Feelpinions

Clive is an arsehole, but that’s the point.

Tony Wright was one of those who discovered, apparently just last week, that Clive Palmer isn’t a very nice person. He’s an experienced Press Gallery journalist, but no one alive and sentient during the last thirty years should have been persuaded by the shaky “Uncle Clive” act. Clive Palmer, as everyone should have realised decades ago, is something of an arsehole.  Let us count the ways.

He supported and worked for the Queensland Nationals when they were running the most corrupt government in Australian history. Joh was his earliest political hero. By the time of 1983 Queensland state election, he was the Nationals’ campaign director. That election was fought on the highest principles, after Joh and the Nationals dissolved their Coalition with the Liberals in order to avoid any parliamentary oversight of ministerial expenses.

Following this, two Liberals ratted so the Nationals could form government in their own right. Between that election and the next one in 1986, the Nationals again redrew Queensland’s electoral boundaries in their own favour. This made Clive’s job as the Nationals’ chief media spokesman easier. They won government for themselves in a canter.

Just a year later he was spruiking Joh for the Lodge. The “Joh for PM” campaign only succeeded in sinking John Howard’s campaign against Bob Hawke. Things got tricky from then on: the Fitzgerald Inquiry showed how agents of the state – from beat cops to to senior ministers – were profiting from organised crime. The Police Commissioner and senior ministers were gaoled. Joh himself was eventually tried for perjury and accepting cash bribes, made it through one trial because of fortuitous jury selections, and was adjudged too old for another.

Palmer was and remains one of Joh’s True Believers (In 2012 he was reportedly planning to erect a statue of the former Premier in South Brisbane). But his faith always lined up with his financial interests. Back when Clive was minting it as a property developer, Joh was allowing him and his friends on the Gold Coast – the “White Shoe Brigade” –  to do as they pleased. Ministerial access, favourable planning approvals and a like-minded attitude to environmental and heritage values were all on offer for the in-crowd. Those years are memorialised in the oversupply of tawdry high rise accommodation that litters Broadbeach and Surfer’s Paradise, all built for a boom in Japanese tourism which is itself a faded memory.

If journalists somehow forget all of this, it is seared into the memory of anyone who was living in Queensland at the time. While Joh and the rest of his government publicly preached conservative moral values, they were looting the joint. They came as close as anyone has in this country to one-party rule by corrupting institutions and crushing dissent. These people were Clive’s BFFs, and he has no apparent regrets.

Since then he’s made an even bigger pile in mining. His main relationship to politics was as a big donor to the Nationals and then the LNP. The thing that brings him to the federal Parliament is a falling out with Campbell Newman and his party.

This is a complicated story, which a story by Neil Chenoweth in the AFR last year explains well. Essentially, Clive got involved in post-merger civil war, where his principal foe was Santo Santoro. After Campbell Newman and Tony Abbott backed the other team, Clive had a shouting match with Abbott at the Liberals’ National Conference.  On the outer, to an extent that affected his business interests, he began a new party as a species of revenge.

Everyone in Queensland knows this. PUP voters don’t think that Clive is a paragon of virtue, nor that he will ever form government. The Press Gallery’s sudden disillusionment with him over his sexist remarks won’t matter a whit. Clive’s kick helped pay for lots of ads, but the product was also appealing.  Clive promises to do damage to the major parties. He has enough of Joh’s populist brio to signal to these voters that, given a chance, he will be the plague that descends on both their houses.

Voting for this can be seen as irrational only if you think that mainstream parties offer much to regional voters. The Newman government has bled services and jobs from towns and small cities that were already struggling. Bob Katter has run for years on the idea that Federal Coalition have sold out the regions. Labor see no reason to court those who they think will never come their way.

More broadly, when the major parties don’t offer a clear choice on policy, antagonism is all too easily redirected at the system as a whole, and populists and minor parties have room to move. Wherever a post-political consensus  dominates mainstream politics, as political theorist Chantal Mouffe puts it, populists may be “the only ones denouncing the consensus at the centre and trying to occupy the terrain of contestation deserted by the left.”

We can see this playing out globally. Left and right populists did well in the recent EU parliamentary elections principally because they shared the voters’ contempt for the whole undemocratic charade. In the US, Republicans are still convulsed by a populist insurgency, and the Democrats face growing anger to their left. In Australia, only preferential voting shields the ALP from the consequences of conceding a quarter of its primary vote to the Greens, and the Coalition from the motley of conservative independents and minor parties.

In these circumstances, Clive’s bad manners may strike some voters not as a bug, but as a feature.

If you think government is essentially about managing an unruly and selfish people, you will be very uncomfortable with this. More legitimate anxieties might arise from the extent to which small parties on the right exhibit a fascist drift. The only remedy is for mainstream politics to become a legitimate contest of values, which presents real choices.

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