to win representation and after the election boasted that:

“…90% of UAP preferences flowed to the Liberal party and they won by about 2%, so our vote has got them across the line.”

“What if” scenarios are notoriously meritless in politics — if Palmer hadn’t tried to influence the Election, presumably many of his supporters would have voted along similar political lines. But it is possible to make the argument that the UAP may have been decisive in the awarding of at least some seats. Let’s take the Tasmanian seat of Bass, for instance.

At the first count in Bass, Labor trailed the Liberals by around 7.5%. After the first three sets of party preferences were distributed, the gap remained much the same. But the fourth allocation of preferences was the 4,974 votes accumulated by Clive Palmer’s UAP and 53% of these went to the Liberals. That made the gap between Labor and Liberals nearly 10% and despite 83% of the Greens preferences subsequently going to Labor, Bridget Archer (LNP) had enough of a lead to hold on, by a margin of just 563 votes.

In Bass at least, the UAP’s money and influence arguably changed the outcome from one major party to another.

Clive Palmer seems to have viewed the Election as entirely transactional. If the Government now rules in his favour (in relation to tax, mining or environmental decisions), Palmer is likely to more than get his money back. So, to recap, a billionaire made a personal investment in swaying Australia’s politics in the hope of future financial gain via his chosen winners. He believes his money changed the overall outcome from one party to another. Isn’t that what we call corruption? Doesn’t that mean our democracy has been bought? Shouldn’t that be illegal?

I asked the Australian Electoral Commission for comment on the issues brought up by Clive Palmer’s involvement in the 2019 Election and the answers are pretty startling:

  • There is no limit to the amount one individual can spend on political influence during an election campaign. In theory, Gina Rinehart could spend $500 million next time around.
  • The act of nominating just one candidate means (in the eyes of the AEC) you are a political party. Nomination to the lower house costs $2,000 per seat, so the bar is incredibly low.
  • The act of nomination is viewed by the AEC as entering the contest. There is no requirement for a party to actually try to win seats.
  • How-to-vote deals between parties are perfectly legitimate. A billionaire could meet with the Prime Minister and commit to asking his or her voters to put the Liberals second.
  • There is very little to stop a Prime Minister from rewarding (or attempting to reward) a rich individual who has tried to influence Australian politics in their favour.

A nation split down the middle is fodder for malign influence and when narrow margins combine with our electoral system, Australia can end up with leaders enacting policies that almost no one supports. Punishing the unemployed for being poor, ignoring an existential climate crisis, standing by as our nation’s greatest river system dies in front of us. Extraditing much loved members of the community (and Australian born children) to a war-torn land where rape is used as a weapon and death a very real possibility.

Australia’s faulty electoral mechanics and lack of safeguards against moneyed influence have also allowed today’s Liberal party to become complacent to the creeping rise of political extremism, where fringe loons make it to the floor and once ridiculous statements become normal. This is now a country where Pauline Hanson can claim that women make up stories about domestic assault and is then made Deputy Chair of a family law inquiry. Where the response to the greatest climate threat in human history is to try to build the world’s largest coal mine. Where whistleblower protections are constantly under attack and Federal Police now conduct politically motivated raids on politicians and journalists.

This radical extremism is made flesh in Australia’s pugnacious Home Affairs Minister. Peter Dutton has spent the last few years relentlessly accumulating influence and power and adopting authoritarian tactics to divide, denigrate and conquer. Dutton is now arguably the most powerful man in Australia, barely concealing his desire for the top job. If he becomes Prime Minister, he will join Erdogan, Duterte, Bolsonaro, Johnson, Orban and Trump as the West’s democracies fall like dominoes to hard-Right authoritarians. We may be closer than we think to this moment of calamity.

With one tweak of the system towards a more representative poll, Australian politics would be the diametric opposite of this picture and our Government would be much less open to malign influence from the rich and powerful. If Clive Palmer’s boasts are correct, Australia is no longer a functioning democracy, as a billionaire changed the outcome of the 2019 election to suit his purposes.

The public, at least, seem to be aware of this. Ipsos polls suggest less than half of all Australians are satisfied with the way our democracy is working, a precipitous drop over the last decade. We know this is not how it’s meant to work. It’s the system that’s broken, not the country — it’s high time we addressed it.

George Grundy is an English-Australian author, media professional and businessman. He currently maintains the political blog www.americanprimerweekly.com, providing informative and entertaining commentary on major events in politics and sport.

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