Clive Palmer’s mining company has tipped more than $4.5m into his spoiler political party with more than 50 donations to his Queensland election candidates disclosed in the past week.
Queensland voters are being subjected to a barrage of anti-Labor adverts from Palmer’s United Australia party on television, in newspapers and on social media, and in the form of text messages from his mining company Mineralogy.
Since late August, Mineralogy has pumped $4.6m into Clive Palmer’s United Australia party and its candidates.
The bulk of the donations from Mineralogy are in the form of cash transfers, with smaller amounts declared as in-kind wages from company staff helping the party.
In one case, Mineralogy donated $47,000 to a candidate in a marginal seat near Townsville.
UAP’s advertising is dominated by an unsubstantiated claim Labor will introduce a “death tax” on inheritance. The claim has featured in media around the state, including several full-page advertisements in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail.
QUT’s Digital Media Research Centre has told Guardian Australia that between 25 September and 24 October, UAP spent $111,000 on Facebook adverts – $25,000 more than the next biggest spender, Queensland Labor.
Donations to candidates from the mining company range from $1,975 to $57,000, with the larger sums going to candidates in marginal seats, in particular in Townsville and its surrounds, and on the Gold Coast.
Analysts believe both regions will be crucial in determining the election result on 31 October.
Combined, UAP candidates in Townsville, Mundingburra, Thuringowa – the three city seats – received $154,000 from Mineralogy.
Candidates in the three seats surrounding the town – Burdekin, Hinchinbrook and Traeger – who might logically spend advertising money in Townsville media outlets, received a combined $139,000.
Ten candidates running in Gold Coast seats were gifted a combined $237,500, but that does not include Palmer’s wife, Anna, who is running in the seat of Currumbin and has been the face of his party’s campaign in the south-east.
— United Australia (@UnitedAusParty) October 17, 2020
All Townsville, surrounds and Gold Coast candidates are directing preferences to the LNP ahead of Labor. Their preferences also flow to the LNP ahead of Katter’s Australia party in seats held and being targeted by KAP.
Data from the Electoral Commission of Queensland shows Mineralogy began transferring money to the bank accounts of more than 50 candidates on 20 October.
Mineralogy has also donated $3.7m direct to the party since August.
In Queensland, a political party can spend up to $92,000 on the election for every candidate, plus each candidate can also spend up to $58,000.
UAP has candidates running in 55 of the state’s 97 electorates, meaning the party could spend $5m and its candidates could collectively spend another $3.1m.
All declared donations to the party since August have come from Palmer’s own business interests. Donations from Waratah Coal, Palmer Gold Coast, Palmer Coolum Resort and Cold Mountain Stud show that staff in those businesses are spending time working for the party.
Analysis from QUT shows that before this week, UAP was spending more on Facebook adverts than any other party. Dr Daniel Angus, a QUT associate professor, said spending of that magnitude would be enough to get a UAP ad in front of every Facebook user in Queensland.
Political scientists have expressed concern the intent of Palmer’s party is unclear, with some describing the UAP as a “sham party”.
The party’s constitution establishes branches, committees and an elected state executive.
However, all grassroots bodies of the party have no effect, due to an “interim” arrangement – which runs until 2026 – giving all power to an executive controlled by Palmer.
This interim executive committee includes Palmer, his wife Anna, his children Emily and Michael, his nephew Martin Brewster, and two of his former employees.
Prof Graeme Orr, an expert on political funding at the University of Queensland, said the party was “designed to create the veneer of a genuine party, but also effectively so he and his family can never be voted out of office”.
“It’s a front and vehicle for his ego and interest ... and there’s nothing in the law to stop him from doing that.”
Dr Glenn Kefford, a political scientist at the University of Queensland, said: “While historically Palmer came from the Nationals, it was from last year that he has put his energy into defeating Labor.
“Organisationally his parties are superficial. Candidates are sourced from his personal network or from anyone just showing an interest.
“The big question is whether this is healthy for a democracy to have a wealthy individual to come in and use his business interests to intervene in the democratic process. Is this how we want democracy to function?”
Mineralogy is registered as a third-party in the Queensland election and donations. The company has been sending out text messages in recent days with the message “Stop Labor’s 20% Death Tax Open our Borders Now” and a link to a how-to-vote-card.
Among its donations is $47,000 to Ben Wood, listed as a candidate for the LNP-held marginal seat of Burdekin, south of Townsville.
Wood’s LinkedIn page says he works for Palmer’s golf course business in Robina on the Gold Coast, a 1,500km drive south from the electorate.
The Labor candidate for Burdekin, Mike Bunker, a former coalminer and Bowen shire mayor, told Guardian Australia he had “not seen” the UAP candidate, but the party had been running full-page “death tax” adverts in local newspapers, including the Townsville Bulletin.
“Obviously Clive is here to run interference,” he told Guardian Australia. He said only two people had asked him about the death tax issue while out campaigning.
“I told them both it was a big fat lie.”
False claims that Labor planned to introduce a death tax were a feature of the 2019 federal election.
Palmer has claimed that Queensland Treasury sources have told him the Palaszczuk government has plans to introduce the tax.
Guardian Australia contacted UAP’s media adviser on text, email and phone message but did not receive a reply.