Sitting in Clive Palmer’s private jet, Craig Kelly knocks on the immaculate woodwork.
“Touch wood,” the leader of the United Australia Party laughs.
Mr. Kelly tells staff that he avoided contracting COVID-19, by reducing it to a weekly dose of vermectin, an unproven treatment that the Therapeutic Goods Administration says can be dangerous.
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His promotion of supposed vaccine alternatives and fierce opposition to workplace mandates led him to resign from the Liberal Party early last year, under fire for spreading misleading medical information.
For the vast majority of Australian voters, Mr Kelly’s views are likely to seem as distant as the Australian rural landscape 40,000 feet below the mining billionaire’s sleek jet.
“There is a lack of logic in the question he is defending,” says Dominic O’Sullivan, professor of political science at Charles Sturt University.
“Vaccination rates across Australia show that most people are quite happy to be vaccinated, including in the regions.
“That sets him apart from other populists who appeal to people’s genuine concerns, even concerns that other people might find objectionable.”
Mr Kelly acknowledges his views could work against him in his seat in Hughes, south-west Sydney, where he was elected Liberal MP in 2010. Polls suggest Mr Kelly may attract just 5% of first preference votes.
But he vows to keep fighting as he travels through regional Australia, which he says has been forgotten by the National Party.
Mr Palmer, the UAP founder who is also running for a seat in the Queensland Senate, is funding the campaign. He is spending at least $70 million to support 151 lower house candidates and 21 other Senate candidates.
The UAP says its internal polls are much higher than published figures, and it believes it can win seats in regional Victoria, where many have grown weary of long pandemic lockdowns.
On the ground, there is the support of some enthusiasts.
On May 12, days before the election, 50 UAP members huddle under a gazebo to escape the fog and pouring rain to meet Mr Kelly in a Shepparton park.
Mr. Kelly sits on the edge of a picnic table, taking questions from young and old, factory workers, sheep farmers, families and students.
They want to hear his perspective on warrants, perceived police and government overreach and understaffed hospitals.
“Whatever the outcome, we can all hold our heads up high because we will be on the right side of history,” Mr Kelly told them.
That afternoon, the Palmer plane landed in Mildura, a border town on the Murray River, where the red backcountry dirt peeks through the salt pans.
Supporters fill a room at the Reddy Pub in Red Cliffs, eight miles from Mildura, where Mr Kelly is stepping up his rhetoric, saying his views on vaccines have been censored.
In less than five minutes, the crowd raises nearly $4,000 for the local candidate to advertise in a free newspaper on election weekend.
The next morning, Mr. Kelly visits the Fossey Distillery, a gin bar covered in vines and filled with colorful patchwork armchairs.
Local media are asking him about how he can deliver on his promises of low interest rates on existing home loans and tax breaks for people living in regional areas.
He stiffens when a reporter asks about his top executive, Frank Zumbo, who is on the payroll while facing indecent assault charges.
“We have the presumption of innocence in this country,” Mr Kelly said.
“If we throw that principle on its head, we’re back to the days of the Salem witch trials.”
Distillery owner Steve Timmis, who ran as an independent in the 2018 state election, watches his bar turn into a political theater.
Mr Timmis believes successive governments have made life in the bush more difficult by privatizing essential services.
Although his vote may not go to the UAP, he does support some of their policies.
“All of regional Australia is angry and disenfranchised and looking for direction and it’s not being given by the Nats,” Mr Timmis told AAP.
“(The UAP) is an alternative. Is it perfect? No. Will they come in? No.
Back on the plane, Mr Kelly pretends to swallow an ivermectin tablet after a berry tart for morning tea.
In a park in Melton, in Hawke’s new constituency, he sits alone on playground equipment awaiting the arrival of candidate Andrew Cuthbertson and his supporters.
The party believes it has a “red chance” in the seat in suburban Melbourne, seen as safe Labor territory.
One member, who brought his rescue dog to the meeting, says he hasn’t felt represented since John Howard was prime minister.
Another supporter, Jose Iglesias, claims his children and grandchildren were either forced by their employers to get vaccinated or quit their jobs after choosing not to be vaccinated.
“It’s about freedom, freedom of choice and democracy,” he says.
As Mr Kelly is driven from the park, a small group of protesters approach the dark van with driver.
He tells the driver to stop and rolls down his window.
“You better get your sixth booster,” Mr. Kelly sneers at them.
A young woman shouts: “Vaccines save lives. I can’t believe you are spreading lies.”
“You’re a disgrace, Kelly,” shouts a young man.
The protesters are left in the rear view, coming face to face with UAP members.
The jet heads for Sydney as the sun sets in the afternoon, and Mr Kelly reviews plans for the final week of campaigning.
He speaks to Mr. Palmer on the phone, describing press conferences, supporter meetings and protesters.
Mr. Kelly puts his phone on speaker and Mr. Palmer says, “We had a great time, didn’t we?”