Fairfax MP Clive Palmer

Fairfax MP Clive Palmer Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Clive Palmer's attempt to disparage a political enemy by publicly diagnosing him with bipolar disorder is inexcusable, and unbecoming of anyone wishing to play a constructive role in public life.

The disgraceful tactic in making unsubstantiated mental health claims about Queensland Premier Campbell Newman is all the more galling in light of Palmer's attempt last year to portray himself as the compassionate defender of the well-being of public servants sacked by the state government.

The newly elected federal member for Fairfax, who likes to talk about uniting the country and judging people on the content of their character, last week derided Newman as ''a nice little fellow with a bipolar condition [who] sometimes doesn't take his medication''.

Newman branded the comments as ''insensitive'' and reflective of ''a total lack of empathy towards people who are actually dealing with the condition''.

Mental health groups who are trying to help people overcome the stigma of conditions such as bipolar disorder – which can involve severe mood swings – were similarly unimpressed. They say with the right treatment the majority of people can lead normal and productive lives.

But on Tuesday, Palmer was unrepentant and claimed to have been misreported.

''When I said Campbell Newman was bipolar I wasn't being derogatory about him having a bipolar condition, I was being derogrative [sic] about the fact that he wasn't taking his medication, right?''

Again, this claim was made at a media conference without a shred of evidence – and hardly absolves him of responsibility for trying to turn mental health into a political plaything.

Palmer went on to acknowledge that people with bipolar ''can perform quite well in society provided they maintain their medication". He then, absurdly, tried to claim the moral high ground.

''I think you'd have to say it's a serious matter when you see the suicides that took place in Queensland last year when so many public servants were sacked and for people in public office they should exercise their authority with some prudence to make sure this sort of thing doesn't happen.''

Note the reference to prudence.

Palmer has cultivated a reputation as a maverick who shakes things up, with his new Palmer United Party finding strong favour with voters disillusioned with the major parties.

And since last year the former Liberal National Party donor has developed a long list of grievances with Newman, including the Queensland government's rejection of his Galilee Basin rail proposal, claims about improper influence of lobbyists and a view the state government was exaggerating the state's debt and deficit.

In many cases Newman's opponents have cheered Palmer on, and by all means he is entitled to be a vigorous advocate for the policies on which he was elected. But all decent people should recognise Palmer's mental health slurs go too far.

Palmer's conduct in this matter invites a broader self-reflection on the part of the media.

When Palmer says something completely ridiculous, should we report his comments, on the basis that the public has a right to know what their suddenly powerful MP is saying? Or should we be more discerning about which of Palmer's statements trigger a news article?

With press conferences often broadcast live to air on Sky News and ABC News 24, it is arguably difficult to ignore Palmer's statements, even if they are as offensive as the bipolar comments.

Palmer has previously admitted that he is not perfect, urged everyone to treat others with compassion and said people should be prepared to apologise when they made mistakes.

In this case he should unreservedly withdraw his comments about Newman – against whom he has plenty of other political arguments he is perfectly entitled to prosecute.

The many Australians who face stigma and prejudice as they deal with mental health conditions deserve much better.

If you need immediate assistance, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about mental illness, contact SANE Australia 1800 187 263 or www.sane.org or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or www.beyondblue.org.au.