Clive Palmer had the giant banana split for dessert when he had dinner with Malcolm Turnbull last week, but it was the government that got indigestion.
The high-visibility dinner set off a silly series of antics whose biggest victim is the Abbott government. And the biggest winner is Palmer. As usual. Two right-wing provocateurs in the media, Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones, used the dinner as a way to bear-bait Malcolm Turnbull.
They claimed the dinner was Turnbull’s way of strutting his stuff as a potential rival to Tony Abbott. They devoted days to criticising him.
Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
The bear took the bait. Turnbull spent days resisting the set-up and fighting off the accusation. Because it’s entertaining, the rest of the media fed on the spectacle.
It was based on fiction. Turnbull is not preparing a leadership challenge. If he were to attempt one now, he would be crushed. Abbott did not accuse Turnbull of disloyalty because there was none.
While Bolt and Jones positioned themselves as Abbott’s self-appointed Praetorean guard, their campaign actually emasculated the man they pretended to protect.
The Abbott government has been overtaken by the public impression that it’s divided. Another chaotic government with unstable leadership. ‘‘I think it is just very sad that you and Bolt are doing the work of the Labor Party in undermining the Abbott government,’’ Turnbull told Jones on his radio show.
And the events further entrenched Clive Palmer as a pivotal figure in parliament. If all this fuss is over a mere dinner with Palmer, surely this must be a man of commanding importance?
Palmer made the most of it. His public support is based entirely on being not-a-politician.
Quizzed about the dinner the next day, he didn’t offer the standard lines that the public has come to expect from politicians. No bland deflection, no scripted party lines dictated by a twenty-something know-nothing in a backroom. Was the government budget discussed over dinner at the Wild Duck restaurant? ‘‘When you are concentrating on some Peking duck and looking with great anticipation to a banana split at the end of the night you have got to say ‘what are your priorities?’’’ A mighty distraction for the government, it was core business for Palmer. By Friday, it had delivered him nine days of the essential political sustenance – profile.
Lest it sputter out, he egged the story on again on Friday. In the guise of offering a defence of Turnbull, he issued a written statement: ‘‘It amazes me that I can’t even have a simple Chinese meal with a parliamentary colleague and old friend without it creating such a fuss,’’ said Palmer. ‘‘I can understand why Tony Abbott is concerned about Malcolm because he is witty, successful and smart.’’ He went on to list six other Abbott ministers he’s talked to since entering parliament - Julie Bishop, Christopher Pyne, George Brandis, Eric Abetz, Joe Hockey and Warren Truss.
Palmer was doing his best to divert and damage the government, to arm Bolt and Jones, to foment more diversion and division. He is building support by opposing the government. That’s why he presents such a problem for the government as the holder of the balance of power in the Senate. Palmer is in the judgment seat on the Abbott legislative program. It is a big seat.
It’s conventional wisdom this week to dismiss Palmer as a terrible piece of work, and to declare him to be washed up.
His attack on Abbott’s chief-of-staff, Peta Credlin, was roundly condemned by all sides of politics. Many in the media said he’d gone too far, he had lost all credibility, he was finished. He might be a terrible piece of work, but he is certainly not washed up. Far from being finished, Palmer is still rising, building profile and amassing support.
‘‘When Palmer looks like he’s losing, he’s winning,’’ says the Liberal Party’s long-time pollster and adviser, Mark Textor of Crosby Textor.
‘‘He says something outrageous, he baits the press gallery, he gets a camera in front of him, and off he goes. And once the cameras are rolling, he says something that resonates with the public, he says something relevant to their lives. And it makes an impact.
‘‘It’s the Pauline Hanson model. With her it was intuitive; with Palmer it’s calculated.’’ The attack on Credlin is an example. In his remarks in the House assailing Abbott’s proposed policy for a new paid parental leave scheme, Palmer said: ‘‘What happened to the age of entitlement for everybody in this country? Why is it for only a select few? All citizens, regardless of wealth, race, geography or gender should not be discriminated against. All citizens need to be equal under the law. Why should Australian citizens and businesses be taxed, and working women discriminated against, just so that the Prime Minister’s chief-of-staff can receive a massive benefit when she gets pregnant?’’ The claim is factually wrong. Credlin did not propose the policy; Abbott had proposed such a scheme years before he employed her. And Credlin would not benefit from the policy in any case; as a federal public servant, she’s already covered by a generous leave scheme. But the claim is also hurtful; it was already on the record that Credlin has gone through the trauma of multiple attempts to conceive through IVF.
