Clive Palmer has spent more than $31 million since August on political attack advertising for his United Australia Party, dwarfing the outlay of the major parties and putting him on track to fulfil his promise to run the most expensive election campaign in the nation’s history.

The advertising blitz in the lead-up to an expected May election has been described as “obscene” and “dangerous for democracy” by former Appeal Court judge and chair of the Centre for Public Integrity, Anthony Whealy, QC.

Television ads urging viewers to back the UAP have been running in most capital cities for months, but Mr Palmer is also spending big in metro and national newspapers such as The Australian, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and in online publications.

Figures obtained from Nielsen Ad Intel, which tracks ad spending across metro TV, print, radio and digital, show Labor has spent just $266,494 on party ads since August and the Liberal Party $246,133.

UAP has spent more than 100 times more, and almost as much as it spent in the entire 2019 election campaign on advertising. The party’s spend on party advertising has been $31.3 million between August 1 to February 18 with the election still not called, and approximately three months away, close to the $31.6 million it spent in 2019.

“It is actually dangerous for democracy to have money of that kind spent on a campaign,” Mr Whealy said.

“What it means is that a multi-billionaire with often mischievous, dangerous or misleading ideas can present those manifestly throughout the community. The sheer amount of expenditure therefore makes the peddling of those notions a … threat to our democracy.”

UAP leader Craig Kelly said the party was relying solely on Mr Palmer’s deep pockets to finance the advertising blitz. “We are going as hard as we can. To get noticed in an election campaign you need to do that. We are doing this to give ourselves a chance,” Mr Kelly said.

Australian Electoral Commission records show his company, Mineralogy, tipped more than $80 million into UAP’s 2019 campaign, a figure that includes unspecified expenditure over and above the advertising costs tracked by Nielsen.

Despite the outlay, UAP failed to win a single seat. Mr Whealy said a major flaw in the electoral system was that campaign spending was unlimited. He said it was the media’s responsibility to decide whether to accept the money for these ads.

“It is actually dangerous for democracy to have money of that kind spent on a campaign”

Anthony Whealy, QC

“That’s allowed this pernicious influence of Palmer to be spread in the way he has,” he said. “Unless we, as a community and nation force our political parties to pass laws to put a very sustainable cap on campaign spending, we are going to undermine democratic principles.”

During the last election, UAP campaigned heavily against Labor and then-leader Bill Shorten. This time around, UAP is campaigning on a “freedom” platform centred on opposing COVID-19 policies, including lockdowns and vaccine mandates. Ads feature Mr Palmer and Mr Kelly attacking both the Liberal and Labor parties, with claims they act in concert to undermine rights and freedoms.

The UAP has also spent more than $6.7 million on 116 YouTube ads – a company owned by Google – since August. Google’s transparency report shows more than half of the ads ran over the past six weeks. Some cost more than $100,000 each.

Neither the government nor the opposition responded to requests for comment on Sunday.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have run a number of political ads from the UAP, but publisher Nine Entertainment Co has declined to run ads that contravene health advice or ATAGI guidance on vaccines.

Independent senator Rex Patrick called for limits on election campaign and advertising spending, saying Mr Palmer was spending “in an attempt to buy his way into a position of political influence”.

“I hope Australians see this for what it is: a brazen attempt to skew the election in the interests of Palmer and his mining company. Australians deserve honest, intelligent and committed politicians representing them in the Parliament, not chequebook MPs. It’s high time we put a cap on election campaign and advertising expenditure. Democracy demands it.”

Sarah Keith, group managing director at advertising agencies Involved Media and Active International Australia, said that although Mr Palmer was one of the biggest advertising spenders in the country at the moment, she didn’t believe he had saturated the market.

“The amount he has spent so far is the equivalent of the monthly spend of any one of the top five spending categories, including retail, insurance and quick-service restaurants,” she said. “If 100 per cent of it was spent on the three commercial free-to-air TV network, across all-day parts, you’re looking at maybe 500 spots. But his spend is across all media, so it’s difficult to calculate weights.”

Mr Palmer’s speech at the National Press Club on Tuesday speech will not be broadcast live on the ABC as it is not being held in the usual Wednesday 12.30pm time slot. The address will air on a 90-minute delay on ABC News at 2pm on Tuesday.

Written by Zoe Samios and Lisa Visentin. Originally published in the Age on February 20 2022

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