Palmer's Party Makes A Big Splash


They do things differently in Queensland. The state that brought us Joh Bjelke-Peterson, Peter Beattie, Kevin Rudd, Campbell Newman, Bob Katter and Barnaby Joyce has never been short of mavericks and iconoclasts.

So it comes as no surprise that the latest political hopeful to throw his hat in the ring north of the Tweed is the colourful and outspoken mining magnate, Clive Palmer. The high-flying mining billionaire is setting up a new political party, the United Australia Party, trading off the long-forgotten glories of the old UAP of the 30s and 40s, originally the home of conservative heroes such as Joe Lyons and Robert Menzies.

Although Palmer has made his money in mining, he is no stranger to politics. A former office bearer in the Queensland National Party in its glory days of the 1980s, Palmer has long nurtured political ambitions. At one time, Palmer was openly threatening to run against Wayne Swan in his suburban Brisbane seat of Lilley, but then withdrew from preselection considerations at the last minute. His behind-the-scenes bankrolling of the merged Liberal National Party is well established, but this ended with his well-publicised falling out with LNP Premier Campbell Newman and eventual expulsion from the party.

Since then, he's been busy with his business interests and private hobbies, such as his plans to build a replica of the Titanic and his dinosaur park at Coolum. Given the scale of the man's enthusiasms, a 150-seat tilt at federal Parliament seems like a mere afternoon jaunt.

Palmer's politics are hard to pin down, given his penchant for reversals and backflips. But what we can glean from his voluminous public commentary is a collection of policy positions that boil down to classic Queensland populism, somewhere between the home-spun homilies of northern conservatives like Katter and Bjelke-Peterson, and the stunt-heavy boosterism of Peter Beattie.

Palmer is of course a conservative, but he also has a knack for clothing his pro-business sentiments in an appealing fabric of social conscience. Perhaps that's why the history of the United Australia Party appeals. The old UAP incorporated ex-Labor social conservatives from Billy Hughes' old Nationalist Party as well as more traditional liberal-conservatives such as Menzies.

Palmer is a talented communicator and has an instinctive knack for garnering publicity. That kind of profile certainly helps, especially in Queensland, a state in which voters have shown they often take a shine to outsize personalities. And there's plenty of personality to go round: Palmer's media appearances are justly famous for their eccentricity — and last night's Lateline interview with Tony Jones didn't disappoint. Fairfax's Mark Ludlow, who witnessed his media conference this morning, tweeted today that “he was well and truly orbiting around Planet Clive.”

It's not all vaudeville and sketch comedy, of course. Apart from the obvious gift his campaign provides to journalists and headline writers contemplating a reasonably grim election campaign, Palmer and his new party could make a big splash. Depending on where he decides to send his preferences, Palmer may play an important role in deciding the fate of a string of marginal seats. I imagine Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan would both be interested to know whether the UAP would consider preferencing Labor ahead of the LNP in Griffith and Lilley. In the Senate, the UAP could help decide which party wins the sixth Senate spot.

On current polling, that spot seems likely to be won by another maverick populist party of the right: Queensland federal MP Bob Katter's Australian Party. Katter's own blend of raw emotion and big hat country style has always played well with northerners, and the results of the recent “megapoll” commissioned by Queeensland union Together has the Katter Party polling in the 20 per cent range in much of north Queensland. In a Senate scenario in which Tony Abbott sweeps to victory in September, that might leave Katter with the balance of power in the upper house.

It's easy to scoff at Palmer, whose antics hardly inspire confidence in the gravity of his commitment. It seems unlikely that his party will be able to establish any sizeable beachhead in the public consciousness before 14 September. But in the Sunshine Coast seat of Fairfax, where Palmer says he will run, he is more than a rough chance. Should Labor preference him, and should he run a close enough second on the primary vote, he could even beat incumbent Liberal Alex Somlyay. 

Like Palmer, Katter is a conservative — but a particular type of conservative, one that most thought had long vanished. His economics are instinctively anti-liberal and protectionist; his hatred of neo-liberal deregulation is at least as passionate as anyone on the far left of the ALP. Indeed, on many issues, Katter's politics are a strain of agrarian socialism that once dominated the Queensland wing of the Labor Party, while his views on special assistance to the bush are pure 1950s vintage Country Party. Unconstrained by any need to stay in coalition with the economic orthodoxy of the Liberal Party, Katter is free to vent his spleen on any and all issues he thinks impact on his constituents in the cattle country of north-west Queensland.

What impact might Katter and Palmer make south of the Tweed? Perhaps more than you might think. While the peculiar politics of Queensland – the home, let us remember, of One Nation – are the prime force driving the current proliferation of right-wing populism, one of the reasons the two mavericks can prosper is that the political positions they stake out are largely vacant in our current political landscape.

For those of a conservative bent who harbour deep reservations about the negative consequences of Australia's increasingly globalised and corporatised society, there are few palatable options. Similarly, many Labor voters who could never bring themselves to vote Green are nonetheless bitterly opposed to the free market rhetoric that this Labor government continues to espouse.

If you oppose coal seam gas fracking, for instance, or want to see a politician – any politician – do something to bring the price of the Aussie dollar down, you won't find much succour currently with the major parties. The rise of the right-wing populists shows us that Australia's seemingly stable two-party system remains vulnerable, and that our electorate is a more splintered and diverse polity than the two-party preferred polls are able to show.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.