You are in trouble, as a rule, when Barnaby Joyce is advising you on diplomacy. But there he was this week, rebuking Clive Palmer for remarks made about the Chinese. “You can’t blame the Chinese for being tough business people,” Joyce said. “That’s what business is about.”
Consider this in the context of Joyce’s previous contribution to foreign relations, on a 2012 trip to the US to refine his Infrastructure Partnership Scheme: “While getting into a cab on the way to a meeting with a New York banker I heard that sinking tear noise emanating from my strides with a new fresh breezy free feeling. I knew I was in real strife… I was wearing red grundies.”
Or go a little further back, to 2009, when Joyce was opposition finance spokesman and saying state-owned Chinese companies should be barred from investment in the resources sector. “The difference between a corporation and a government is governments have armies, seats at the United Nations and can say the word ‘no’ and you can’t do much about it when they do,” he said. “This is a confusion I don’t want my nation to get into.”
Palmer’s problem with the Chinese is not political. It is pure business. He is in a protracted legal dispute with China’s state-owned investment company, Citic Pacific, over royalty payments and the use of an iron ore port at Cape Preston in Western Australia. The Chinese money that once flowed easily into his mining projects is becoming more difficult to get.
When he called the Chinese “mongrels” and “bastards” on Monday night he was hoping to win in public a battle he is losing in the courts. And what he said was fairly categorical. He even clarified it as he spoke: “I’m saying that because they’re communist, they shoot their own people, they haven’t got a justice system and they want to take over this country. And we’re not going to let them.”
But the political impact of this is minor. Certainly, it is nothing like Tony Abbott’s open fondness for Japan, or Julie Bishop’s decision to haul the Chinese ambassador into her office for a dressing down.
But for a government in desperate need of a distraction, the comments were manna from heaven.
So Joe Hockey calls the statements “hugely damaging”, untroubled by the fact they are not. Bishop made time to criticise them, as did trade minister Andrew Robb. The premier of resource-rich Western Australia, Colin Barnett, even says he will apologise to the Chinese personally.
All this is mere distraction, but Palmer’s problems are not. The more imperilled his finances become, the more erratic he becomes. This does not bode well for the stability of the parliament and his grotesquely disproportionate influence over it.
Joyce patched his trousers with a safety pin his wife offered him – “I looked like and felt like I was wearing a nappy,” he recalled – but Palmer’s business operations will not be so easily repaired.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 23, 2014 as "Calculated diversion". Subscribe here.