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Clive Palmer, mining billionaire dubbed ‘Australia’s Trump,’ stirs up election

Australian politician and billionaire Clive Palmer has been compared to former U.S. president Donald Trump. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Clive Palmer is an Australian mining magnate not short on grand ambitions. He once talked of cloning a dinosaur from DNA to build a real-life “Jurassic Park,” and vowed to rebuild the Titanic from scratch. (He settled on robotic dinosaurs for his Palmersaurus theme park, which later flopped. And a decade after he announced it, his ocean liner reproduction hasn’t yet made it to water.)

In 2013, Palmer made his first big foray into national politics — including a brief stint holding the balance of power in Australia’s Senate. He spent millions campaigning during the previous federal election in 2019, but his party didn’t land a single seat. His brash political style and populist rhetoric have drawn comparisons to former U.S. president Donald Trump — and now he’s back, promising to “Make Australia Great Again.”

While the chances of Palmer’s United Australia Party (UAP) winning even a single seat in Saturday’s federal election are low, he has been spending heavily in some close races. One of UAP’s populist campaign videos on YouTube has been viewed nearly 25 million times, in a country with a population of just under 26 million.

His biggest impact could be as an election spoiler: Palmer has recommended that voters rank the ruling center-right Liberal-National Coalition over the center-left Labor opposition in several key races, a move that improves Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s chances of returning of power.

Who is Clive Palmer?

Palmer, 68, became a billionaire through mining interests in iron ore, coal and nickel. In March, an Australian newspaper put his wealth at around $13 billion, thanks to a boom in mining royalties, though Forbes values his empire at $2 billion.

The Queensland-based tycoon is no stranger to controversy. He took the state of Western Australia to court over border closures during the pandemic. (He lost.) Palmer has also spoken out against coronavirus vaccines, and is unvaccinated. (The country uses internationally approved vaccines, including those made by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca.)

Palmer has become increasingly populist in recent years, taking his cues from pro-Brexit lawmakers in Britain and Republicans in the United States, including Trump, said Glenn Kefford, a politics expert at University of Queensland.

At times, though, his ideology is harder to pin down: In 2013 Palmer ran on a platform of flying in more refugees, just as the Coalition and Labor parties were clamping down on asylum seekers and refugees arriving by sea.

“He is an enigma in many ways. The actions he takes don’t always seem to be considered or strategic. Sometimes they seem to be reactionary and spontaneous and emotional,” Kefford said.

What is the platform of Palmer’s United Australia Party?

Populist messaging is a key plank of UAP’s strategy. Earlier in the pandemic, members of the party associated themselves with anti-lockdown movements across the country and railed against government-imposed vaccine mandates and passports.

In April, Palmer said only the UAP “could save Australia from the economic catastrophe imposed by the Liberal and Labor governments” — referring to deficits respectively accumulated by the administrations in power during the coronavirus pandemic and the 2008 financial crisis.

On the road to Sydney airport recently, a giant billboard in the party’s signature bright yellow declared: “SAVE YOUR HOME. Max home loan rate at 3% pa. Vote 1 United Australia Party.” The UAP is promising to cap home loan interest rates at 3 percent for the next five years; in reality, benchmark rates are set by the country’s independent Reserve Bank, which recently raised interest rates in the middle of the election campaign.

UAP leader Craig Kelly on Monday defended campaign posters suggesting he could be the next prime minister, telling Sky News Australia: “We are in a fight; this is not a two-horse race.” (Some analysts don’t even expect him to win his own seat.)

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What are Clive Palmer’s views on women?

Palmer fielded a diverse mix of candidates in 2013 — including many female candidates. He has said that Canberra needs to be more gender inclusive and that “Australia deserves to benefit from the wise counsel of all its people, not just some.”

But Jill Sheppard, a political expert at Australian National University, said that Palmer does not have a feminist agenda. “To a lot of Australian voters, Clive Palmer is an archetypal businessman. He’s very masculine,” she said.

His approach to politics is largely transactional, said Kefford of the University of Queensland, who interviewed many former candidates for a research project.

Prime Minister Morrison’s handling of sexual harassment and abuse complaints has been in the spotlight during the campaign.

How might Palmer and the UAP affect the Australian election?

Palmer’s party is fielding candidates in every upper and lower house seat. And while his candidates aren’t expected to win, Palmer has played the role of a spoiler, attacking the main parties’ policies and painting the UAP as the only viable alternative.

“The whole political class has turned against the people. We know we can never trust the Liberals, Labor, the Greens or Nationals again,” Palmer said in December.

In 2019, Palmer helped spread baseless claims on social media that the Labor party planned to introduce a “death tax,” or estate tax, if elected. The misinformation hurt the opposition party’s standing with voters, and was a factor as it ultimately lost an election it had widely been expected to win.

Still, some experts expect Palmer’s impact will be limited in a robust democracy where voters typically don’t stray too far from the political center.

“Money doesn’t get you very far in Australian politics,” said Australian National University’s Sheppard.