With Clive Palmer and a handful of backroom advisers calling the senate shots, some Nationals have decided it’s time to ‘muscle up’. By Sophie Morris.

Nationals urge tougher tactics as Clive Palmer plays centre

Clive Palmer with his PUP senators: (from left) Dio Wang, Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus.
Clive Palmer with his PUP senators: (from left) Dio Wang, Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus.
It was Ron Boswell’s parting wish. The veteran Nationals senator spent his final weeks in parliament warning of the dangers of the Palmer United Party and urging his colleagues to stand up to them.

Now, after seeing the new senate descend into chaos in its first two sitting weeks, some National Party senators have resolved to muscle up to Clive Palmer and his senators, potentially making Tony Abbott’s job even harder.

These discussions, at senior levels of the Nationals, are in part a recognition that the party is competing with the PUP for voters, particularly in outer urban areas of south-east Queensland. 

Palmer is very focused on the state election in Queensland next year.

“Ultimately they’re our competitors and it’s a political battleground,” says one Nationals source. “We’ve made a decision we need to go after them a bit more.”

This strategy may complicate the Abbott government’s bid to increase pressure on crossbenchers to pass controversial budget measures. 

This week, Treasurer Joe Hockey began meeting with crossbench senators. But again, Palmer appeared to steal a march on the government, demanding Hockey present a revised mini-budget or go to a double dissolution election. 

An early election seems unlikely, so a revised budget may be the government’s only option, given staunch senate opposition to current proposals and the PUP’s insistence on retaining $9 billion of measures linked to the mining tax.

Another Nationals source acknowledges frustration within the party that the PUP seems to be getting a “free run”, but says there are also “cooler heads” who realise it is important to keep channels open to pursue the government’s legislative agenda.

Boswell, who famously stood up to One Nation in 2001, has argued that the PUP is nothing but a “cult” and that Clive Palmer is making a mockery of the parliament with his constant gimmicks.

The Nationals senate whip Barry O’Sullivan, who was the LNP’s treasurer in Queensland when Palmer was the party’s biggest donor, says he still retains “quite a lot of affection for Clive”. 

“However, I do think I need to speak out on some aspects of Clive’s approach and provide him with unsolicited advice,” he says. “What is clear is they [the PUP senators] are not the architects of what’s happening. The genesis of ideas and strategies is coming purely from Clive and a handful of backroom advisers.

“I say to the PUP senators: you need to get out there and have a listen to your constituency, not just to Clive. Wherever I go, business people are saying we have instability and uncertainty. They are sick and tired of the mixed messages.”

Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, who is no longer in the senate, says the Nationals have every right to “muscle up” on policy but should avoid personal attacks, which could engender public sympathy for the PUP as the underdog. 

Regarding the PUP senators, Joyce says: “The Australian people will make their own judgement about whether you conduct yourself with the dignity that befits having that red pin in your lapel.”

The PUP’s Tasmanian senator, Jacqui Lambie, recently raised eyebrows with a radio interview commenting on the anatomical assets of her ideal man. 

The Nationals’ new senator for Queensland, Matthew Canavan, has criticised the PUP senate leader, Glenn Lazarus, for failing to defend clerk of the senate Rosemary Laing after Palmer attacked her.

“It’s all fine for Clive to try and bully people who can’t respond or reply,” Canavan told The Courier-Mail. “But he’s not actually their leader in the senate and Glenn Lazarus at some point needs to come out of hiding and let people know where he stands on things like this, because the clerk has a very important position and it should be a position above controversy.”

Lazarus’s chief-of-staff, Bernie Schmitz, says: “He won’t be making any comment on that. And if he has comment, it will be via press release.”

Some lobby groups seeking to consult or influence the PUP are unsure how to approach the party’s three senators: Lazarus, Dio Wang and Lambie. The government needs their support, plus three of the other five crossbenchers, to pass measures opposed by Labor and the Greens.

Palmer himself has declared he will not listen to lobbyists. He incensed the National Seniors Association by backing the government’s financial advice laws without consulting them, reducing consumer protections.

