Fifteen days before the Queensland election, Labor’s campaign took a considerable risk to call out Clive Palmer’s “barefaced, outrageous lies” about plans for a death tax. Party officials sent two strongly worded emails – one a public statement and the other a rallying call to party members – and held their breath.
At the forefront of their minds was the 2019 federal election, where the same sort of disinformation had been effectively weaponised against Labor.
The party’s own 2019 election postmortem acknowledged Labor had not been able to properly prevent the spread of claims about a death tax circulating online. Belated denials in the mainstream media had only “made matters worse”.
There would be no repeat of that sort of timid response.
“There is no death tax in Queensland,” the Labor state secretary, Julie-Ann Campbell, said in the public statement on 16 October. “There are no plans for one from Labor. Anyone who says there are is lying. That makes Clive Palmer a liar.”
The subsequent message to Labor members encouraged them to do whatever they could to publicly refute Palmer’s baseless claims. The mining magnate’s social media posts became a pile-on of angry Labor supporters and others.
“Calling Clive out licensed [party members] to do things like call radio stations and get on Facebook and Twitter and call it out too,” a Labor campaign source said.
Labor believes the blunt response – including repeatedly calling the famously litigious Palmer a liar – nullified his $4m anti-Labor election campaign, which included full-page newspaper advertisements and billboards pushing the death tax misinformation.
Still, in a pandemic campaign where Labor built its pitch to voters by otherwise playing calm, risk-free politics, taking Palmer on directly felt like pulling the pin from a grenade and lobbing it into the unknown. No one wanted to provoke the sort of “rebound effect” that occurred in 2019, where denials amplified a scare campaign. No one wanted to look panicked.
“Oh, I was shitting myself,” the Labor figure said.
Labor takes the fight to Palmer
Electoral Commission Queensland donations data shows the United Australia party and its candidates were given $4.8m for the election by Palmer, his wife and his companies.
However, the magnate’s spend on the campaign was likely much much more, given his flagship resources company, Mineralogy, authorised many of the newspaper ads, billboards and also sent blanket text messages to voters.
In the final weeks, Palmer regularly took out pages two and three of the Courier-Mail, including full-pages pushing the bogus claims about a death tax.
Daniel Angus, an associate professor at the Queensland University of Technology’s Digital Media Research Centre, told Guardian Australia that disinformation often takes hold via a marketing tactic called “trading up the chain” – where a message is seeded in a less-credible forum and then repackaged by people who use it to appeal to a wider audience.
“I think [Clive] was hoping that it would be picked up, then you would have the press framing that up and using it to set the agenda,” Angus said.
“As soon as light was thrown on it and it was vehemently shut down and attacked early, it lacked the oxygen to be taken up.”
Angus said any political campaign dealing with conspiracy theories had to make a difficult decision.
“Do you feed them, or do you try to bury them? It’s called the oxygen of amplification – the idea is that you want to starve these things of oxygen and they’ll flame out on their own.
“In this case Labor seemed to do the right thing by calling it out. The key element to this is that the death tax as an idea was promoted so heavily it was already in full public view, so there was little risk that by Labor talking about it they would be giving it oxygen in the same sense as a fringe idea,” he said.
Labor’s decision to directly confront Palmer and label him a “liar” – including by encouraging party members to lampoon him on social media – would have further damaged his standing with voters, Angus added.
The United Australia party – whose constitution gives Palmer personal control – polled 0.61% of the vote statewide.
LNP members believe links to Palmer damaged party
Photographs of Liberal National party powerbrokers spending part of election night on Palmer’s yacht have only furthered suggestions that Palmer’s anti-Labor campaign was run in cahoots with the LNP – and may have damaged the conservative party’s election chances in the process.
A former United Australia party north Queensland director, Jen Sackley, told Guardian Australia at the outset of the campaign that Palmer’s party had become “a lobby group for the Liberal party in yellow shirts”.
The LNP denied any coordination, although the magnate’s links to influential party figures has already become a feature of the party’s post-election reckoning.
“That image of them with Clive made a mockery of the notion we are political rivals,” an LNP member said.
“You would never see anyone from Labor having drinks with the Greens on election night.”
When asked about Palmer’s death tax claims during the campaign, the LNP leader, Deb Frecklington, refused to condemn the claims.
“It has absolutely nothing to do with the LNP, I’ve never met the man and I have no intention to,” Frecklington said on 27 October.
Angus said Palmer’s standing in Queensland – influenced by the collapse of Queensland Nickel, ongoing court battles and his attempt to open the state border – might have meant his efforts to attack Labor backfired.
“Many of the adverts he was running featured his wife … They came across as uncharismatic.
“Palmer himself was missing, you didn’t see his face everywhere, which is against the kind of bluster and bravado he’s had in the past.”
Palmer now has few friends in the re-elected government, whose members have been emboldened to take him on. Labor complained to Facebook and Twitter about his advertising during the campaign and senior party figures have flagged the need for new laws to prevent disinformation and large spending by third parties like Mineralogy.
“There needs to be major reform of political advertising and we need to look seriously at the registration of what I call pretend parties like the Palmer party,” Labor’s federal president, Wayne Swan, said on election night.
“We need new rules to knock out pretend parties.”