The Rise and Fall of PUP is Not Just About Clive

While the electoral prospects of the Palmer United Party (PUP) appear decidedly bleak, one thing remains constant: news about Clive and PUP remains much sought after. The PUP story contains the ingredients of a great political thriller: money, intrigue and corporate interests. Part of this is of course a product of the way Clive has presented himself. But there is also an element of sensationalism about the coverage.

palmer_election night

Hamish Cairns, 2013 Federal Election campaign photographs, State Library of Queensland, Election night

However in all this focus on Clive, the stories about the party organisation, the candidates and the members are often overlooked. It is easy to forget, given the 24/7 news cycle, that in September 2013, 709,000 Australian voters gave PUP their first preference in the House of Representatives and 658,000 did so for the Senate.

 

While Duncan McDonnell and I were able to provide part of the story about the party, the candidates and the members in our recent article ‘Ballots and Billions: Clive Palmer’s Personal Party’ in the Australian Journal of Political Science, there is certainly more to be said.

In the article, we discuss in great detail how Palmer and PUP’s head office actively discouraged grassroots participation, including shutting down attempts by active PUP members and candidates across Australia to establish branches and committees. We devoted less attention, however, to the backgrounds of the candidates and how things changed for these candidates from the federal campaign to the subsequent state campaigns.

Of those we spoke to, a significant number had at one stage or another been members of other parties. These included the ALP, the Liberal Party, The Nationals, Family First and One Nation. They all expressed a genuine desire to be involved in the political process and to participate in politics. Those who had been members of other parties (and, in particular, of the major parties) said they felt locked out of the process and thought they had little chance of contributing in a meaningful way via membership of these other parties and even less chance of being pre-selected.

Yet none of those we spoke to were under any illusions that they were going to win in their new guises as PUP candidates. Almost all the seats where PUP had any hope of success, including key Senate seats, were given either to celebrity candidates, such as Glenn Lazarus, or those within Palmer’s inner circle, such as Dio Wang. However, most candidates said that they thought, and had been told, that the party would do even better than it eventually did.

Wishful thinking from candidates and heroic projections from party office, is certainly not that unusual. What is surprising, however, was the way the party interacted with their candidates and members. Three of these are worth discussing in more detail.

The first relates to the way the party selected its policies. In the AJPS article we explained how the nation-wide strategy was based on two goals: abolishing taxes that impacted Palmer businesses and trying to maximise the vote as much as possible. However, what is perhaps more unusual is what was done at the local level.

PUP gave each of its candidates the authority to select two policies relevant to their local electorate. The PUP Candidates Manual states: “In the first instance the candidate and campaign team will develop the top two local federal issues of the area….The two issues are specific commitments the local candidate would like to announce before and during the election campaign”.

The second striking aspect of the party-candidate relationship relates to how the campaigns were financed. The level of investment that was made by the party during the federal campaign was enormous. As we documented in our article, candidates for the federal election each received a set amount of $10,000 to spend on their campaigns after initially being promised $50,000 each. What we did not mention in the article, however, is that candidates in subsequent state campaigns received no financial support whatsoever.

Moreover, those we spoke to for our study said that what little organisational support they had received during the federal campaign disappeared for the state campaigns. This was evident in how events for these campaigns unfolded. For example, when discussing the launch of one state campaign, one candidate told us: “the candidates had no involvement in it at all, and no prior knowledge of what was going on, what the party’s policies were that were going to be released, or anything like that. We had no idea”.

The treatment of candidates by the party organisation was clearly very poor. But the sharp decline in the amount of financial support and organisational support is telling. If the party was anything more than a temporary vehicle, it could have easily provided such support and guidance. But this was never the goal and it certainly was not a strength of the party or Palmer in any case, as evidenced by the loss of two of their three Senators.

PUP is a fascinating case study of the rise and fall of a new party. While parts of the PUP story appear unlikely to be replicated in the foreseeable future, others, such as building parties around founder-leaders, appear likely to stay despite the mooted Senate electoral reforms.

The Clive-athon will, invariably, continue on unabated, but there is certainly much more to the PUP story. Indeed, that a party this disorganised can do so well says quite a bit about what potential prospects there are for other new parties.

Glenn Kefford is a Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Tasmania

“Ballots and Billions: Clive Palmer’s Personal Party” is free to read in The Australian Journal of Political Science until 31 March.