Clive Palmer the trickster
The Palmer United Party are anti-politics wildcards in Parliament
By Amanda Lohrey
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Voters in the United States are accustomed to eccentric plutocrats seeking to enter representative politics – Ross Perot, a presidential candidate in 1992 and 1996, is a classic instance – but in Australia they are scarce. It seems fitting that the biggest of them to date, Clive Palmer, should come from Queensland, which has some claim to being the home of a brash and unapologetic kind of conservative populism. Like his old friend Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Palmer appears on the public stage as someone who never hesitates to say what’s on his mind, regardless of whether it might contradict what he said yesterday. He is a study in spontaneity, and many voters find this engaging. It’s the very opposite of the increasingly arid rhetoric of politicians from the major parties who present on the nightly news as robots, prepped by PR and marketing flacks to tout their slogan of the day.
Spontaneity, which is a kind of honesty, is one of the attributes of authenticity, and in response to it much is forgiven. If you come across as an authentic character, you can get away with outrageous grandiosity (“I’m running to be the prime minister of Australia”) and loony diatribes (the Greens are “funded by the CIA”). Even those who don’t vote for the Palmer United Party (PUP) are liable to confess that they find its founder entertaining: he sings, he dances (well, he twerks), and he tells jokes. He’s clearly a party animal of the fun kind, with a good line in self-mockery that makes it difficult for his opponents to ridicule him effectively.
When interviewed, Palmer can be incoherent for long stretches and then say something stunning in its candour. Tony Abbott’s faux honesty and Bill Shorten’s faux outrage have failed to convince anyone much of anything, but no one can accuse Palmer of faking it. He says what he thinks, and this appears to cancel out the need for consistency. During the federal election campaign in 2013, he accused Kevin Rudd of “trying to undermine democracy in Australia” in a dispute over who would have his plane refuelled first at Melbourne airport; not long after, he praised Rudd’s service to the community and attacked the Murdoch press for its “propaganda campaign” against the former PM.
Palmer has issues with the Murdoch press, which doesn’t have a good word to say about him. The Fairfax press has also been less than complimentary. Not long before the federal election, BRW published a hostile piece by its editor, James Thomson, reiterating reports that the PUP had only an “outside chance” of a senate seat in Queensland and not much else. Thomson concluded with a patronising injunction: “Get back to business, Clive. This political game isn’t for you.” Palmer affronts the orthodox business establishment because he doesn’t conform; not only does he not support many of the classic neoliberal shibboleths but also you get the sense he delights in playing the populist contrarian.
He has offered qualified support for penalty rates and supports protection of the basic wage; he thinks refugees should be flown in and given an opportunity; he is opposed to government access to lobbyists and has accused the treasurer, Joe Hockey, of being corrupt; he wants more money spent on indigenous issues, and in his pre-election policy speech proclaimed that the health of indigenous children would be his number one priority if he were prime minister; he opposes the increase in the pension age, supports a 20% increase in the pension and wants to see a further $80 billion spent on public health. He also says he is “disturbed” by allegations of cruelty in the live export of animals and is opposed to the sale of public assets. Next to Treasurer Hockey and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, he can sound like the very voice of decency. Only on environmental issues and the mining tax – where his business interests are challenged – is he unreconstructed.
The new PUP senators have been derided as a collection of rednecks and bogans, which is another way of saying they resemble what voters think of as “real people” as opposed to schooled apparatchiks. Unlike fellow Queenslander Pauline Hanson and her One Nation membership, Palmer hasn’t been branded a racist. The PUP’s new WA senator is a Chinese-Australian resources executive, Dio Wang, and we know little about him yet; former Queensland NRL star Glenn Lazarus is no one’s bunny; and the Tasmanian senator, Jacqui Lambie, has quickly established herself as the Aussie battler’s friend. Lambie has been derided online as “an ocker Sarah Palin without the glamour” but promises to be a long way to the left of Palin. She has also been compared to Hanson in the battler stakes, but whereas Hanson was a small-businesswoman, Lambie has a background of genuine hardship. Like the PUP’s leader, Lazarus and Lambie are engaging characters who have a quality of rawness that works in their favour; they have not been drilled over years by faction bosses and at this early stage it’s a case not so much of what they say as how they say it, a fair dinkum quality that can’t be faked. During a recent episode of ABC TV’s Q&A, Lambie espoused national service as a way of providing training for unemployed youth, but she did so not as a fat cat, up for sending other people’s children to war, but as someone who had herself served ten years in the Australian Army. Even those who gasped at her proposal were prepared to grant her a certain respect on that score.
It may be that we are in for a new era of maverick politicians. Australians have always been cynical about their politicians, but disaffection with the major parties is at tsunami levels. A sign of the times is a seminar this month in the Victorian electorate of Indi, run by the team that led Cathy McGowan’s campaign to knock over the seemingly entrenched Liberal member, Sophie Mirabella. McGowan’s team aims to show others how it’s done, and interest in the seminar has been high. As for the PUP, if Lazarus and Lambie should eventually fall out with Palmer, both have the potential to be re-elected to the Senate as independents.
Meanwhile, Palmer has had the inspired idea of sending his senators and the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party’s new senator Ricky Muir to the US on a political education tour that presumably served not only to broaden their perspective but also to act as a bonding exercise. (Palmer was not able to accompany his team, his press office citing “an issue with his plane”.) And no, they were not there to Tea Party; in an interview on ABC TV’s Insiders Palmer informed the host, Fran Kelly, that their primary destination would be birthday celebrations at the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. Palmer is a director of the library and one of its major donors.
On 1 July the PUP team will take their seats in the Australian Senate and we will begin to see what the party is made of. The new senators are about to deal with a prime minister not known for his ability to negotiate with minority parties, someone who treated them with open contempt following the deadlocked 2010 election. Now, following the budget, opinion polls show these parties to be in an even stronger position than they were before.
Palmer may appear bluff and spontaneous, but he is foxy where it counts and a bad enemy (ask Queensland’s premier, Campbell Newman). In many ways he resembles the classic trickster figure of folklore, or the joker, which may account for his appeal to a jaded electorate that has lost its faith in political heroes. The trickster is a provocateur who unsettles the status quo, one who might operate with the utmost guile today but play the fool tomorrow. He flouts the rules of conventional behaviour and gets away with it. (Do voters care how many days Palmer sits in parliament, given their cynicism about time-servers?) His tricks and game-playing can serve to unmask hypocrisy and bring about a kind of perverse justice. Above all, he is mercurial and a shape-shifter, a hero one day and a villain the next. So which is it to be for Palmer? Hero or villain? Or both? It wouldn’t do for progressives to pin too many hopes on the PUP. Then again, with the trickster you just never know.