Yesterday afternoon an unlikely couple stood in the House of Representatives to give their maiden speeches. Cathy McGowan, who unseated Sophie Mirabella in Indi, was triumphant — as were her legion of orange-wearing supporters. By contrast, Clive Palmer, who got a solid return on his investment by picking up Fairfax and three Senators to boot, made a nervous, erratic debut. Both, in their own way, were disappointing.
McGowan's victory shouldn't be understated. Mirabella was bunkered down in Indi for 12 years, and despite few of her electors having any real affection for her, she appeared immovable. So without a party apparatus to support her, McGowan put the call out to the "Indi expats" — young people who had headed interstate for education or work but still wanted to contribute to their community.
"The federal election was coming up. How could their views be heard?" McGowan said. "They had big issues."
"As a result of this some of my friends came to the state of feeling big guilt. We asked ourselves what our legacy would be. If we could not be for our young people, what was the point?"
She then deployed a concerted volunteer campaign, focusing on stunts, "kitchen table" meetings and huge amounts of social media (the #indigocathy cause on Twitter during the election was a kind of silver lining for the left as Abbott's victory became apparent). McGowan got up with a 9.2 per cent swing. Her victory was hailed as a radical new possibility: unpopular time-servers really can be ousted by popular support.
It was striking then to hear McGowan's address yesterday, which, while pleasant and gracious, was far from the call to arms her victory seemed to anticipate. Her speech was the classic boilerplate stuff of rural localism: local community involvement, the future of young people and Indigenous involvement, infrastructure, cutting red tape and so on.
She complimented the speaker on her election, politely requested a more respectful parliament, and listed her own family history and achievements.
But there was no foreshadowing of a plan to export her victory to other rural, regional or outer suburban seats, picking up where Windsor and Oakeshott left off. Because she ousted Mirabella, who was on the verge of a ministerial appointment, McGowan should expect no grace from the Abbott Government.
Demonstrating that her win wasn't an Indi-specific one-off by giving support and largesse to similarly disaffected communities elsewhere could be a good insurance plan for when the Coalition returns to Indi next year, heavily armed and keen for revenge.
By contrast, Clive Palmer is an untouchable man. His enormous wealth insulates him against the consequences of political failure. But for a man whose party will hold the balance of power in the new Senate, who continues to take great pleasure in reminding the Coalition that they won government off the back of his preferences, he doesn't seem to be triumphing in his victory.
The world expects one thing from right wing populists, and that's big, iconoclastic statements. That's why Pauline Hanson and Mark Latham were effective politicians for a while: they knew how to use the format of the parliamentary speech to speak out of the chamber, directly to the public.
By contrast, Palmer was nervous and subdued yesterday. His much-anticipated swipe at Queensland Premier Campbell Newman never really arrived (he dimly referred to cuts). He speech lacked specifics and structure, and some of his phrasing was truly bizarre:
"Tasmanians, I found out during our election campaign, feel abandoned by mainland Australia. The ghosts of the Anzacs call us to action. To stimulate our economic activity, we must ignite the creativity of all our citizens. Chairman Mao said a long time ago that women hold up half the sky, yet women received their vote in 1902 but prejudice still remains. Leadership, not complacency, is our need today. In parliament and in cabinet, we need more women."
Palmer's specific proposal — to have companies pay tax yearly based on actual earnings rather than quarterly, based on estimates — was plutocrat nonsense cut from whole cloth: "If we keep $70 billion in enterprises' hands then they can spend it better than the government." On what, Clive? Dinosaur parks? Given his own life his calls to service are very hollow indeed; in any case, that's not why people voted for him to begin with.
In the same sense that McGowan followed through timidly after what was a real historical moment, Palmer, strangely, refuses to come out swinging against the LNP. Instead he rambled incoherently about "pulling together for our common good under the Southern Cross and to know, as a great man said, that on this earth God's work must truly be our own".
For the Coalition, both McGowan and Palmer are now hate figures. Unless they realise that and fight back, using either people power or money to break up the ossified two-party establishment, they are not the radicals we've been waiting for.
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