Opinion

Guy Rundle
The deal with Clive Palmer

“You’re lying to me! You’re lying to me!” “Yes, I know! But hear me out!” – Hollywood agents’ conversation

True story. A friend of mine, years ago, wrote a musical that did very well indeed, largely due to the ability of his friend, the producer, to hustle support and find money. Spending 18 hours a day getting the show right, the writer barely paid attention to the financial arrangements – until the evening celebrating the 200th night of the show, when everyone turned up to a gala celebration at a hotel, to find the hotel closed, the office locked and the bank accounts cleaned out. By now, the producer was in New York, out of reach. When he came back six years later, he and the writer met in the street, and the producer uttered those immortal words: “I’ve got backers. Working on anything good?” And now they’re working together again, albeit with the writer a little more circumspect. 

Why do that? Because there was a deal there. It was about what could happen in the future, and they were deal-makers. For musicals, read property, mining, media, you name it. Deal-makers, who live in the commercial world, see the deal as what they do. As all they do. And though you may learn from past rip-offs, the mere fact of it will not stop you dealing again. Each deal is like Leibniz’s monad, the basic unit of the universe, independent in space and time.

Which brings us, of course, to Clive Palmer, the man who was more or less prime minister for a week a month ago when Slow Joe Hockey was on holiday, and Tony Abbott had done what he always does in a crisis – run away, in this case to pose with the Japanese PM. For the commentariat, Palmer was more or less inexplicable – erratic, bumptious, contradictory, focused solely on his own publicity, a rube. Yet somehow, by the end of this sitting fortnight, the only two major multipart pieces of legislation – the carbon tax repeal omnibus and the Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) regulation bill – had gone through in the form he wanted. The Palmer United Party had created an image of itself as at the very centre of the balance of power, and Palmer was seen as both the bloke who killed the carbon tax and the one who had saved the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. God knows what would happen if he was, in the assessment of the political elite, competent.

How have so many smart people managed to get this so wrong, from top to bottom? From the Coalition who didn’t start talking to him until a week before the senate sat, to the commentators who never saw his back-and-forth moves coming? The answer is that Palmer brings a deal-maker’s mind to the business of politics, and the two major parties, for all their self-flattery about being Machiavellian realists and so on, don’t. They’re increasingly composed of people who have come into the business from university, are intent on spending their life there, and build up alliances, networks and obligations slowly over many years. Governments come and go and all that changes is the side of the chamber you sit on. 

Palmer comes from a world where you start buying a mine in the morning and by the end of the day you’re swapping a meatworks for part of a shipping line. The deal is fluid, and packages a series of concrete things in an abstract form, which is the deal itself. Every mobile phone sales rep in every shopping mall booth understands what Palmer is doing better than the people he and his party are dealing with in the senate. The object is not merely to get what you want, but to keep your opponent constantly off-balance, to have them on the floor weeping by the end of the process. Given the demeanour of some of the Coalition as the carbon tax repeal went through, you would have to say it was a resounding tactical success.

Having tried to read too much into Palmer’s strategic and tactical moves, the parliamentary establishment spent too little time thinking about what he really wanted. The simple argument was that the sum total of Palmer’s motivation was a vendetta against Campbell Newman after a falling out within the Queensland Liberal National Party, and that his means was an anti-political populism. But is anyone so really, wholly, driven by vendettas that they embark on the creation of a whole political party? Or is it more the case that such a motive acts as a spark to fire reserve engines into life? Taking that idea as plausible, it’s worth considering the possibility that the content of Palmer’s ideas is more than a pretext. 

The fact is, nothing in Clive Palmer’s broader political position seems contradictory. He never made any secret of wanting to repeal the carbon and mining taxes, but he also made it clear that he wanted a more humane asylum seeker regime than the one proposed by the Coalition at the election. That he has suddenly become an opponent of many of the government’s proposed budget cuts was not forecast, because none of the budget cuts had themselves been forecast, due to Abbott’s explicit contrary promises to the electorate. 

