Clive Palmer

Bob Katter

We need to talk about Clive
Palmer to the left, Palmer to the right

So Clive Palmer has lost the Left. There was a brief, shining moment – amongst his Medicare defences and heroic activism for free education – that Australian progressives reluctantly embraced a billionaire mining plutocrat, revelling in his open hostility toward the Coalition. But then came his appearance on Q&A, where he castigated Chinese state corporations, describing them as ‘bastards’ and ‘mongrels’. His tirade highlights an irksome fact about Australian ideology: there is only the thinnest membrane between populism and a particularly virulent nationalism.

There’s a hazy grey area of non-politics within the Australian electorate; voters with strong belief systems that they refuse to integrate into existing party platforms. Traditionally, these people are swept up by straight shooters: self-consciously unpolitical politicians who cleave through the Canberra bureaucracy with their Real Australian Values. In this sense, Palmer sits alongside Pauline Hanson, who zeroed in on anti-Asian hostilities in an era when racial tensions between immigrants and white Australians was considered too tawdry for polite discourse.

In the glorious pantheon of no-bullshit crusaders, Palmer and Hanson seem far apart – at least on social and economic policy. But inevitably, appeals to the internal lives of the general populace tend to converge on the big picture issues. Palmer has to navigate two terrifically opposed truths: much of his revenue flows from China, but the man on the street is allergic to Chinese investment, which he blames for everything from shifting demographics to inflated housing prices. The Q&A blunder stakes his populist position. On the issue of China, he’s willing to go the whole hog.

During the gladiatorial spectacle of last year’s Rooty Hill RSL election debate, a woman interrogated the leaders of the two major parties about the grim spectre of Chinese investment in agriculture. Rudd tried to have it both ways, with a consciously half-hearted commitment to protectionism; but Abbott refused the populist path, reinforcing the Coalition’s obligation to neoliberal globalisation. Palmer, who funds his empire with Chinese cash, seems ready and willing to hang them out to dry in favour of a broad appeal to a skittish class of economic nationalists.

In some sense, the Left are no different – resistance to neoliberal globalisation runs deep, and Australian progressives generally support protectionist measures to stem the flow of jobs and production overseas. But their nationalism grows from working-class solidary rather than side-eyed xenophobia. Palmer, by exploiting unease toward Chinese intrusion into Australia, alienates the progressive protectionist.

Unlike in America, where working-class sentiments often curve toward individualist market liberalism, Australians are less likely to swallow the Liberals’ commitment to big business freedom. Pauline Hanson, amongst her demands for a staunchly restrictive immigration policy, was also a proponent of a harsh tariff system, utterly antithetical to the free market drive of the Coalition. Conservatives in Australia are often inward-looking, economically. Bob Katter, the conservative who enjoys widespread support in Queensland’s north, readily embraces a brand of agrarian socialism utterly at odds with efforts to deregulate industry. The Australian can advocate for libertine international trade policies till the cows come home, but the unpolitical nationalist will never sign on.

We’ve seen Clive stray spectacularly, but it was inevitable. At some point, rhetoric from populist Australian politicians must address race. It is telling that since the election Palmer has rarely referred to his liberal policy on asylum seekers. The issue is too toxic, and it’s safe to assume the disillusioned voters upon whom he coasted to power are not particularly troubled by our offshore detention regime. Hanson maintained a frightening baseline of popularity predicated purely on her hostility toward immigrants, and tensions have not abated in the years since. Jacqui Lambie doubled down on Clive’s comments with a hysterical warning of an impending Chinese communist invasion. The fear is there.

But it is also true that Palmer has captured the attention of the Left, who see him as an unlikely brother-in-arms on healthcare and education. There’s a tedious inevitability that progressives must accept going forward: Clive Palmer is going to say some profoundly unsavoury things. Australia has a nationalist narrative that can not and will not be ignored.

J.R. Hennessy

J.R. is a writer in Sydney. He has written at The Guardian, blogs media politics at www.jrhennessy.com and tweets at @jrhennessy.

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