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.