Clive Palmer was in fine form at his Fairfax Festival Weekend, spouting folksy wisdom and avoiding tricky questions. Freelance journalist James Rose was there to experience the madness.
The most important things in life are “a bed to sleep in, a woman who loves you and to be able to pay for the next meal. Beyond that everything is an illusion.” So intoned the man who stands between Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his legislative agenda. Clive Palmer, the people’s billionaire, was fired up with folksy shtick at his Fairfax Festival (the federal seat, not the ailing media behemoth) as he golf-carted between media engagements and public forums in his very own resort, glad-handing happy voters and taking compliments.
A bemused crowd, presumably some of the 100,000 or so voters Palmer told us he invited along to pretend they could afford to stay at the formerly ritzy Palmer Coolum Resort, shuffled among the robotic dinosaurs and the classic autos. Having grown up on the Gold Coast, there was something familiar for me in the endearingly naff displays, the glaze-eyed kids and the parents trying to be entertained.
The mid-morning presser in the Marcoola Room attracted maybe 15 note-takers, a bevy of cameras and was pretty much pointless. The questions flew as the nation’s hacks attempted — vainly — to find chinks in the dinosaur-thick carapace of Clive of Coolum. Fuel excise indexation, the carbon tax, Queensland politics, local politics, accountability, party finances were all fired at him. He ducked and weaved and sustained not even a flesh wound. And then Palmer was back in his golf cart with long-suffering media adviser Andrew Crook and was away.
Palmer is fast rising above politics. His is a social and even cultural phenomenon, at least as much and possibly more than a political one. He is suggestive of a sense that Australians, generally, don’t like politics and would rather not have much to do with it. Palmer seems to mine an ancient seam of institutionalised freedom, where representatives were selected at random and held office only briefly. It’s an adventure, not a career.
He seems unconcerned about history, or his career, or political games, or a parliamentary pension and MP perks. He can take or leave it, and, as he regaled at the weekend presser, he could go to his homes in New York or Switzerland, spend money and have fun. The gleam in his eye and permanent smirk give away the truth: he’s having plenty of fun anyway.
But he’s not really the anti-politician. He is in the system. He got there largely by winning the material game. Money buys a voice, buys media space, buys clout, buys credibility, and for all the anti-establishment characterisations of Clive Palmer, let’s not forget that. He is a product of the system despite all his quirks and off-message moments.
He told Crikey that he was in this for “justice”. It’s not about power or money, he said. In the line up for one-on-ones with the man, I let Channel 9 and Fairfax (the ailing media behemoth, not the federal electorate) in ahead of me, as they had tighter deadlines. It meant my time was a little diminished, so I cut to the chase and played word association with him.
Here’s what came up:
Modern media: “70% controlled by Murdoch”;
Murdoch press: “Biased”;
Climate change: “Important issue”;
Fuel excise: “Low excise is essential”;
Asylum seekers: “A better way of doing it”;
Paid parental leave scheme: “Waste of money”;
University fee deregulation: “Knowledge is a right of freedom”;
The 2014 budget: “An untruth”;
The Senate: “Opportunity”;
Politics: “Public service”;
This looks rapid fire. But it wasn’t. There were lots of ums and ahs and looks off to the T-Rex on the golf course. What does this verbal Rorschach tell us? Not much I suppose, and the motivations and the agendas — the grease that moves those political cogs in his brain — remain elusive. But he’s no idiot, Clive of Coolum. He’s no harbinger of a new era of anti-politics, either. He may be a political cut snake, but he’s still our snake.