Clive Palmer pulled an old-fashioned conjurer’s trick this week. You know the routine. So you won’t notice the central trick, the illusionist stages an eye-catching distraction with a winsome assistant and a colourful explosion.
A surprisingly credulous media stood slack-jawed and gasped in awe, its customary scepticism of politicians suspended as it admired the theatricality of an artist of illusion.
The central trick? To make the carbon tax disappear. That was the essential fact. Everything else Palmer said and did was simple distraction.
But why does he need to distract from that?
Making the carbon tax disappear was a bit awkward for Palmer for two reasons. First, it’s a conflict of interest. Is he acting as a conscientious legislator acting for his constituents, or as the owner of a nickel refinery which refused to pay its $36 million carbon tax bill for nine months and only capitulated under pressure?
Second, Palmer is a populist. Populists win the admiration of the people by standing up to the elites. The prime minister is the elite among elites, so a populist must run against him.
How, then, does a populist justify giving the prime minister exactly what he wants on his biggest demand, to “get rid of the carbon tax”?
Never mind that, roll up to the Great Hall of Parliament House and see the show!
In that theatrically oversized chamber, with a former US vice-president holding the audience’s eye as a winsome assistant will, the conjurer set off his colourful explosion, a Catherine wheel of spinning policy offshoots that seem to be compelling but which, later, you can’t quite explain how. And, before you have a chance to quiz the magician on his sleight of hand, he disappears, assistant and all.
When a politician wants to commit a shameful act, he or she usually moves late at night, in covert whispers and secret signings. That’s what we have come to expect. But conjurers do their tricks in front of a full house and to the applause of the dazzled crowd.
The carbon tax will very soon be gone. Tony Abbott, overjoyed, will be able to tick off his No.1 election promise. Palmer’s Queensland Nickel will never have to pay carbon tax again. That’s about it. Nothing else has changed. Oh, and Al? Thanks for coming.
Clive Palmer and his Palmer United Party are a symptom and an outgrowth of the larger disorder afflicting Australia.
Australia is in the grip of a condition illuminated by a new book by a former BBC correspondent in Sydney, Nick Bryant. “As the country has grown stronger, its politics have become nastier and more adolescent,” he writes.
“The national story, which tends to get judged globally in terms of gross domestic product, stands in stark contrast to the Canberra story, with its gross domestic politics.”
Bryant, who now works for the BBC in New York, sees the national condition in broad brushstrokes with the eye of a foreign correspondent.
The Englishman’s book is titled The Rise and Fall of Australia. He explains why: “In a progressively more consequential country, politicians have made themselves increasingly irrelevant. Australians find themselves in the anomalous situation of witnessing simultaneously the rise and fall of their country.”
He puts his finger on a jarring disjunction - Australia in recent years has had the most stable economy of any developed country, yet one of the most volatile of political leaderships.
Bryant sets out the two halves of the proposition. After an unmatched 22 years of continuous economic growth, “it is hard to think of a nation that has benefited quite so richly, with so little upheaval, from the global economic realignment of the millennial years.''
For instance, “international retailers, because of the rich bounty on offer from local consumers, refer to Australia now as ‘Treasure Island’, a far cry from the ‘banana republic’ of which the then Treasurer Paul Keating warned in 1986.”
He sketches a country that not only has economic bulk but also a growing cultural and commercial confidence. It has acquired geopolitical significance too, as the wealth of a rising China finds expression in its increasing assertiveness, creating a competition with the US over Asia-Pacific spheres of influence and an arms race across the region.
Barack Obama gave solidity to his policy of a “pivot” to Asia in a speech delivered in Parliament House, Canberra. A British commentator has since described Australia as “the pivotal country.”
Says Bryant: ''Just as Australia no longer suffers from the tyranny of geographic or mental distance, it no longer falls victim to the felony of neglect.” He points out that when the American writer Bill Bryson wrote his travel book on Australia, Down Under, in the approach to the 2000 Olympics, Australia rated 20 mentions a year in The New York Times.
“Nowadays,” Bryant tells us, Australia gets that many mentions each fortnight. Few peaceful countries receive such per capita exposure.”
And then there’s the other half. From 2006, Labor had five federal leaders in seven years. From 2007 to 2010, the Liberals had four.
Outside observers “looked on askance, like freeway rubberneckers passing the scene of a major pile-up made all the more inexplicable because the driving conditions seemed so perfect at the time.”
Australian politics suffers a “crisis of overpoliticisation,” he judges. He shakes his head at its pettiness and viciousness. He found himself sitting next to Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon at a function in Parliament House and was surprised to see a procession of MPs shake his hand and clap him on the back. For which achievement, exactly? Being thrown out of the House by the Speaker.
The Financial Times published a critique of Australian politics by Matthew Engel who, after surveying “crazy parliaments” from the Dail in Dublin to the Israeli Knesset, judged Canberra to be the worst.
“The only thing the MPs can do, wrote Engel, “is overthrow their leaders, which they do with great zest, in the manner of Roman slaves celebrating Saturnalia.”
Australia is a national success story and a rising power of some stature, yet simultaneously a source of despair at home and ridicule abroad.
Is this a contradiction?
Not necessarily. In fact, it might be a precondition. There is an adage among policymakers that “good times make bad policy.” That a time of peace and plenty leads to indiscipline and indulgence. The eminent economist Ross Garnaut has bemoaned Australia’s “Great complacency” of the past 14 years. The good conditions have provided the latitude for poor politics.
Peter Hartcher is the political editor.