Federal politics

The humble meme merchant
The reasons for Clive Palmer’s resurgence are as inexplicable as its effects

Clive Palmer: Humble Meme Merchant

Campaign songs disappeared from modern politics years ago – we won’t expect jingles from Labor or the Liberals in the coming weeks – and none have lodged in collective memory like Gough Whitlam’s theme from 1972, “It’s Time”. As part of Clive Palmer’s magpieing from political history, he has borrowed its tune for his one of his anthems. “Clive for Canberra / Clive for History / For going back in time, yes it’s Clive”, says the chorus. Its verses position Clive in favour of mining, love, brothers, tuckshops, weight loss, dinosaurs and building the Titanic, and against Liberal, Labor and the Greens. I wouldn’t usually offer such detail, except that this is so far the most comprehensive policy document the United Australia Party has released.

The ditty forms part of the soundtrack of a computer game called Clive Palmer: Humble Meme Merchant (available on iOS and Android) in which the player guides a cartoon Clive Palmer to avoid political foes (Bill Shorten is shaped like a cockroach), and collect biscuits. (How the biscuits square with the pro-weight loss policy, or anything else, is never explained). The game is a reminder, as if one were needed, of Palmer’s strange online presence. After leaving parliament, he turned to self-authored memes, bizarre Facebook updates (“Who wants a hot dog? I love a hamburger. I love a lettuce.”), and other off-beat messaging, widely reckoned to be a series of PR distractions in the middle of a tricky court case. These dank memes are now being presented as one of his qualifications for office.

His other qualifications for office are unclear, but his persona, coupled with an advertising blitz and a collapse in support for One Nation, has pushed his share of Newspoll to something like 5 per cent. In an interview on Channel Nine’s Today program, Palmer claimed that this was an underestimation, and that his real polling was “much higher”. He also said that his party was set to form government, that he had “four thousand million dollars”, that he had spent $50 million on advertising, and that he was about to announce a preference deal with Scott Morrison. Deborah Knight, the interviewer, pressed him about the $7 million owed to workers from Palmer’s collapsed nickel refinery, unpaid for three years.

Skipped bills are part of Palmer’s legacy. He is said to have transferred these late wages this week, but still owes the Commonwealth $70 million or so, and has a lengthy paper trail of court cases, receiverships and conflicts. He has had “stoushes” with ASIC (that one resulted in criminal charges, over his dinosaur theme park), a Chinese mining company, the hair metal band Twisted Sister, and the company that financed his private jet. When he ended his term in the Senate, there was a general impression he had bilked the Australian voting public as well. Saying that his party “imploded” implies an initial structural integrity that it never had: his progeny, Glenn Lazarus and Jacqui Lambie, split off into their own personality-based micro-parties almost straight away. Dio Wang stuck around for a bit. Together, Wang and Palmer’s record was mixed, and they dwindled into obscurity.

Why, then, are Palmer’s supporters lining up to get twice-bitten? Many commentators settle on “Trump-style populism” as the explanation. Palmer has chosen “Make Australia Great” as the central slogan of his ubiquitous advertising, so they can be forgiven for following the misdirect. But Palmer is a politician of a very different stripe. He has a background in professional politics as well as being a businessman, has already served in parliament, and presents a completely different suite of policies (although with similarly sketchy detail).

The United Australia Party’s website talks about the past more than the future, and presents Palmer’s first trip to Canberra as a triumph rather than a failure. That list of achievements is long, debatable, and left wing. A taste:

Stopped the GP Co-Payment; Stopped negative changes to universities; Stopped $10 billion cuts to social security; Freed over 436 children and families from detention; Freed 1,500 people in total from Christmas Island; resolved over 30,000 cases in detention; Introduced the (SHEV) Safe Haven Enterprise Visa; Saved the Low Income Super for over two million Australians; Kept the Schoolkids Bonus.

Not the stuff of MAGA.

Voters lured away from a beleaguered One Nation hierarchy (is it ever not beleaguered?) aren’t too motivated by giving refugees a fair go. The Queensland protest vote is more about a style than a substance. Perhaps its tradition began when pornography was illicit there, and Queenslanders needed to get a thrill somehow. Perhaps this unusual mixture of policies and strategies is mistaken for bipartisan conciliation. Perhaps the cliché of the “eccentric millionaire” is just an unusually resilient one. There is concern within the ALP that Palmer’s preference deals could cruel Labor’s chances, but UAP voters may preference the Coalition less reliably than would One Nation voters. It’s understandable that the effects of Palmer’s resurgence are so unclear. Because the causes are as well.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 


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