How Rundle misread the Palmer phenomenon

by · April 18, 2015



It’s been less than 12 months since the last federal Budget, yet it seems like an eternity since Clive Palmer managed to break through the Right-Left partisanship that usually accompanies post-Budget discussion. This was the apex of Palmer’s influence on politics, a world away from the report in today’s Fairfax newspapers that then PUP senator Glenn Lazarus was told by Palmer that he and Dio Wang should join the Liberal Party in exchange for ministries. Lazarus subsequently left the party after yet another internal imbroglio.

Given how much Palmer acted as a disruptive and chaotic force within Parliament, helping to expose the Abbott government’s lack of authority in driving through its ideologically tainted Budget package, it is a wonder that such a story could even be thought credible.

But Palmer’s use of anti-political tactics to big note himself and get his own interests attended to was always going to find its limit point if the conservatives figured out that he wanted to get back their love, having been so callously snubbed by the Queensland LNP, and having split from them on that basis. And that’s pretty much what happened, with the occasional assistance of unlikely allies like Richard Denniss and Ben Oquist, as Palmer moved from great destabilizer to backroom dealmaker. Whether Lazarus’s claims are true or not, Palmer has recently been more conspicuous as an apologist for Abbott than as his bête noire.

For a brief moment, some on the Australian Left, including — judging by their statements on the matter — Denniss and Oquist, could believe that Palmer’s rise represented not just the reflection of a negative phenomenon (the breakdown of the old political arrangements) but a new positive creative potential in politics, however limited.

This conceit formed the basis of Guy Rundle’s entertaining Quarterly Essay of late last year, Clivosaurus: The Politics of Clive Palmer. My critical reply to Guy (written in January) is in the latest QE, alongside contributions from Denniss, Paul Cleary, Geoff Robinson, Mark Bahnisch, Dennis Atkins, Malcolm Mackerras and Grant Agnew, a long with a (somewhat grumpy) rejoinder from Guy. Here’s a bit of what I wrote:

Despite Palmer’s appeals to widely held values associated with the political centre, his ability to take on the government rested not on popular support, but on the conservatives’ lack of authority. This authority problem was something that wrong-footed LNP supporters, because the right had won a nominally large two-party-preferred victory over a shambolic (but, thanks to Rudd’s return, still viable) Labor Party. The PUP leader’s own lack of a base gave him space to play the anti-politics card as a form of pure politics, free of dreary constraints like the views of a membership or dissenting voices in the party room, let alone a stable constituency.

But after July, as it became more apparent that the Coalition would deal with Palmer rather than simply try to monster him, his eagerness to play backroom negotiator began to undermine his image as an anti-political crusader. As the PUP’s poll numbers fell, the constant hostile media barrage suddenly seemed to have an impact. Finally, fearing their own premature political mortality if they tagged along with their leader’s increasingly cuddly approach to the government, Jacqui Lambie and Ricky Muir pulled away, with the Tasmanian senator opting for an open split.

Because Guy is entranced by the virtues of the Clive Palmer he has constructed in his mind, he misses why, even by the time he filed his essay on 1 November, the writing was on the wall for the PUP, with its poor polling and mounting internal problems. As Kevin Rudd’s ignominious demise in 2010 demonstrated, those who fail to deliver on implicit promises to shake up a reviled political system quickly fall foul of the voters. It is too soon to tell whether voters have passed a final judgment on Palmer as their representative contra the political class. But either way, the mood that he was able to tap into shows no sign of dissipating.

After Abbott’s near-death experience at the hands of his own party earlier this year — one in which there was not even an alternate leader declaring themselves, let alone a credible opposition of any kind outside the government — the dominance of negativity and decomposition is even clearer to see. It would be wise not to project political fantasies of new beginnings onto it prematurely.

Quarterly Essay 57 is available at newsagents everywhere for $22.99, or as an e-book for $9.99.

