CLIVE PALMER — seemingly about to enter Parliament via the blue-ribbon conservative electorate of Fairfax — looks set to kick a spectacular own goal, with his crusade against the Australian Electoral Commission likely to end in the Court of Disputed Returns in a stunning political miscalculation.
I’ve deliberately held off posting on closely contested electorates until the results begin to filter through (and yes, the Liberals appear to have been defeated in Indi, McEwen and Parramatta as well as Fairfax) but the case of Clive Palmer in Fairfax warrants comment.
Since polling day a little over a fortnight ago, the eccentric businessman has engaged in a highly visible public rant against the Australian Electoral Commission.
According to Palmer, the Commission has shown gross incompetence and a complete lack of transparency; he has accused it of “vote tampering” and alleged other irregularities in the vote counting process in Fairfax.
Last week, he called for a recount in the Sunshine Coast seat due to “suspected major voting discrepancies” and went as far as to (unsuccessfully) seek a Federal Court injunction to bring the count in Fairfax to a halt and have a fresh election in that seat ordered.
Some of his missives have been typically preposterous; a case in point was his assertion that retired military personnel are disproportionately represented in the ranks of AEC polling officials, and that the military “should not be allowed anywhere near democracy.”
If nothing else, that particular argument should neatly alienate the returned services community in Fairfax, which could be problematic in more ways than one — and sooner than Palmer might think.
Indeed, if good to his word, Clive Palmer may soon get more than he bargained for.
The prospect of a recount notwithstanding, one might have thought that being declared the victor in Fairfax on the weekend over his opponent, the LNP’s Ted O’Brien — albeit by the slender margin of 36 votes — may have mollified Palmer and soothed his grievances.
As recently as yesterday, however, Palmer was maintaining his rage; in a statement he said that “on the basis of evidence, a fraud has been committed” and accused the AEC of “a cover up.”
“I will continue to fight to hold the AEC accountable as they’ve shown themselves to be greatly incompetent with no transparency,” the statement said.
Intriguingly, it continued: “we will be highlighting the many discrepancies we’ve uncovered in the Court of Disputed Returns. The ballots have no security and the AEC is a national disgrace that needs to be heavily scrutinised.”
Is Palmer proposing to challenge his own victory in the Court of Disputed Returns?
It seems inconceivable — based on the sheer belligerence of Palmer’s attacks on the AEC — that if the recount overturns the provisional result, and O’Brien is declared the winner, that Palmer would do anything other than challenge the result in Court.
But if he wins, will he hold good to his threat?
If I were advising him (assuming the recount confirms him as the new member for Fairfax) my advice — to put it bluntly — would be to shut up and take his seat in Parliament.
But nothing is so cut and dry where Palmer is concerned.
If he decided to pursue his campaign against the Commission and indeed take it to the Court of Disputed Returns, one of two things happens.
The first, of course, is that the Court dismisses the complaint.
The second is that it upholds the complaint, sets aside the result in Fairfax, and orders a supplementary election; if that occurs, Palmer will have signed his political death warrant.
For starters, he will have handed O’Brien and the LNP a potent campaign theme: that just to prove he’s right, Palmer will have engineered the waste of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in the form of a by-election whose purpose is to confirm the very result his Court proceedings had overturned.
On a two-party preferred basis, the election day contest in Fairfax was close enough; even if the vast majority of electors voted the same way at a supplementary election, the net movement of just 19 votes into the LNP column (in an electorate with more than 95,000 enrolled voters) would be sufficient to elect Palmer’s LNP rival.
And perhaps the most poignant aspect of any “second round” at the ballot box between Palmer and O’Brien lies in the fact that on 7 September, Palmer barely managed a quarter of the valid first preference primary votes cast.
With 74% of electors in Fairfax casting their first preferences for someone other than Clive Palmer, it’s obvious that the mining boss does not enjoy unqualified, widespread support in his electorate.
Indeed, leading up to the election, there were plenty of Fairfax voters whose anti-Palmer sentiments found their way into ready newspaper stories, with his Palmer Coolum Resort at the epicentre of their hostility.
It’s also the case that whether he likes it or not, Palmer — should the recount find in his favour — will have been elected mainly on ALP and
Communist Party Greens preferences; at any supplementary election, the LNP’s ability to split even a few additional percentage points off those preference flows by appealing to Green and Labor voters not to reward blatant political grandstanding at the expense of the taxpayer would be enhanced greatly.
And there’s another issue here; Palmer has picked a fight with the very people charged with running, administering, counting and declaring votes at Australian elections, even after their efforts found him to have been elected; it would seem an odd call to make, but to perpetuate it in the face of victory beggars belief.
Would Palmer really challenge his own electoral win in the Court of Disputed Returns?
Who knows, in the end.
But if he does, it will almost certainly cost him his seat, and probably signal the end of his Palmer United Party — just as the “party” was seemingly getting started.
Despite its apparent defeat — for now — in Fairfax, the LNP in Queensland must scarcely be able to believe its luck.