Last week the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) publicly released all information on political donations from the last financial year. Among the $278 million donated to Australian parties throughout the 2013-14 period were insights on where political donations are coming from. One of the more interesting patterns the data revealed was that billionaire Clive Palmer is basically the only person supporting the Palmer United Party (PUP). Of the $28.8 million that PUP declared to the AEC, $26 million—or 90 percent—came from either Palmer himself or companies that he owns.
"In a way it's not unsurprising," says Graeme Orr, a University of Queensland expert on the law of politics. "Palmer is probably our first, as the American's call it 'Billionaire Candidate', a billionaire self-funded politician," he continues. Historically, political parties begin by building an activist base of supporters who volunteer and fundraise over years. If you're a billionaire, things move a lot faster. Through self-funding the party Palmer was able to hit the ground running ahead of the 2013 Federal election and focus fully on getting votes.
But self-sufficiency can be a double-edged sword. While the larger political parties count on corporate donations, the same can't be said for Palmer. "Obviously he's not attracting big corporate donations because they're wary of him, or because he didn't have any power until recently, or they think he doesn't need the money", explains Orr. Problem is, at a certain point, Palmer will need the money.
PUP's $28.8 million in donations may seem significant, but it's dwarfed by the $137 million and $78.3 million the Liberal and Labor party received. Clive's rich, but not even he could stump up the ongoing annual costs of sustaining a party single-handedly.
If companies won't back Palmer then his challenge becomes engaging everyday Australians. The hardest part of which will be convincing the working classes to give their money to a billionaire. Orr suggests it's possible but unlikely, "You can compare it to Berlusconi who's more than once invented himself a party, and he's much more wealthy than Palmer."
Silvio Berlusconi, the notorious former Prime Minister of Italy, is also well-known billionaire that began a political party. In 1994 Berlusconi created Forza Italia, a centre-right political party, in the wake of a nationwide investigation in to political corruption that saw most Italian parties lose electoral strength. Berlusconi was able to build a successful political movement in the wake of the investigation by offering a fresh voice. "I think Palmer's trying to do that but of course, ultimately, he doesn't necessarily want a membership driven party," adds Orr.
This attempt to stand up as a new single voice have also drawn comparisons on the other end of the economic scale between PUP and One Nation. But in Pauline Hanson's case, she managed what Palmer hasn't by attracting working class support—despite lacking his funds.
But history demonstrates that focusing too much on a single individual is not a sustainable party model. "I don't think it'll last," political scientist, Professor Brian Costar, told VICE. "Any political party in Australia that's named after a person always ends in tears".
That being said, it's impossible to ignore that spending freedoms did give PUP an edge in the 2013 election, leading to their eventual win of one House of Representatives seat and three seats in the Senate. But many people who voted Palmer voted late, suggesting they were arguably less involved generally and more likely to be swayed in the 11th hour. This can be seen as a direct correlation of the party's huge advertising expenditure.
"I was there while the count was still going on and he just flooded the place," remembers Costar of election night. "It was money buying votes. And yes, you can buy votes but there's a law of diminishing returns there, you can buy some but you can't buy a lot".
If the entrenched wisdom is accurate, to keep momentum and relevance, parties need grassroots movements that engage the electorate. Costar's take on the fate of PUP is therefore bleak. "I already think the party is terminal," he says. "It's sustained by an avalanche of money. They're gone. They're done".
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