Recently I was asked to speak at a dinner organised by a book publishing company. It was a gathering of literate-types with a keen interest in Australian politics.
After my speech, I was taken around to each of the tables, answering questions about the new Parliament in Canberra. There was one universal subject of curiosity. It didn’t concern the prime minister or opposition leader. At every table, the guests wanted to know more about Clive Palmer – his motives, his policies, his personality.
On the sideshow alley of federal politics, he’s our answer to the Elephant Man, a grotesquely fascinating creature. Initially, people try to avert their eyes, but drawn in by his strangeness, they end up spellbound, wanting to know how he came to be so different.
What they are actually doing is staring into a mirror. Australia’s political class – in particular, those who sustain the 24-hour news cycle – created Palmer. Sure, he’s an eccentric character who knows how to pull off a media stunt, but ultimately, his brand of big money/big personality politics would not be possible without news outlets that hunger for political novelty.
Under growing commercial pressure, the mainstream media have fewer resources with which to do more work, to fill the space of the 24-hour cycle. Reading policy documents and listening to parliamentary speeches is too time-consuming. The easiest, most entertaining way of reporting politics is to visit sideshow alley, to highlight the weirdest act in town.
Within the major parties, most of the authentic parliamentary characters have disappeared, replaced by heavily scripted machine apparatchiks. When interviewed on Sky News, their monotonous dirge is on open display, parroting the party line of the day. In the serious business of trying to win government, there is zero tolerance of MPs who go “off-message” and freelance on policy issues.
Accordingly, a niche market has opened up for crossbench infotainment politicians – independent MPs who attract publicity by offering the media colour and movement. It’s not just the Palmer phenomenon. Walk right up and see the astounding Mad Hatter, a North Queensland original. Then, further along sideshow alley, try to spot the Invisible Man, hurling kangaroo poo on behalf of the nation’s motoring enthusiasts.
A large part of Palmer’s electoral appeal comes from the novelty of his media appearances. As public disillusionment with the major parties has grown, a certain kind of voter has emerged. They are disinterested in the details of politics, but strongly committed to anyone who appears to be “shaking up the system”.
Even though he comes from a Liberal/National Party and big business background, Palmer is seen as an anti-establishment figure. His buffoonery aside, he has skilfully positioned himself as an outsider to the Canberra club.
He speaks his mind and uses language most people can understand.
In many ways, he is reminiscent of the Pauline Hanson phenomenon in the late 1990s – a political leader who, despite obvious shortcomings, has the virtue of authenticity. As with Hanson, Palmer is stripping support away from the Coalition, appealing to earthy blue-collar conservatives.
In 1998, to combat the One Nation threat, Tony Abbott established a slush fund, Australians for Honest Politics, to bankroll legal action against Hanson. Today, the nation’s right-wing establishment is pushing back against Palmer in a more conventional way, using the resources of The Australiannewspaper to dig into his business affairs and expose inconsistencies in his public statements.
So far, none of this has harmed the Elephant Man. He brushes aside any inconsistencies as yesterday’s news and, as the 24-hour cycle rolls forward, it’s an effective strategy.
Like Hanson, the biggest threat to the Palmer party will come from within. It’s hard to see his Senate team holding together. The problem with right-wing mavericks is that they don’t like people telling them what to do – a natural aversion to party discipline.
Eventually, this will be the greatest freak show of all: watching the Palmer people turn on each other.
Mark Latham is a former leader of the federal Australian Labor Party. He is a regular columnist at the Australian Financial Review.