Why Clive Palmer is so 'popular'

Clive Palmer rides a Rolls Royce to sit in parliament.
Friday, August 22, 2014

What does it say about Australian politics when a mining billionaire who rides around in a Rolls Royce becomes the people’s champion in parliament?

The Palmer United Party (PUP), formed and largely funded by Clive Palmer, continues to disrupt the two-party game played by most politicians and their media supporters.

To them, the PUP is “maverick”, a label that fits after Palmer’s outburst this week about “communist” China trying to “take over” Australia.

But more threatening to the government is that PUP is putting up real opposition to many of its budget measures, to the point of threatening to block supply and force an election over the issue of privatisation of state government assets.

PUP’s positions are unpredictable. It supported the repeal of the carbon tax but its votes were crucial in keeping the renewable energy target.

When Palmer and other PUP politicians speak about policy, they sound most of all like Robert Menzies-era Liberals, “yellow peril” and all.

On the August 18 edition of ABC TV’s Q&A, Palmer called for deficit budgets to support economic growth, some wage protection — against foreign workers — and maintenance of social security benefits.

But what really puts the wind up those politicians and pundits is that support for PUP is still rising. Partly this is because Palmer uses his wealth to widely advertise, but it is also because he represents something different to the status quo.

Palmer and the other PUP politicians, having not followed the now-typical ALP or Liberal and National Party politicians’ career route of lawyer, staffer and/or hack union official into parliament, have avoided the latter’s three-decades long neoliberal education.

That Palmer sat to the left of Labor’s Penny Wong on Q&A was as much political metaphor as seating arrangement. Palmer’s view on asylum seekers — close the detention camps and let asylum seekers come by plane and make their claims — is more progressive than any Labor politician.

So how do we explain Palmer’s contradictory politics? In the June 6 Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher argued Palmer is a populist engaged in “a chameleon-like politics of resentment directed against elites”.

The Piping Shrike blog wrote on July 15 that Palmer was engaged “in a feud within the Queensland LNP” in which the only boundaries on his “flexibility” are his business interests.

They are both right. The post-war long boom is gone, and with it the opportunity for Menzies-style liberalism. Instead of support for social welfare, the 1% is pushing harsh neoliberal policies, which include attacks on the poor, workers and the environment.

In this context, Palmer has gained popularity through not joining the establishment. It is what his popularity represents that is most important.

Hartcher quotes Liberal Party adviser Mark Textor to suggest Palmer is following ‘‘the Pauline Hanson model” through a calculated appeal to politically disillusioned voters. To the Piping Shrike, Palmer’s support is a “stage army” similar to the street crowds that surrounded the “anti-political” Kevin Rudd.

In fact, a growing minority of people is moving away from the Liberal-ALP game. They rightly hold these parties and their politicians in the same low regard these parties hold for the people. For the “major” parties, this might mean political stalemate.

Many people are now looking for something else politically. When a party, or an individual, maintains a clear opposition to politics-as-usual, people respond.

The Greens have not been able to capitalise on the same sentiment because they are seen as part of the political establishment. In places where the Greens are most active outside parliament, such as in inner-city areas, electoral support flows to them.

The problem is that the 99% cannot rely on Palmer and his party to achieve what they need.

This is because PUP’s strategy is to do things for people through the political system as it is. Palmer’s “anti-politics” does not criticise that system. Thus, he has no realistic strategy for securing — beyond what can be achieved by stopping some proposed laws and changes to government regulations in parliament — the popular things he calls for.

The other reason is that Palmer does not belong to the 99% and he does not truly represent the interests of the majority of people.

To build a political force that can, we need to think and organise for ourselves.

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