Clive Palmer may yet save the federal government from itself and one-term government.
For the moment he seems to be completely frustrating the government. That's not so much over his antics and public relations stunts over the carbon tax as by the way that he is picking and choosing which, if any, Hockey budget nasties will be allowed to survive. He is grandstanding as just the man who might save ordinary decent citizens from all of the bad news in the Abbott-Hockey economic plan for much tightened government expenditure, reduced levels of goods and services, and reduced debt and deficits.
As things stand, the government is struggling even to get the idea of its budget through the Parliament. As things stand, once supply of a sort is granted, there may be a gap of more than $60 billion between what the government wanted and what it will have achieved. The government's economic strategy is, as things stand, in ruins.
In one respect, it is a bit rough to blame all of this on the Palmer United Party alone. If anything, the reputation of the budget out in the wider community, and in Coalition constituencies as much as Labor ones, is in even worse odour than it is in the Parliament. The government's senior economic spokesmen have completely failed to persuade the public either that harsh measures generally are necessary so as to address the problem of government deficits, or that specifically harsh measures, in, say, health and education are appropriate. Public opinion seems also to vehemently reject the central idea that Hockey has distributed equally among all classes of the population the pain and the benefit and opportunities.
Abbott has two years to retrieve his position, but If recent opinion polls are any guide, he and his government, and his economic strategy, are completely on the nose, and the position is going to be hard if not impossible to retrieve.
Palmer and his senators are unwilling to be associated with any harsh or unpopular medicine being applied to the economy. They also appreciate that their undoubted power means they will be blamed, in some quarters, for anything unpopular allowed to sneak through.
Like the public, they do not accept that harsh medicine is necessary: the economy could be in far better condition, but it is not the basket case that the government would pretend. Second, they say they simply cannot countenance any tough measures which could hurt aged pensioners, old diggers, diggers' widows and children, poor people going to the doctor, or those attending university. It is very easy to be the champion of the battler, and Palmer is doing it even better than Labor, which, after all, has some form for applying just the same sort of medicine that Abbott is now trying to administer.
Every budget measure turned down by PUP is virtually guaranteed to make it more popular. Nor, from its point of view, is it being particularly irresponsible, or merely populist, since it is not, or is not yet, an alternative party of government. The function of PUP senators is to attract the ultimate loyalty of 14 per cent of the vote, not 50 per cent. Every unsuccessful measure or rejection of some Coalition attempt to pander to one of its lobbies, such as the big banks, reinforces the government's unpopularity and increases Palmer's popularity and scrapbook.
A pragmatic government might think that it had to face reality and to reshape its budget to practical circumstances. To have a mini-budget more aligned with public opinion and what can be wrestled through the Senate. And to calm the worries of a business community increasingly uneasy about the government's incapacity to keep things ticking over. Abbott could even create a legend of a tough and principled party willing and eager to do the right thing, even at some political risk, deterred only by roadblocks created by its enemies. In this sense the Coalition could claim credit for its successes, say, with boat people, disown responsibility for anything bad about the state of the economy, but be no longer carrying the odium of the Medicare co-payments, higher education fees, slower rates of increase of pensions and so on. They could thank Palmer each night in their secret prayers.
By contrast, Labor might be regretting that it followed Abbott down the path of total opposition. It might not be enough for Labor to paint the Coalition as the party that, at one stage at least, wanted to have a Medicare co-payment, particularly if Abbott later blandly declared that he longer had any such intention. Or with pensions, increased tertiary fees or any of the other future changes which have made the present government so unpopular. Right now it would suit Labor's interests better if all of the horror items went into legislation, albeit without any help from Labor. That way, it could go into the next election promising little more than a reversal of such badly judged and poorly argued measures, and quite possibly win on that alone.
Even the Greens might have some occasion for considering their strategy in terms of the state of play. There are more Greens than members of the PUP, but right now Palmer and the PUP are getting all of the attention because the power of the Greens (with Labor) is not enough for a majority. Only when PUP members join with Labor and the Greens can government legislation or government policy be frustrated, and whenever that happens, Palmer sucks all of the oxygen from the environment.
At the moment, the Greens are doing reasonably well in the opinion polls, particularly in Western Australia. It is likely, however that their gains are at the expense of Labor, while Labor's general improvement is mostly at the expense of the Coalition. The Greens do well from protest by Labor-oriented voters who cannot stomach Labor's refugee and human rights policy, but who will hardly contemplate voting for the Coalition. But the Greens also troll for votes in a larger field of voters (now about 30 per cent of the electorate) who reject all mainstream parties, and who allocate votes among small parties and independents. The risk for the Greens is that in the present circumstances, everyone is talking about Palmer and hardly anyone about them. That creates the risk, suffered by the Australian Democrats several elections ago, of coming to be seen as irrelevant.
Palmer will always do better from denying his vote to the Coalition, or by putting so many conditions on legislation that it comes to be seen as his, rather than the Coalition's. And he has his own axes to grind against specific Coalition figures. In somewhat the same manner, after the 2010 election, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott were always likely to have more political power over Julie Gillard than as supporters of an Abbott government. The risk of being denounced as a rat balances against the constant publicity, the virtues of pretending to be judicious about what is good and what bad, for the ordinary voter, and the constant capacity to grandstand on populist causes, including the need for concerted market interventions to prop up particular sections of the economy, or particular regions within it. Consistency, generally, is neither asked for nor expected from the constituent supporters, and a certain disdain by professional political observers and the political class actually adds to the reputation.
In that sense, Abbott might as well be playing in the charade, denouncing Palmer's fecklessness, irresponsibility and habit of being all things at once to all people. Palmer already has the incalculable advantage among his constituents of being the devil incarnate as far as TheAustralian is concerned. He could probably get his party into the Nick Xenophon class – of winning quotas in its own right – if he could also gain constant vituperation from Alan Jones and Ray Hadley as well.