'He boasts that his attendance in Parliament is voluntary whereas normally MPs believe that their first duty to constituents is to attend parliamentary sittings.' Photo: Andrew Meares
Clive Palmer is certainly ambitious. At one time he was going to be prime minister, now he wants to grab control of the Tasmanian Parliament, thanks to the oddities of that state's voting system. And just for good luck he is hoping to do the same in South Australia's Parliament.
The first thing to note about Palmer is that he doesn't hold the balance of power anywhere. It suits him if people believe he will hold the balance in the Senate from July, but he does not have the numbers. He is not nearly as important as he thinks. At best, he can have a say within a small group but only if Labor continues its general disposition to oppose any major reforms.
There is no doubt that Palmer will go his own way regardless of good policy and regardless of the views of his MPs who owe him for his support.
Tony Abbott will not countenance buying off anyone: it can be very tricky, as Julia Gillard knows from her dealings with the Greens and Peter Slipper.
All that Abbott can do is be polite and put his case as best he can. Personally, I doubt Palmer will last longer than Pauline Hanson but it's the voters who will eventually decide his fate and their first chance is coming within weeks.
In elections in Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania, Palmer will be spending millions to persuade voters to vote for him even though he is not a candidate anywhere. Voters are being bombarded with the Palmer money machine with the message that a vote for Palmer will be good for voters.
He is entitled to spend his own money, he's entitled to be ambitious, but his lack of democratic instincts and his populist policies, especially to spend billions of dollars by printing money, do not deserve support.
You can be certain that Palmer will not be interested in constituent concerns in Tasmania or SA. As MP for Fairfax, he boasts that his attendance in Parliament is voluntary whereas normally MPs believe that their first duty to constituents is to attend parliamentary sittings.
A second concern is that the structure of Palmer's party suggests in practice that a new Palmer MP has a stronger commitment to Palmer personally rather than being fully committed to the electorate. Of course, this issue is not new in party politics but it does seem more acute for Palmer MPs with their absentee landlord.
Third, he shows little respect for the mandate secured by Abbott at the election. In Tasmania Palmer's campaign appears to be particularly focused on stopping Will Hodgman from becoming premier. His antagonism towards Hodgman suggests if Palmer does not secure the balance of power, he wants Labor returned. If that is his game, he should say so.
He is not much more open on his proposed spending spree, starting with more ferries between Tasmania and the mainland. His claim that his ferry service will be like the ferries that cross the English Channel is odd. There is a big difference between crossing the 38-kilometre Channel and making the 392-kilometre trip across Bass Strait. On top of that, Palmer will not say where the money will come from for his ferry scheme.
Worse still, in WA Palmer has advocated more GST funds should be returned to that state, which means fewer dollars for places like Tasmania. Telling one story in one state and a different story elsewhere is too cute by far.
He has tried the same trick by advocating a breakaway new state in north Queensland but without mentioning his plans to voters in other places where people might think that the states should be abolished.
And then there is his plan to abolish higher education fees. Once again he offers no answer to the question of how he can pay for his plan. The truth is that he has no answer and he demonstrates once again that populism is his principal modus operandi. But free education is small beer for the big man.
His most irresponsible policy is that the government should be turning on the printing presses to the tune of $70 billion. The US has such a program. It intends to cut it back and its rationale was high unemployment. Australia does not have that issue and we have gross domestic product growth of nearly 3 per cent. It would be folly in the extreme to massively increase Australia's already large deficits and debt. Our AAA rating would be at risk, our interest rates would most likely be pushed upwards and we would be more vulnerable to economic downturn.
Needless to say, this Palmer thought bubble is a guide to his unimpressive populism. At a time when economic reform and fiscal responsibility is more important than ever, Palmer is a man out of his depth and drowning in his own ego.
Peter Reith was a Howard government minister and is a Fairfax columnist.