Discussion1 Comment

  1. Guy Rundle says:


    I didn’t project new beginnings onto the Clive Palmer phenomenon, of any sort, and I wasn’t entranced by Clive, except as a figure of some liveliness and intermittent political skill, the latter undercut by his love of personal vendetta and erratic nature.

    I certainly didn’t suggest that the actual PUP was the beginnings of a larger movement – though I did suggest that if he Palmer could turn it into the UAP he claimed to have wanted it to be, it might find some stability. But I didn’t hold out much likelihood of that, and mentioned it as one of sseveral possibilities.

    What I did argue – as one hypothesis – was this: that Palmer was formed as a person by the twin influence of a devout Catholic mother with a large streak of social movement politics in her, a magus/trickster like father, whose character he initially rejected, but with which he had a similar style of behaviour. The third influence was growing up on the Gold Coast in the 60s a pretty unusual, wild and imaginative place in strait-laced Australia.

    My suggestion was that while Palmer’s motives for setting up PUP were all sorts of personl interests and score settling, his politics conformed to a Catholic Right view of the world, and that that dictated consistent action.

    That’s why it seems clear to me that he was willing to do deals on carbon tax etc and other laws that prioritise the domain of nature (quite aside from personal interest, which wasnt huge in that instance), while standing firm on things like Medicare and uni fees, dole cuts etc.

    Subsequent events have borne out the fact that, whether or not my argument captures a ‘real’ Clive Palmer, it accurately predicted his conduct through late 2014 and 2015 – holding the line on these issues – better than either the Press Gallery views (‘he’s crazy! who knows what he’ll do!) or the anti-politics view.

    A theory is many things, but one important thing it is, is a guide to future action and future terrain. I said Palmer would hold the line. He did, and no-one else said that.

    Furthermore I explicitly rejected the idea that he represented some new positive populist phenomenon, comparing his patchy and expensively bought vote to a genuine (though brief) movement like the rise of One Nation, after Hanson fluked it into Parliament. I think you are verging on dishonesty by omission in not making that clear.

    As regards ‘anti-politics’ I don’t buy it as much of a useful descriptor. As defined in yours and Liz’s article in the Oxford Left Review it covers so many different political phenomena as to have no useful explanatory, analytic or predictive power, and it verges on the Idealist, in finding some spirit phenomenon beneath all these different manifestations.

    I certainly don’t buy it as useful for the Palmer case. As I noted in the essay, speaking to PUP voters, the ovverwhelming expression was ‘that i’d give him a go’. yes, I agree that Palmer drew on anti-political rhetoric – in the classic and more limited form of the term – and there was a ghost of it in some of the sentiments of voters. But there was nothing like the positive, anti-system rhetoric of voters who have flocked to, for example, Nigel Farage and UKIP in the UK, where Farage is taken by some very strongly to be the embodiement of the average citizen, sticking to the political caste.

    As I also noted in the essay, I think a lot of perceived decomposition in Australia, is simply an effect of the Senate ‘above the line’ voting system, which has licensed a process of gaming the hare-Clark process. That’s not a testament to decomposition, but to its opposite – the system has been stable enough that 30 years passed before anyone started to do it.

    The anti-politics argument strikes me above all as wishful thinking on the part of a far left, whose project has collapsed beneath them. Anti-politics suggests a new political subject, one that cannot even name itself, and is thus pure resistance to the system. Seems to be a stand-in for all the past political subjects.

    To include groups such as Syriza or Podemos – recognisably left social democratic, with some new features – as anti-political (even if Syriza is now seen to be a co-opter of that spirit) strikes me as distorting of political reality. Above all it seems a feint by far left traditions unwilling to acknowledge that the global left has now become de facto left social democratic (including much of the new ‘ideal communism’), and that the pure anti-systemic politics of far-left Marxism is simply a concluded epoch.

    In that respect I dont think ‘anti-politics’ gives much of a useful, usable picture of the world, and is an actively misleading guide to action. Certainly that’s how it strikes me in being applied to the PUP phenomenon.