If all that were not enough, the Palmer attack is also unfair. He’s an MP attacking not another MP but a staff member. It’s the equivalent of a boxer attacking not his opponent but the opponent’s trainer holding the water bottle.
But does any of this trouble Palmer? Of course not. It won him another round of media attention, including an audience on the ABC-TV show 7.30. The host, Sarah Ferguson, asked whether it was reasonable to use Credlin’s putative future pregnancy to make a political point? ‘‘Well I never said anything about her pregnancy. That’s just a media beat-up,’’ said Clive black-is-white Palmer. ‘‘I was trying to illustrate the fact that people that are earning a lot of money should be eligible for paid parental leave while stay-at-home mums would get nothing, women on farms would get nothing. I thought that was unfair.’’
And this is Textor’s point. Palmer inserts the point to resonate with the lives of ordinary people. And he took the opportunity to add that he was standing up against a lying government: ‘‘I’m not a career politician. I donate my salary to charity.’’
Where the political establishment thought Palmer was losing, Palmer was winning. Says the Fairfax Nielsen pollster, John Stirton: ‘‘He has a simple populist message. He’s a very good campaigner, he’s very, very good at getting free media, and he has the resources to get paid media. To say that he just bought his way into parliament is to underestimate what he’s done.’’ Remember some of his other outrages? Rupert Murdoch’s former wife, Wendi Deng, was a Chinese spy. The army was in a conspiracy with the Australian Electoral Commission to manipulate elections. The solution to global warming is to ‘‘change our diet – not eat so many sheep.’’ Has any of this harmed him? ‘‘In the lead-up to the federal election last year, Palmer United Party came out of nowhere and about a month before the election went from 1 per cent of the vote to 5 per cent, and ended up with 5.5 per cent,’’ observes Stirton. ‘‘Since the election, they have been on a rising trend and their average for May across all the various polls is 6.5 per cent.’’ Palmer is a classic populist. He’s impervious to the facts and to the rules. ‘‘As a concept,’’ says the Oxford Companion to Australian Politics, populism is ‘‘more as a political and rhetorical style than as an ideology – a chameleon-like politics of resentment directed against elites who are seen to control society for their own benefit at the expense of the masses.’’ This is Palmer precisely. He made his first fortune, $40 million by the age of 30, by shrewdly spotting distressed Gold Coast real estate, buying it cheap and selling it at a profit. He ‘‘made money out of other people having projects that failed miserably that they couldn’t get out of,’’ he told reporter Frank Robson in an interview for the Good Weekend magazine.
He used the same technique in kitting himself out with the playthings of the rich. Neil Chenoweth of The Australian Financial Review has reported that he bought a 30-metre yacht for his daughter’s 15th birthday at a liquidation sale and got it for an excellent price.
He bought his first McDonnell Douglas MD-82 jet after it had been repossessed from a failed Taiwanese airline. He bought a second from another failed airline seven months later. He is merely applying a successful business technique to politics, taking advantage of distressed assets. Politicians and political parties in Australia are held in especially low regard in 2014. Palmer has bought into politics at a time when votes are trading at a deep discount. The Lowy Institute’s annual poll reported this week that four in 10 Australians don’t think that democracy is the best form of government.
This is remarkable. Australia is one of the world’s most prosperous countries with one of the longest-running continuous democracies. Why is democracy held in such poor regard? The Lowy poll probed the reasons: ‘‘The strongest response was for the proposition that ‘democracy is not working because there is no real difference between the policies of the major parties’, 45 per cent citing this as a major reason for not preferring democracy. ‘‘The second strongest response was that ‘democracy only serves the interests of a few and not the majority of society’, cited by 42 per cent as a major reason.’’ The major parties have distressed the vote; Clive is just a shrewd buyer. In April, a reporter asked him if he’d accept an invitation to dinner at The Lodge. ‘‘Yes, provided there was a good menu on the table.’’
Peter Hartcher is the political editor.