 Palmer’s subsequent position – that the deficit and debt are low by global standards, money is cheap for a AAA-rating country, and nothing warrants the unfairness and cruelty of the proposed changes – is perfectly consistent with a centre-right Menzies liberalism. Nothing in his LNP past contradicts this, since no Australian government has ever proposed a budget as neoliberal and contrary to the notion of the fair go as this one. A glance at Palmer’s life – a youth not without its hippie elements, followed by wild success in real estate sales, launching him into the life of the deal – gives one an idea of the man’s complexity. His obsession with JFK and centrist progressive liberal ideals of the postwar era seems long lasting and genuine.

There appears to be no reason to suppose that his insistence on retaining the social provisions that were attached to the mining tax – superannuation reform and the schoolkids bonus, among others – has the dual aim of cleaving to a certain politics, while putting the Abbott government in a very difficult position indeed. But nor is there any doubt that Palmer will do a deal on that, without the slightest compunction about guarantees he’s given prior. Indeed, he may package up his demands in a whole new way, while the Coalition tries to catch up. For a deal-maker, the deal is the only thing that’s real – the rest is mere words around it.

The parliamentary establishment have confused themselves by labelling Palmer’s policies populist. They ain’t. It was clear from the somewhat bemused reaction of many of the Fairfax voters who attended his dinosaurs’n’Elvis weekend of political talks at Coolum – Chairman Clive’s Yunnan redoubt – that his relaxed attitude to the deficit and his demand for a less sadistic refugee policy does not go down well with many of his past or potential future voters. They are much more favourable to the idea the debt needs reining in, these dole bludgers, etc.

Populists, by definition, don’t talk back to their populace, which is what Palmer appears to be doing. His support in Fairfax was personal, and in the senate was a product of the Hare-Clark system and a residual anti-political vote. He has little in common with the Queensland populist tradition he has been identified with. The parliamentary party–media establishment have become so inherently neoliberal, and so elitist in their view of the split between policymakers and the general public, that they can’t see the PUP position for what it is – a version of the middle-run, economically nationalist, “fair go” and “mateship” version of politics, which has been at the centre of Australian life since the formation of the Labo(u)r party in the 1890s.

In sticking to it, Palmer has staked out a position to the left of Labor and, unlike Bill Shorten, he has a pulse. It may well be the PUP that makes greater gains from the next few weeks than does an opposition that is more than half-sympathetic to Medicare co-payments and free-market tertiary education.

For Palmer and the PUP, this marks both threat and opportunity. Folks wanted the carbon tax gone, and they didn’t know what the Clean Energy Finance Corporation was, so they really don’t care about complex shenanigans around it. But the budget is a different matter, and any deal Palmer made would have to save a great amount of what the government proposes to cut, or face the calumny that he is “just another politician”. 

If he really wants to get out in front of it, the PUP should hold a series of “bust the budget” rallies around the country to capitalise on the deep opposition that it has stirred in the public. But that would also commit Palmer to a position that he would be less able to change on the fly. 

He may also play a more cautious role, one that gives him scope to make a series of deals over the next weeks, until the budget measures are sorted out in the spring session. 

Whatever it is, it won’t be Australian politics as usual. To a party political system that, since 1944, has become an ossified quasi-state apparatus, Palmer and the PUP have brought the instant, mercurial, chaotic, dialectical qualities that people elsewhere recognise as the essence of politics. The old parliamentary hands chuckled at the crossbenches’ ham-fisted control of parliamentary process this past fortnight; they haven’t yet realised that it is they who are still learning the score. At the end of the last parliamentary session, tired old grandees were reassuring themselves that Palmer couldn’t keep up this sort of pace.

Keep it up? This is all he does. This is all he has done for the past 40 years. This show is going to run and run.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 2, 2014 as "The deal with Clive Palmer". Subscribe here.

Guy Rundle
is an author and commentator. His most recent book is Trumped! Election ’16 and the Progressive Collapse.