Palmer was unperturbed. “I’ve been dealing with banks for 40 years, and lobbyists and advisers,” he said last month. “I didn’t become a billionaire by listening to advisers tell me how to do it who don’t earn half as much.”

A PUP spokesman says: “In regards to lobbyists, the party has no interest in speaking with them but the party will consider all issues or concerns citizens may have based on its merits.”

The first fortnight of the new senate showed decisions will often be made on the hop, as the government’s legislative agenda changes and the new crossbenchers learn the ropes.

This presents a dilemma for groups with a legitimate interest in trying to shape policy outcomes. 

After being denied a meeting room in Parliament House, the party has set up its Canberra headquarters at the National Press Club, a short distance away. These offices are overseen by Lazarus’s wife, Tess Sanders Lazarus.

Other key contact people in the party include Wang’s chief-of-staff, Chamonix Terblanche, who was his running mate on the WA senate ticket. John Clements, who was an adviser to former independent MP Tony Windsor, is also working for Wang.  

Lambie’s chief-of-staff is Rob Messenger, a former state LNP politician in Queensland, who quit the party and then lost his seat. He made his name in Queensland pursuing the “Dr Death” scandal. Palmer has the former head of his Queensland Nickel operations, Phil Collins, as his chief-of-staff.

In the topsy-turvy world of the PUP, perhaps it should be no surprise that it is the least likely group that has had the most success thus far in influencing Palmer. 

Before Palmer appeared on stage with Al Gore in June, few people in Parliament House realised that the left-wing think tank The Australia Institute had forged an alliance with the coal magnate.

When the federal election last September delivered a motley senate crossbench, the institute’s executive director Richard Denniss saw opportunity where others saw chaos.    

Denniss knows about balance-of-power politics, having previously worked as an adviser to the Australian Democrats and the Greens.

“The increasing obsession with who the prime minister is disguises an important fact,” he says. “The prime minister doesn’t determine policy, the parliament does. Whether it’s the Greens on the carbon price, the Democrats on the GST or the 1996 industrial relations deal, or [Mal] Colston and [Brian] Harradine on Telstra, big policy in Australia is shaped by minor parties.”

Holding little hope of changing the mind of a staunchly conservative prime minister, The Australia Institute decided to target the crossbenchers.

It was part of Denniss’s long-term plan to make the think tank more influential in shaping policy, rather than just providing commentary in the media. 

This strategy paid off. 

The Palmer-Gore appearance was thanks in large part to Ben Oquist, the institute’s director of strategy, a former senior Greens adviser who had come to know Palmer through preference negotiations.

The result was mixed, with Palmer killing off the carbon price, as expected, but preserving other elements of environment policy that would have otherwise been doomed. 

Palmer later launched a report by The Australia Institute on the renewable energy target, which he has committed to preserving, despite a campaign within the Coalition to gut it.

Denniss thinks the Nationals are right to be worried about the PUP.

“People thought that Palmer, as a Queensland mining magnate, equals a right-winger. But in fact Palmer, as a former Queensland National Party identity, seems more like a National Party centrist. Palmer can see there’s a lot of room in the centre.”

For instance, he says Palmer’s decision to block the abolition of the low-income superannuation contribution is smart politics, as well as good policy.

He says five of the six seats that would be hardest hit by abolition of the measure, which provides refunds of up to $500 for superannuation contributions from workers earning $37,000 a year or less, are Nationals seats.

These Nationals seats are Cowper, Lyne and Page in NSW, Mallee in Victoria and Wide Bay in Queensland, where more than 44 per cent of employees could be affected by the repeal of the measure.

The resolve of some Nationals to stand up to the PUP is understandable. But it presents a dilemma for the government.

The Coalition has another three weeks to work out how best to handle the PUP before parliament resumes on August 26. 

In a sign of his scorn for the government, Palmer already regales staff with his impersonations of senior Liberals, including the government’s senate leader Eric Abetz.

Apparently, he has the Tasmanian’s mannerisms and distinctive accent down pat, mimicking and mocking his passion for Impressionist art.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 2, 2014 as "Playing centre".

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Sophie Morris is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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