Clive Palmer, who will soon depart the House of Representatives and most likely, political life altogether, is everything that is wrong with anti-politics.
It’s hard to remember now, but Palmer briefly surfed a wave of disaffection and disengagement, particularly in Queensland, in an electorate that disliked Tony Abbott but was angry at three years of Rudd-Gillard infighting in Labor. Unlike Pauline Hanson, a genuine political outsider who tapped into a deep vein of discontent about 15 years of economic reform and globalisation, Palmer was long a political insider. Despite his pretensions to being somehow beyond politics, Palmer was Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s former spokesman and a National Party grandee who personally bankrolled the Liberal-National merger in Queensland and gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to conservative parties around Australia. His shift into parliamentary politics was driven by an extraordinary fit of pique at Campbell Newman, who had, in effect, taken his LNP plaything away from him.
For a while, Palmer seemed the canniest politician in Australia. He cynically used brand recognition as his primary political tool, recruiting well-known sporting identities to front his party, and skilfully invested in a huge burst of advertising late in the 2013 election campaign. There was an element of preference lottery luck in getting Jacqui Lambie and Dio Wang into the Senate, but Glenn Lazarus entered courtesy of a strong Queensland vote that also allowed Palmer, helped by Labor preferences, to narrowly edge out the Coalition in Fairfax. One Senate vote shy of a powerful voting bloc in the Senate, Palmer then recruited the new, inexperienced Ricky Muir to ally with his team. In mid-2014, PUP regularly polled 6% — an extraordinary achievement for a party that hadn’t existed mere months before. Palmer got to play gatekeeper with the Abbott government’s legislation — a role he revelled in.
But it was never sustainable, mostly because of Palmer’s tactics. His approach to politics was to endlessly move from one overblown announcement and stunt to the next, always resisting scrutiny or probing, storming out of interviews if he didn’t like the questions and attacking inquisitive journalists — particularly from The Australian, which feted Palmer when he was an LNP loyalist but conveniently discovered some scepticism about him when he became an opponent of the Coalition. Palmer established a new scale of weird in Australian politics, particularly after the truly bizarre moment when he flew a presumably uncomprehending Al Gore in to support his voting for the repeal of Labor’s carbon pricing scheme. Occasionally, he revealed what seemed to be his true political colours — a centrist with a strong progressive view on refugees (Palmer had been calling for years for governments to let asylum seekers stay in Australia, and last year offered to set up a legal fighting fund for Nauru and Manus Island detainees). But like the metaphorical shark that can never stop swimming lest it die, Palmer always had to keep moving from media conference to media conference, announcing something, attacking someone, saying something outrageous.
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And within months of his team assembling in Canberra, it began breaking apart, as was widely predicted. Like virtually all minor parties that taste some electoral success, the Palmer United Party quickly disunited over ego and personality clashes. First Lambie, then Lazarus, stormed out. Ricky Muir unexpectedly developed a thoughtful mind of his own and set his own course. Palmer’s role as gatekeeper barely lasted a few months. The fracturing, his repeated deals with the government and his business woes prompted a swift decline in his poll numbers. The heady heights of 6% soon became 4%, then 2%, and now the PUP is an asterisk. His chances of retaining Fairfax were slim to none; a Senate tilt is unlikely to be successful, even in Queensland, even with the lower quota required in a double dissolution election.
Palmer was never our Donald Trump — he seems to have been, at heart, a political centrist, and parliamentary politics is far less amenable to being co-opted by a big-spending high-profile celebrity candidate than, apparently, the Republican Party presidential race is. But he briefly tapped into an electoral well of disaffection, which shares some similarities with what Trump has tapped in the US and which Hanson tapped in the 1990s. It’s a disaffection of those who believe they haven’t benefited from neoliberal economics, or have actually lost from it, whether it’s former blue collar workers who have struggled to get a manufacturing job as that sector has shrunk, or people wondering how their kids will be able to afford a house, or middle-income people who don’t understand why top business executives make so much more money than they do. And because neoliberalism is linked to globalisation, much of this resentment emerges in xenophobic or outright racist terms. It’s never been clear how large this segment of the electorate is in Australia (despite the media granting her free publicity for nearly two decades, Pauline Hanson has never been able to get re-elected). Over two decades of uninterrupted economic growth has also tended to thwart economic populists who insist radical changes in economic direction are needed.
But as Palmer’s brief success showed, there’s a well of disaffection that a smart political operator can tap if they have the resources and the right political personality. We don’t have a Donald Trump problem, but there are likely to be more Clives in our political future. Perhaps more skilled ones, too.