Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

The rise of the Palmer United Party

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The Palmer United Party (PUP) won 5.5% of the first preference vote at the Federal election in September becoming Australia’s fourth largest party. This spectacular result for the billionaire Clive Palmer’s brand new party gives an insight into the hatred that exists for the major parties and the burning desire to vote for an alternative.

By Kirk Leonard, Socialist Party

A deal with the Motoring Enthusiast Party’s Senator-elect Ricky Muir looks likely to hand the balance of power in the new senate to the PUP and Muir, pending a senate recount in Western Australia. Clive Palmer himself narrowly won the Queensland lower house seat of Fairfax.

Palmer is a multi-millionaire mining magnate who was a life member of the Liberal-National Party until he resigned in November 2012. He was a key lieutenant for notorious right-winger and former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen in the 1980s.

Palmer’s business interests include major coal and nickel mining export ventures, luxury resorts and prestige golf courses. He established the PUP in April this year. He recruited two Queensland State MPs who quit the Liberal-National Party and fielded candidates in all 150 Federal lower house seats and all senate races.

Populist, anti-establishment and anti-system themes dominated the PUP campaign including a reference to ‘revolution’ in one TV advertisement. Palmer has also spoken strongly against political lobbyists, in favour of free tertiary education and of boosting health spending by $80 billion. It was on this basis that the PUP leveraged Clive Palmer’s wealth and fame to attract over 700,000 votes.

But despite its success at the ballot box the PUP’s rise will likely be limited. In reality the PUP hardly exists on the ground. Its candidates were selected with little scrutiny on the basis of a simple application form. The PUP revolves around Palmer but behind his flamboyant performances, and sometimes radical rhetoric, there is no cohesive set of ideas or policies.

The real agenda of Palmer is pro-profit tax cuts and other policies to support his business interests. This will conflict with the interests and hopes of those who voted for him and undermine PUP support at a certain stage.

The rapid rise of the PUP indicates an extremely volatile political mood developing under the surface of society. Worsening living standards and growing concern about the future are undermining the pro-capitalist parties. In this context populist right wing forces can develop by drawing on this mood. Examples of this kind of process can also be found elsewhere in the world.

On the other hand there is huge potential for a different, positive development to take place. Powered by the mass rejection of the major parties and their system, a potential new mass party armed with a genuine left and pro-worker program could sink roots and make gains fast. The existing social weight of trade union members, politicised youth and campaigners on social, environment and community issues would need to form the basis of such a party. This party would be free of the weaknesses and contradictions that right wing forces face as its policies would be in sync with those who vote for it.

Developing a political party of this character is not an automatic, straightforward or easy process. The PUP has shone a floodlight on the big cracks in the dam wall for the Australian elite. But where the political flood waters of disgruntled working class people are channelled is not yet determined. Progressive forces need to seize the initiative before right wing forces do. Progressive unions and community groups need to break with the Labor Party and move towards setting up a new political force. Time is of the essence.


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