Clive Palmer accused of conflict of interest

The new Palmer United Party is facing scrutiny over campaign leaflets which feature an ad for the multimillion-dollar business venture of its leader, Clive Palmer.

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In an election campaign DVD being mailed to Australian voters, billionaire-turned-politician Clive Palmer appears on the cover with two thumbs up.

The DVD handout is the latest campaign leaflet for Mr Palmer’s United Party.

But next to its How To Vote instructions and the party’s slogan “We’re Fair Dinkum” is an ad for something else.

Promoted as “a bonus feature” on the DVD is a video promoting Mr Palmer’s multimillion dollar private project to rebuild the Titanic Two cruise ship.

Questioned by SBS during a Fairfax web forum, Mr Palmer admitted the video has no relation to the party’s policies.

“It doesn’t fit into our policy platform but the party had to do a deal with Titanic Two to get the funds to be able to get their idea out to Australia. It’s a freebie, it’s a free, it’s a free amount on Titanic Two because there’s so much interest in it. It was a good opportunity to let the Australian people see what the project was about.”

Clive Palmer announced plans to recreate the Titanic Two cruise ship earlier this year.

It’s to be built by his shipping company, Blue Star Line, and is expected to cost the company well over $200-million.

According to a spokesperson for the Palmer United Party, the party’s campaign ads that feature the ship were personally approved by Mr Palmer.

Mr Palmer’s mining company, Queensland Nickel, also printed and packaged the flyers in China, where the Titanic Two is currently being built.

Mr Palmer says he included an ad for the project in his campaign material simply as a response to public interest in the venture.

“After we announced it in New York of course it was number one in the world on Twitter, it was number two on Twitter in the United States for two weeks, only beaten by the Oscars. And certainly it beat all the Oscar-winners. And we had something like $500-million worth of media around the world and we’ve got over 50,000 people who’ve been on our website wanting to come on the ship. So I get probably 2,000 communications a week on Titanic Two from all over the globe.”

More than six million flyers featuring the Titanic II ad are currently being distributed to households around Australia, with voters in the Queensland town of Lilley among the first to receive the DVD.

Some Australian legal experts and Twitter users have slammed the ads as a conflict of interest.

Joo-Cheong Tham is an Associate Professor at Melbourne University Law School and an expert in political advertising.

He says the ads raise serious alarm bells around political ethics.

“Including an ad like this, which is clearly about the commercial interests of Mr Palmer, into material where he is running for public office or the party is running for public office, I think at the very least raises a perception that there is a failure to fully understand the conflict of interest that can arise between his private interest and his public duty.”

Professor Tham says rules on political advertising material are few and far between. But the expectations on a candidate in standing for office are clear.

“When candidates run for public office they’re basically running on the basis that they will act in the public interest. And if they’re running on the basis that they will act in the public interest and they hold office in the public interest, I think what follows from that is that they should very diligently and assiduously separate out their private interests from the public interests.”

The task of monitoring polical ads falls to the Australian Electoral Commission.

But according to its Chief Legal Officer, Paul Pirani, there are currently no rules that prohibit a candidate from distributing personal advertising as part of their election campaign material.

“The purpose of the electoral act and the provisions that are in the electoral act are primarily aimed at making sure that people are able to identify the source of the electoral advertising: so that you can identify where it’s come from, so that if a person feels that they’ve been defamed that theyr’e able to take legal actiona against the publisher and the person that authorised the electoral advertising.”

Mr Pirani says it’s just too difficult for the AEC to assess each and every ad put out by parties during an election.

Instead it’s up to consumer bodies and voters to assess and scutinise.

“The personal advertising in the Palmer leaflet in relation to his business venture would arguably would be subject to either the fair trading laws in Queensland or, if it was done by a corporate entity, by the Competition and Consumer Commission. So there are safeguards and regulations already in place that deal with the private commercial activities. And the traditional court view has always been that it’s up to electors to make the decision as to whether it’s true or not and they do that by how they mark their ballot paper.”

In the meantime, despite authorising the Titanic II video, Clive Palmer insists he isn’t running for office as a businessman.

Instead, he says, he’s simply running as an Australian citizen: a citizen with a firm belief in the freedom of speech.

“Freedom of speech is the most important thing in our democracy because it enables people to know what we stand for to make proper judgements. We’ve got politicians that don’t believe in presenting exactly who they are to the people, you know they all sort of hide in little corridors and have focus groups and have notes and decide what they’re gonna say and you wonder what they’re really thinking. At least with someone like me you know exactly what I’m thinking.”

 

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