Looking behind the 'Clivosaurus' show

February 6, 2015
Despite his image, Rundle says there is more to Palmer than money lust, populist theatrics and celebrity-seeking.

Clivosaurus: The Politics Of Clive Palmer
Guy Rundle
Quarterly Essay
November 2014
Black Inc., $19.99

Elected in 2013 by the curious, the disaffected and the dark arts of preference deals, billionaire Queensland coal baron Clive Palmer and his Senate threesome, were, at first, writes Guy Rundle in Clivosaurus, ignored or played for laughs by the establishment media.

These subscribers to an “orderly” two-party parliamentary system reduced the Palmer United Party to the federal-leveraged revenge of a jilted plutocrat against the Queensland Liberal National Party (LNP) government.

The LNP had spurned their life member and generous donor by rejecting favourable “major project status” ― and the rail and port infrastructure that would come with it ― for Palmer’s proposed Galilee Basin coal mining project.

Rundle, a former editor of the Marxist-aligned Arena Magazine, knows that material, class interest packs much explanatory power about Palmer ― his support for the new federal government’s repeal of Labor’s carbon and mining taxes was “naked self-interest”.

But, argues Rundle, the mining tycoon’s “right-wing market fundamentalism” and “relentless anti-environmentalism” should not be assumed.

There is, says Rundle, more to Palmer than money lust, populist theatrics and celebrity-seeking. There is a “moral seriousness” beneath Palmer’s rich clown act. Its core is “mildly centre-right politics grounded in Catholic traditions and social movement doctrine”, which goes back to the mid-20th century United Australia Party.

This ideology helps explain Palmer’s opposition to the Abbott government’s health, welfare and education budget measures that unfairly target the poor.

From grasping capitalist to a “people’s hero” saving the pillars of the “social democratic Australian state” is not so implausible compared to some of Palmer’s mining peers, such as the almost cartoon-esque villainous Gina Rinehart, for example.

It is just as plausible, however, to argue that pragmatism, not principle, drives the outsider capitalist politician who doesn’t want to have his electorally-necessary “champion of the people” alter-ego stumble at the first budgetary hurdle.

The coal vandal’s new-found renewable energy gospel can also be seen as opportunistic green cover to keep a clean-energy-loving public on-side. Palmer’s core remains unreformably pro-business.

Palmer, however, is mere entree for Rundle, who sees the political and media establishment’s condescending treatment of the parliamentary upstart as emblematic of a deeper democratic malaise.

Starting with “fortress parliament”, the elite monopolists must hold all manifestations of the popular will at bay ― including those forays marshalled by “anti-elitist” billionaires.

Rundle says the 40% of Australians who don’t believe democracy is the best system of government are not registering their disdain for the concept as such. Rather it is aimed at the current version, which represents and manages the interests of a narrow, corporate elite.

Rundle’s “what is to be done” conclusion, however, lacks real fizz. It fails to go beyond a suite of needed constitutional and electoral reforms, leaving wider economic democracy unexplored ― starting with workers' and community control of the likes of Palmer’s planet-burning corporate empire.

That is a whole new ball-game, a socialist one in which everyone gets to participate, not just watch.

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