Julian Fayad describes himself as a “regular” guy. The 29-year-old second-generation Australian with a Lebanese background runs a finance business in western Sydney, has a young family and has lived in Parramatta his entire life.
Like many Australians, he had only a passing interest in politics, until the impact of Covid restrictions on his community lit a spark.
“I was having grown men that I would consider to be somewhat bulletproof – strong, great business owners, really switched on – calling me up crying because they were unable to pay their rent,” Fayad tells Guardian Australia.
“There was the laptop class, that I am actually part of, and then there was everybody else.
“If you want to know what’s happening in Parramatta, take a walk down Church Street – every second shop has a ‘for lease’ sign on it. The restaurants and the small businesses, they still have the signage on them, but they are freshly closed and lost.”
Angry at what he saw as a betrayal of his community (“the federal government screwed us, the state government screwed us”), Fayad decided to put his hand up to run for the United Australia party in the western Sydney seat of Parramatta.
“This was not on my list of goals. If you had told me 18 months ago I was going to run as a candidate for the UAP, I would have laughed in your face.
“I would normally have no business paying attention to this. I am a regular person, wife, two kids, young family, but the danger [the major parties] have run into is people like me are now paying attention.”
The scars of lockdown
There is something happening on the ground in the outer suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. It may just be a ripple, or it could be a roar – another crack in Australia’s political landscape arising from the pandemic.
The full impact won’t be known until election night, but the number of people finding resonance with the “freedom” message of Clive Palmer’s United Australia party cannot be ignored.
The United Australia party has attracted some controversial figures and candidates, including at least two who have espoused views in support of Vladimir Putin. But disaffected voters right across the country, particularly from the migrant communities of western Sydney and western Melbourne that were hard hit by lockdowns, are also signing up to join the Palmer movement.
A mass advertising campaign – already estimated to have cost $30m – is expected to ramp up in the weeks before polling day, with expectations Palmer will outspend the estimated $83m campaign of 2019.
The party claims 85,000 members and counting, but this figure has come under question as a number of people reported being signed up unwittingly.
Reliable polling numbers to judge community support are hard to come by. The most recent Essential poll has support for Palmer at 3% with support highest among males in Queensland and New South Wales, similar to the results of the Resolve political monitor which is tracking UAP support at about 4%.
What these numbers don’t tell you is where this vote is concentrated. An oft-cited poll from research group Redbridge found support as high as 17% in some western Sydney seats last September, with the Coalition losing most of its 2019 vote to the UAP.
Party figures on both sides say the Redbridge figure is higher than internal polling suggests, with their research indicating support in the single digits. But everyone is watching closely and concedes the electorate is patchy.
Craig Kelly, the defector Liberal MP and now leader of the UAP, says his observation is the party has won over strong support from first, second and third generation migrants from former eastern bloc countries, the Middle East and Vietnam.
“Where they have had first hand experience themselves, or a story from a grandfather or mother about how they lived in a country that didn’t have the freedoms they have enjoyed in Australia for decades, that seems to be where we are getting the strongest support from,” Kelly tells Guardian Australia.
Kelly points to the “discrimination” felt within these communities from lockdown measures, particularly in Sydney where the NSW government’s Covid response failed migrant communities, and where the divide between the city’s east and west was acutely felt.
“To be told that you are not worthy to go to the eastern suburbs or the beaches but the people in the beachside suburbs can, the people of western Sydney won’t forget that,” Kelly says.
Labor’s Ed Husic has also spoken of the anger in western Sydney as the city was divided in response to the Covid pandemic, pointing to the 60% of deaths that were recorded in the west and south-west of Sydney by the end of the city’s lockdowns.
“The Liberals were content to draw a line through the middle of Sydney, carve it up and see how we on the other side fared,” Husic said in a speech last year. “It was a grossly uneven line at that.”
Not only has western Sydney been left with economic scarring from the pandemic lockdowns, figures released from the Australian Bureau of Statistics last week showed that the Covid death rate was three times higher among migrants than those born in Australia.
Falling through the cracks
Redbridge has been running focus groups for the past two years with voters who plan to support the UAP at this year’s federal election.
At last weekend’s session, as in most of the 200-odd groups held since 2020, the voting group was diverse, with a strong showing from Australia’s migrant communities.
“We had a Maltese translator, we had a professionally educated woman in a hijab, we had a young male who clearly was of Greek background, another woman who was a third-generation migrant, we had some of your classic Aussie males, and someone from the subcontinent – it was a real mixed bag of lollies,” Redbridge director Kos Samaras tells Guardian Australia.
Samaras, who worked as a campaign strategist for the Labor party from 2004 to 2019, is keen to understand not just who but why these people are motivated to vote for the UAP.
More importantly, he is interested in whether these voters can be won back, and whether their vote will make any difference on election night.
Drawing on community anger about the management of the pandemic, Palmer has effectively harnessed a diverse group of people who have suffered some sort of economic shock, including strident libertarians, anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists, alongside many working and middle class people.
Samaras says the focus groups have detected a strong theme of status anxiety among UAP voters. He cites two flavours: those who feel threatened by their belief that their cultural power is diminishing, and those who feel threatened because of some sort of economic stress or strain.
