It happened again. Without any measure of irony, an Australian political party has done the exact opposite of what it ought to do. Last week, it was the suspension of Clive Palmer’s membership of the Liberal National Party.
The man who should be leading the party in Queensland, if not nationally, now finds himself in the peculiar bind of being the largest donor to an organisation doing its utmost to jettison him. It is reminiscent of the Liberal party’s relationship with big tobacco, whose dollars they are also happy to accept despite public condemnation, and it is unconscionable.
Palmer’s offence was to accuse Queensland Treasurer Tim Nicholls of misleading the public about the state’s debt, and call for the sacking of both Nicholls and Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney. He called them ‘the biggest crooks ever to be elected to office in this state’, which, given that Queensland elected Joh Bjelke-Peterson seven times, might have been overcooking it.
But this is not really about personal enmity or public outburst. This is about silencing someone already tarnished with the most serious pejorative the Press Gallery can attach to a political figure in this country: outspoken.
For most people, or at least most reporters, Clive Palmer is two things: rich and loud. Hence his introduction in any news report as some variation of ‘mining billionaire’ or ‘outspoken mining magnate’. It is an odd way to diminish someone, because Australia supposedly has a penchant for larrikinism and plain speaking. Yet to be deemed ‘outspoken’ in modern times is to sound your own political death knell.
It is a telling reflection on Australian politics that the Liberals are so desperate to distance themselves from someone with such capability and willingness to do the hard work. That Palmer’s eccentricities are seen as such a liability is also a damning indictment of what the 24-hour media cycle and the plague of political correctness have done to our body politic. The guy impulsively signed a deal to build a second Titanic, and yet instead of this being celebrated as a spontaneous and worthy feat of entrepreneurship, it is sniggered at as the indulgence of a madman.
The rejection of Palmer — not just from leadership contention but from preselection and now membership — confirms a lot about this country that should unsettle and disturb. It is now accepted political orthodoxy that ego, eccentricity and nonconformism are to be battered out of any contender for public life. The boa constrictors of daily politics — the hacks who suffocate spontaneity with their 6 a.m. talking points and lines of the day — see unity and sobriety as their primary performance indicators.
But it is unified, sober, bland messages that have led us directly to the malaise of present times: that sinking ennui that washes over you during press conferences and Lateline interviews and makes you wonder whether anyone in Canberra harbours an original thought these days. That’s the other, less-considered reason that Julia Gillard’s fiery sexism and misogyny speech fired up the nation: it was a momentary lapse in the management-speak coma in which this government chooses to dwell.
The Coalition are lesser offenders. But that is only natural given their sole directive is to attack and destroy, which does lend itself to more engaging rhetoric than explaining policy and lauding ‘process’. Tony Abbott has cut-through, as do Joe Hockey and Christopher Pyne, if only they were let off the leash once in a while, their tirades might become positively Shakespearean.
Should Abbott’s numbers continue to plunge toward their deserved nadir, the present leadership whisperings will become chatter and then a roar. Don’t expect the Coalition to run lovingly back to Malcolm Turnbull, whose very name elicits not teary swooning but resentful derision in Western Sydney and Queensland — our versions of the US battleground states — and whose polling last time around was abysmal. Au contraire: the filthy-rich moderate the party needs is Clive Palmer.
He has proud business acumen, amassing an $800 million fortune in real estate and mining. But unlike some of his contemporaries in the latter industry, he is no tightwad. His 2010 Christmas bonus to staff included the giveaway of 55 Mercedes-Benzes, and he expends willingly on his passions, purchasing Gold Coast United and building the Palmer Coolum resort, which last week took delivery of its first Tyrannosaurus Rex, for what Palmer hopes will become the largest dinosaur park in the world.
Palmer’s ‘outlier’ positions on the big issues are actually much closer to those of the electorate than those of the current Coalition leadership. He supports gay marriage, violently opposes Campbell Newman’s axing of 14,000 jobs from the Queensland public service, embraces rather than fears China, and wants to clean up politics by banning paid lobbyists from the LNP executive.
And Palmer’s views on asylum-seekers (‘let them fly in’) actually resemble majority opinion in any ordinary electoral cycle. He supports onshore processing, which was backed by 53 per cent of Australians in polling conducted by Nielsen in August 2011. Since then, however, Liberal lies about our borders being under siege have gained traction and the politics of fear have returned: but in principle, Australians don’t think we should be burdening our neighbours with what are, ultimately, our obligations under international law.
There is no polling on Palmer, but I would wager he’d do well as Opposition Leader, though a fair bit behind Turnbull. He wouldn’t enjoy, as Turnbull does, the adoration of disaffected Labor voters. For many on the Left, Palmer will never be more than another overweight mining magnate gorging himself on the nation’s assets — and to be fair, his perhaps unsurprising opposition to the carbon and mining taxes is a good reason to object to him.
But he would be rewarded by the public, I expect, for sharing many of the qualities Turnbull possesses: his non-political history and consequent gift of normalised communication. He would be rewarded for being a bit of a renegade. He would be rewarded for articulating consistent policy positions that are based on principle, not political circumstance.
The murky events of the past few months have demonstrated yet again that the toxicity of Australian politics stems from structural flaws in the major parties: the wrong people winning preselection, loyalty being rewarded over merit, and overprotective micromanagement. And so we get Peter Slipper in parliament for 25 years, Penny Wong second on a Senate ticket that was rightfully hers, and Palmer made a pariah by the party he could, and should, lead.
Michael Koziol is an editor of Honi Soit, the student newspaper at the University of Sydney.