Brodie Stewart was recruited to contest Tony Abbott’s seat of Warringah one day after sending a tipsy fan letter to the Palmer United Party. The 27-year-old had never been in contact with PUP and, by his own admission, had little to no political experience, ambition or knowledge. “I knew what Warringah was, as an area, but I didn’t really understand what ‘going for MP of Warringah’ really meant,” he says.
It was June 2013 and PUP was just two months old. Just three months later, the party had candidates contesting all 150 Lower House electorates in the September federal election. Brodie’s experience shows how this feat was possible.
Brodie left school in year 12 to pursue a professional tennis career. Forced to abandon the sport due to injury, the Freshwater local got his builders license and began a building company with a friend. A while later they opened a restaurant in Sydney’s Kings Cross. It was after paying out his staff’s wages and seeing a particularly dismaying news story about Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott that Brodie felt impelled to write to Clive Palmer.
“My business partner and I were left with nothing. I thought ‘this is shit. I want to better myself and the system we have doesn’t help me’. I was going to sell everything and work for someone else. I had a few drinks and I wrote Clive an email saying ‘I live in Freshwater, I’m a small business owner and I’m happy to see someone else going for this position. I’ll help you out if there’s anything I can do’.”
The next morning, Brodie received the phone call from PUP organiser and candidate, Susie Douglas. “She asked me if I wanted to run and I said yes, thinking it was going to be me as part of a group of people running. I knew Tony Abbott had some role in Warringah, but as far as I knew he was just the leader of the Liberal Party.”
There was then some email correspondence and a meeting with PUP organisers in Sydney’s CBD. “The vetting process wasn’t intensive at all. I actually walked out of the first meeting thinking ‘that was more of a social chat than anything’. I had been quite nervous going in there thinking they were going to ask me a lot of questions about politics, but it was more like: ‘you’re already chosen, we know you’re going to run, and here’s some information’.”
Brodie was unprepared for his debut speech at the Sofitel Sydney Wentworth, where he and a large group of new PUP candidates were gathered to front the media. He started out by giving his support for small business and then moved onto other topics. “If you want me to really be honest, I made up a few things. Like I wanted to help young sportsmen and recreational clubs, and give them more budget. I do believe in those things, but I don’t know how important they are right now.”
He got cold feet when new supporters started approaching him after the Sofitel function. “I was worried. I was worried for a few reasons. I was worried that if I said something wrong then I’d look like an idiot,” he says.
Brodie shared his misgivings with Douglas and tried to pull out of the election race, but was reassured that his lack of qualifications and experience were of no particular concern to PUP. “Susie wrote back to me saying ‘you are the person we want. We want everyday people running for these seats because that’s what Palmer United is going for—just those everyday kind of people’. That made me feel more relaxed.”
Honest, good humoured and experienced in small business; Brodie embodies Palmer’s avowed ideal of a “non-career politician”. Un-vetted, unprepared and politically ignorant; he is also characteristic of Palmer’s hastily conceived brand of personality politics.
Image by Charles Taperell
Three weeks before the September election, he joined more than 100 other PUP party hopefuls at Palmer’s famously kooky Palmer Coolum Resort on the Sunshine Coast for the party’s official launch. Surrounded by animatronic dinosaurs and antique automobiles, the candidates were treated to a lavish three-day function and a crash course in politics.
“Coolum was really good,” said Brodie. “Clive would come in and talk to us about how it’s all going to happen—how over the next three weeks, we were all going to get questioned about these topics, how to answer them, how to stay away from questions you don’t know. He was extremely good at communicating that process. His team wasn’t so good at organising us and getting us ready.”
Palmer’s charisma was palpable. “Everybody got this aura of confidence when Clive was around. It was like, ‘oh, our leader’s here. Great. We’re all together.’ And then, as soon as he was away, it was like, ‘aww…’ It was a little bit wishy-washy. Not a lot of people knew exactly what was happening.”
Then Brodie started to become disturbed by some other PUP attendees. “In Coolum, you could also really tell that the vetting process wasn’t good. Really weird people came out. For instance, there was a guy from South Australia who organised a campaign party and had strippers come to it. Stupid stuff like that. There were so many weird, weird people. Some of them would wear tracksuits to a dinner suit party, and have no idea what was going on around them. Meeting them all I would think, ‘holy shit, what if that person does get elected?’ But, like I said, as soon as Clive was there, all that stuff went away. The attention was on him and he pumped you up. He was very good at motivating you and getting everyone involved.”
Brodie says he didn’t receive a lot of back office support after Coolum and was left largely to his own devices. Clive would group teleconference everybody once a week or so, and new party policies came through as media releases via email just before they were also released to journalists. “The whole campaign was extremely rushed. It wasn’t organised enough. There was a lot of not knowing what was going on and sort of just make do with what you’ve got.”
When it came to his own campaigning, Brodie struggled for attention and to be taken seriously in his local areas of Manly and Freshwater. “I tried to involve the community as much as possible,” he says. He handed out flyers, business cards and asked people lots of questions. “I didn’t get a lot of good responses. A lot of the responses I got from people were laughter, purely because of some of the things Clive Palmer had said in the media. That was frustrating because I know he’s a lot smarter than that. Like, we’d get questioned about bloody Rupert Murdoch’s wife being a Chinese spy. That was the toughest part.”
Brodie was relaxed when Election Day arrived, mostly because he was secure in the knowledge he couldn’t possibly win against the now Prime Minister. “I only met Tony Abbott once throughout the whole thing and that was on Election Day. I thought it would just be fun to get in front of him and introduce myself. He knew who I was and he wished me luck and I wished him luck as well. It was more of a fun thing for me to do rather than any sort of media thing.”
After the polling station closed, Brodie headed to the local pub with his mates, and waited for the final numbers to come through. Brodie received almost 2000 votes in Warringah, which brought him in fourth behind the Liberals, the Australian Labor Party and the Greens. It was down from his goal of 5000, but not a complete disappointment. In retrospect, Brodie thinks an ingrained media bias towards the two major parties and some of the less orthodox statements made by Clive Palmer were largely to blame for the 3000 voter shortfall.
Since packing up his bright yellow balloons and t-shirts, Brodie has heard nothing more from the party or Clive Palmer, though he has never officially left PUP. “I don’t feel used. I’d be naïve to think that Clive doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows he needs soldiers on the ground and some soldiers are going to die. And that’s what I was. I know that. Who knows if Palmer has an agenda to help his personal wealth? If that’s what people are questioning, I don’t know. I believe that he is actually in it for the benefit of the country, and that’s why I went with him.”
Brodie now part-owns two more venues and is preparing to become a mortgage broker. He doesn’t begrudge the experience. “I’m personally happy that I did it because I learnt from it, but I got laughed at. Going into it, I had a really, really vague understanding of politics in general. I had only a vague understanding of the differences between the Upper House and Lower House. To be honest, I didn’t really understand the state and federal sort of thing.”