In this world of perceived threats, Palmer’s freedom narrative resonates.
“For some of them it is status anxiety, so white males there they don’t like getting told by authority what to do in their lives,” Samaras says. “They’ve had it like that for two years and they’ve lost their brains.
“But then there’s others who have worked in the precariat and they’ve had their entire lives turned upside down and not been able to have any income. The various forms of support that were thrown around by governments didn’t really render any support to them, so they fell through the cracks.”
Samaras estimates that about two-thirds of the UAP vote is coming from the Liberal base, and one-third from former Labor voters.
There is also a strong correlation between the communities where the vaccine rate is lowest and where the UAP vote is strongest.
Will it make a difference?
It’s tempting to dismiss Palmer as nothing more than a sideshow. In 2019, he failed to win a single House of Representatives seat, with the party securing just 3.5% of the primary vote.
But Palmer claimed that he had achieved his desired result of ensuring Bill Shorten was not elected, crediting the 65% of second-preference flows he directed to the Coalition for keeping Morrison in The Lodge.
While post-election analysis showed UAP preferences were decisive in just one Coalition-held seat (Bass, in Tasmania), Labor’s election review found the anti-Labor and anti-Shorten messaging was extremely damaging.
This time around, Palmer’s message is different.
Rather than being a wrecking ball for Labor, the party is campaigning hard against the government, Labor and the Greens. Kelly has indicated that, apart from a few possible exceptions, UAP will ask supporters to preference incumbents last.
“Liberal, Labor and the Greens have sold out our country,” is the key UAP campaign message.
Psephologist Kevin Bonham, who called the 2019 Palmer preference effect a “furphy”, says he doubts the 2022 UAP vote will end up being consequential on election night.
“If people actually follow those recommendations strongly it will have a big impact, but the experience with minor parties is they don’t,” Bonham says.
“If he does it, and there’s any kind of a kind of adherence to it at all, then that’s bad for the Coalition because he preferenced the Coalition in every seat last time.
“So that may not necessarily be catastrophic, but even if you’re dropping 0.3% or 0.5% something like that, then that is still something in those really close seats,” he says.
Palmer’s best chance of electoral success is more likely in the Senate, where he will be running on the Queensland ticket competing against Pauline Hanson, Campbell Newman and the LNP’s Amanda Stoker for the final Senate spot.
The contest highlights the other difficulty facing the UAP: it is operating in a crowded field of independents on the right, with One Nation and the Liberal Democrats all vying for the same cohort of voters that are unhappy with vaccine mandates and lockdowns.
The melting pot of grievances
Neither of the major parties can afford to ignore the melting pot of grievances arising from the pandemic. Labor is hoping the protest vote being captured by Palmer will ultimately lead to its victory, framing the election as a referendum on the Morrison government.
Acutely aware of this threat, Scott Morrison and Barnaby Joyce have been at pains to distance themselves from state government mandates, with some LNP MPs going further to try and capture the anti-establishment mood.
One senior Liberal strategist says that the best description for its position on the threat of UAP as it surveyed the electoral map was “alert not alarmed”.
“When there’s that much money being spent it remains unpredictable and no one could say with any confidence exactly what’s going to happen,” they said.
“Yes, there will probably be a handful of seats where they do reasonably well on the primary vote, but then go to preferences and there’s a whole lot of other issues around that … and whether that will actually be determinative in terms of the result.
“But having said all that, you have got to stay alert when there’s just such a vast amount of money being spent.”
A Labor figure said there was concern that Palmer could yet shift his “pox on both your houses” messaging and turn on Labor or its leader, Anthony Albanese.
A recent UAP ad asking, “Why did Albo have a makeover?” raised the blood pressure, but similar ads on Joyce and Morrison soon followed.
And if Palmer preferences against the Liberals? “Labor wins in a landslide,” one senior figure said.
Despite suggestions UAP may not have the resources to man booths and hand out how-to-vote cards, Kelly insists that this time round the party will have more resources on the ground than the major parties in key seats.
He says that in his own seat of Hughes, for example, he has 1,000 people registered as members who want to volunteer, compared with the 100 odd that he would expect from the Liberal party in Hughes.
“If we can pull above 25% we are in with a chance,” Kelly says, pointing to the 26.5% Palmer polled in 2013 to successfully win the seat of Fairfax.
When asked how much he expects the party to spend, Kelly says: “Whatever it takes. We are just warming up.”
For Fayad, he thinks he has a “realistic” chance of winning the seat of Parramatta – held by Labor on a 3.5% margin – saying he believes the UAP is gaining support from a previously disengaged voting base, many of whom “don’t speak politics”.
He thinks there is support from at least one in four voters.
“Some of them are fully vaccinated and have had their booster but they had small businesses or they have lost their jobs because of mandates,” he says. “There has been enough issues that they have at least rubbed one in four people up the wrong way.
“They don’t have a disdain for the government, it is a disdain for the way they were treated for the last two years. There are just so many sad stories of people losing things that they have worked so hard for.”