Australian ruling party's chances improve in vote-swap deal

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — An Australian billionaire businessman announced on Monday that his minor party has struck a vote-swap deal with the ruling party that improves the government's chances of being re-elected in a general election on May 18.

Mining magnate Clive Palmer announced the deal with Prime Minister Scott Morrison's conservative Liberal Party as early voting began in the election, in which the ruling coalition is seeking a third three-year term.

Palmer told reporters that the center-left opposition Labor Party also wanted to strike a deal with the party he created, United Australia Party, but were refused because "their policies would destroy Australia."

Labor denies seeking such a deal. Labor and some within the Liberal Party have cautioned against political deals with the maverick businessman and his party.

Morrison defended the deal, telling reporters that Labor would be "far worse for the economy" than the United Australia Party.

Under Australia's system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. Those ranked highest by a majority of voters have a better chance of being elected.

The Liberal Party will ask its supporters to rank United Australia ahead of Labor candidates. United Australia will ask its supporters to rank Liberal candidates ahead of Labor.

United Australia's supporters could give government candidates the edge against Labor candidates in close contests for 151 seats in the House of Representatives, where parties need a majority to form a government.

Palmer, who said he is worth 4 billion Australian dollars ($2.8 billion), has been spending tens of millions of dollars of his corporations' money in advertising for months and plans to match the major parties' spending by the end of the campaign.

An opinion poll published in The Australian newspaper on Monday showed that 5% of voters intend to vote for United Australia, up from 3% in a survey two weeks earlier.

The poll was based on a nationwide survey of 2,136 voters over the weekend. It has a 2.3 percentage point margin of error.

The same poll found Labor was narrowly ahead of the conservative coalition, although the difference was within the margin of error.

Palmer said the poll understated the popular support for his party, which he hopes will form its own government after the election.

Analysts agree Palmer has a strong chance of winning a Senate seat for himself. But no other United Australia candidate is expected to succeed.

Palmer served a single term in the House of Representatives after the 2013 election and an earlier version of his party briefly had four senators before they all defected.

United Australia currently has a single senator who defected from another minor party.

Palmer was a major donor to Australian conservative parties before becoming a rival after a falling out with party leaders.

Critics accuse him of failing to pay AU$74 million in employee entitlements when one of his companies, Queensland Nickel, was shut down in 2016 in his home state of Queensland where he hopes to become a senator.

Palmer denies liability and blamed the administrators who shut down the company when it became insolvent for the job losses. His liability is being contested in court. The government has paid AU$70 million toward what hundreds of former employees are owed.

Labor has described Palmer as a "conman" whom it would not deal with.

"What debt is Mr. Palmer going to come knocking on the door of the prime minister for if in fact Mr. Palmer rescues the prime minister?" Labor leader Bill Shorten asked in the first leaders' debate of the campaign.

Former Western Australia state Premier Colin Barnett, a senior figure in the Liberal Party, has warned that a political deal with Palmer could harm the government's relationship with Australia's most important trading partner, China.

As a lawmaker in 2014, Palmer launched an extraordinary tirade on national television in which he called the Chinese "bastards" and "mongrels" and accused Beijing of trying to take over Australia. He later apologized.

The tirade began when Palmer was questioned about a legal dispute between his mining company, Mineralogy, and its Chinese state-owned partner, CITIC Pacific Mining.

Voter who will not be able to cast ballots on May 18 are allowed to vote from Monday.

Such pre-poll voting has become increasing popular since it was introduced in 1984. In the 2007 election, 8% of voters lodged their ballot early. At the last election in 2016, 23% voted early.

Some analysts argue this reflects a modern expectation of being able to choose the timing of pursuits such as binge-watching television programs and online shopping rather than being held to a schedule.

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