No one should underestimate the enormous influence exerted by billionaire political maverick Clive Palmer on the result of the last election and he’s about to attempt it again with bells on.
It has Labor campaign strategists worried and already Liberals are concerned they will suffer collateral damage.
Mr Palmer’s bells and whistles will be provided by Liberal deserter and champion of discredited COVID-19 remedies, Craig Kelly.
Mr Kelly has not only joined Mr Palmer’s largely fictional United Australia Party, he has emerged as its parliamentary leader. And if you take him at his word, its new supremo in matters of policy and campaigning.
New moves by the federal government to make it harder for imaginary micro parties like Palmer’s to register have been thwarted as Mr Kelly’s membership already gives it parliamentary status.
No doubt as last time the UAP will spring into existence before the election with many of its candidates members of Mr Palmer’s family, his friends and employees.
Labor saw the whole 2019 exercise mainly as a vehicle to thwart Bill Shorten and to shovel preferences the Liberals’ way.
What may be different now is the fact that there is no love lost between Craig Kelly and Scott Morrison, particularly over the pandemic.
Mr Kelly told the Parliament House news conference he called on Monday to announce his marriage of convenience with Mr Palmer that under his leadership “the United Australia Party will be fighting to end lockdowns, and to offer an alternative approach to the mayhem and destruction that is the policies of both the Labor and Liberal parties”.
What would be sending shudders through both parties is Mr Kelly’s claim Mr Palmer would be spending as much, if not more, as he spent in the last campaign for the election due by May.
Australian Electoral Commission data revealed three years ago Mr Palmer bankrolled his attempted political disruption to the tune of $83 million.
Already this year he has embarked on a multi-media spend in his trademark yellow and black livery to attack both the big parties. But 33 days out from the last poll he dropped off the Libs and trained his guns exclusively on Labor.
No doubt protecting his huge mining investments from the Labor leader’s more ambitious climate policies was a factor then and may well be now, but Mr Palmer and his new sidekick are finding fertile ground being a champions of freedom from a nation suffering extreme lockdown fatigue.
Mr Morrison is clearly alert to the danger.
His challenge is finding a credible way though the anti-vaxxers and snake oil salesmen on his right, and a safe way to deliver the return to something approaching normalcy we all crave.
The Prime Minister’s problem is the more he and the Liberal Premier of New South Wales Gladys Berejiklian talk up a 70 to 80 per cent fully vaccinated population as the ticket to freedom, the more voters are reminded of their failures that mightily contributed to the fix the nation is in.
With NSW hitting 800-plus new cases a day it is no wonder both want to shift the focus from cases to an extremely problematic vaccination benchmark; a benchmark that hasn’t come to terms with the Delta variant’s spread among an increasing number of unvaccinated children and teenagers
The new slogan of “learning to live with COVID” while the situation is still so clearly out of control sounds too glib to be reassuring, its corollary is the more sombre “learning to die with COVID”.
Mr Morrison is now trying to convince Australians that starting with a higher level of community infections is not much different to starting with lower rates, and he cites unreleased Doherty Institute modelling to support the claim.
No wonder most of the premiers aren’t convinced. Besides, the good burghers of New South Wales and Victoria need to know their deprivations have not been in vain.
Basically, he says the argument is “starting with high levels of community transmission just means we’re buggered a little bit earlier than we would otherwise be, but buggered just the same”.
Craig Kelly says the UAP, backed by Mr Palmer’s very deep pockets, will now challenge in the High Court vaccine passports that keep other Australians out of Queensland and Western Australia.
Mr Kelly says the federal government should be mounting the challenge and not them, but having spent taxpayers millions backing Mr Palmer against WA’s border restrictions once before and being badly burned, the PM is sure not to repeat the exercise.
Mr Morrison needs all the help he can get. What Craig Kelly and Clive Palmer have to offer is more akin to political poison than a miracle cure.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics