While Clive Palmer tries to bluster his way out of questions about his latest business troubles at the Queensland Nickel refinery, his political irrelevance has long been on display in Canberra. He is the leader of a party with one Senate vote and a House of Representatives seat that he could barely bother to front for in Parliament.

For a time, things were very different. By dint of an outsized personality and tens of millions of dollars of well-timed advertisements, Palmer tapped in to a mood of resentment towards the major parties to secure three Senate spots and strong polling across the country based on (false) perceptions that he was a political outsider. With the canny exploitation of a naive Ricky Muir, Palmer turned his 2013 election result into a powerful Senate voting bloc.

But as is often the case with micro-parties that taste success, it all fell apart: personality clashes caused two senators to abandon him, while Muir unexpectedly acquired some political thoughtfulness. And Palmer’s basic political tactic — a procession of stunts and over-the-top claims designed to keep the media distracted from subjecting him to real scrutiny — proved finite in its effectiveness. One way or another, Palmer will be gone from federal politics in 2016.

Palmer’s temporary success reflects how susceptible a segment of the electorate is to the appeal of personalities who boast of their outsider status and disdain for conventional politics. Twice in the last 20 years, political movements have emerged from Queensland that threatened to destabilise the federal party system — first Pauline Hanson, then Clive Palmer, although the two share little ideologically.

The major parties would do well to reflect on what might happen if someone with fewer political flaws than Palmer or Hanson succeeded in tapping into that well of discontent.

Peter Fray

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