Inside the rise of Clive Palmer

As the Palmer United Party takes centre stage in the Senate, James Supple and Adam Adelpour look at what’s behind Clive Palmer’s games

Clive Palmer’s circus is in full swing, with the Palmer United Party (PUP) taking up a key position of power in the new Senate.

In its first outing at the polls in last year’s federal election, the Palmer party grabbed over 11 per cent of the vote in Queensland and 6 per cent nationally.

Clive Palmer, owner of a multi-billion dollar business empire, is an unlikely populist. He has made a name for himself with wild claims and announcements that have grabbed media headlines. Prior to the election he even declared that Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife Wendi Deng was a Chinese spy. His pet projects include the Palmersaurus dinosaur park in Queensland and a full size working replica of the Titanic.

But he has also shown himself to be a canny political operator. Palmer is no political novice, serving as Queensland National Party campaign director during arch-conservative Joh Bjelke Peterson’s 1983 state election win and as media spokesman in its successful 1986 election campaign.

Palmer’s climate change announcement in late June managed to both please those who wanted the carbon tax gone, as well as wedge Abbott and position himself as a climate hero. Palmer has promised to maintain climate programs including the Renewable Energy Target, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Climate Change Authority, as well as support an Emissions Trading Scheme if Australia’s key trading partners go the same way. Palmer, a self-declared climate change sceptic, even managed to convince Al Gore to help spruik the announcement, with Gore labelling it an “extraordinary moment”.

Tony Abbott now needs the support of the three Palmer United Party Senators to pass any legislation that both Labor and The Greens oppose. Palmer has also boosted his Senate numbers further through an alliance with the Motoring Party’s Ricky Muir.

This raises some questions—how did a billionaire, whose main interest is in his own profiteering, succeed in winning any political support? What’s the real agenda behind his populist bid for influence?

Populist politics

Clive Palmer’s personal fortune has allowed the PUP to spend big on political advertising. In the WA Senate election re-run in March Palmer more than doubled the spending on TV ads of The Greens, Labor and the Liberals combined. He poured around $3 million into his federal election campaign.

But advertising alone does not explain political success. Palmer uses populism to appeal to the disgust with mainstream politics, declaring that, “politicians don’t care about you, your family or your future. All they care about it getting re-elected”. He presents himself as speaking up for all those who feel ignored by a self-serving political establishment.

Disenchantment with the political system has grown as a result of the bipartisan commitment to neo-liberal policies of cuts, privatisation, outsourcing, commercialisation and deregulation that have eroded living standards. The loss of support has been most acute for Labor, with its traditional support base among workers and the poor.

Labor’s embrace of neo-liberalism after the Hawke government came to power in 1983 has turned many former working class Labor voters against the party. In 1983, 65 per cent of manual workers voted for the ALP, but by the time they were voted out in 1996 the figure had fallen to 44 per cent and the party had lost 10,000 members.

The Hawke and Keating Labor governments cut wages and undermined union power through the Accord, with the wages share of the economy declining from 61.5 to 55 per cent. And at the same time the company tax rate was slashed from 49 per cent to 36 per cent, as the average CEO pay ballooned to what it is now—100 times that of the average worker.

The Rudd and Gillard governments continued this legacy through cutbacks to single parents’ payments and universities as well as WorkChoices lite.

Palmer talks up the kind of government spending that Labor and the Liberals have long abandoned. At the federal election he promised to hand back an extra $2500 a year to every person by cutting income tax, said there should be a boost to the pension and an extra $80 billion put into health. Palmer has repeatedly talked up the need for increased government spending to stimulate the economy.

He has dismissed Treasurer Joe Hockey’s debt crisis as a “fairy tale” and accused him of serving up a “brutal budget built on a lie”. Palmer outdid both Labor and The Greens by being one of only two lower house MPs to vote against the budget appropriation bills, indicating he would be prepared to block supply.

He has given every indication he wants to make life difficult for Tony Abbott. Clive has pledged to oppose many budget measures, including the $7 Medicare co-payment.

But one thing is for certain Clive will be looking after himself. Palmer argues for lower taxation across the board, including lower company tax and has already voted to end the mining tax.

Palmer has also shown a capacity to change his mind from day to day, whether over climate policy or university fee deregulation, which he said he would support until reversing his position days later.

Palmer won big votes at the federal election in a number of areas hit hard by poverty and job losses. Tasmanian PUP Senator Jaquie Lambie won her highest vote, of around 10 per cent, in the North West of Tasmania.

This is an area where pulp and paper mills that once employed thousands in small towns like Burnie and Devonport have shut down. Caterpillar, who make mining machinery, cut 400 jobs and shut down manufacturing that supported 4000 households in the area in 2013. These areas are facing 10 per cent unemployment.

When Caterpillar shut down, Centrelink had to send people up to the factory three weeks in advance to start processing them. Centrelink would have been overrun by the hundreds made jobless otherwise.

Sadly, the failure of either Labor or the Liberals to save jobs, and the failure of The Greens nationally to take up working class issues has created fertile ground for a right-wing politician like Clive Palmer to fill the space with populist promises.

Inside the PUP

Until he formed PUP Palmer was an important figure in the LNP in Queensland. He was made a life member of the Queensland National Party in 1992 and donated $850,000 in his last full year as a member.

But Palmer fell out with Queensland’s Campbell Newman government after it won power in 2012. He was angered by decisions—tellingly, including a tax increase on coal mining in Newman’s first budget, and the refusal to give Palmer preferential treatment for business deals in property on the Sunshine Coast and a new rail corridor development in the coal-rich Galilee basin.

Palmer was almost expelled from the LNP after a series of strident attacks on Newman’s government after this.

Underneath Palmer’s populism is a traditional, right-wing, pro-business Liberal philosophy. PUP’s policy program has whole sections literally copy and pasted from the Liberals’ program. PUP says it stands for “the creation of wealth and in competitive enterprise”, “reducing taxation” and “the family”. His populism has a decidedly nationalist tinge, as he constantly talks of the need to “work together for the benefit of our country” and declares “we’re all Australians”.

Palmer’s whole history has been of using politics and political connections to serve his business interests. In the 1980s he used his links to the National Party to have local council decisions overturned so he could push through townhouse developments.

In many ways the PUP is an extension of Clive’s business empire. Many PUP candidates are managers of various Palmer businesses. Dio Wang, its Senator for Western Australia, was managing director of Palmer’s Australasian Resources before his election. Other PUP candidates have included Ian Ferguson (Managing director of Queensland Nickel), Clive Mensink (a senior executive at Mineralogy) and Bill Schoch (manager of Palmer’s Coolum Resort).

A number of other PUP candidates are right-wing independents who have hitched themselves to Palmer to fund their election campaigns. Jacqui Lambie, the new PUP Senator for Tasmania, ran for pre-selection for the Liberals before selling her house to run as an independent. Explaining why she joined the Palmer Party Lambie told the media, “To be honest I was running out of money”.

The PUP is structured to serve Clive’s personal ends. Its constitution is completely un-democratic and effectively gives him the right to make all important decisions on policy. He has chosen his Senators, in the hope they will be easy to line up behind whatever backroom deals or policy turns benefit himself.

Clive has not invested millions in his new political party simply for amusement’s sake. At some point he will look to secure a payout for his companies through his newfound power. He own business practices give an indication of his real attitude towards workers and class issues. He has sacked over 400 staff at the Coolum Resort since buying it in 2011. His company Queensland Nickel has set up its own stevedoring company to drive down wages and conditions on the waterfront, and is refusing to offer workers any pay rise this year.

There is an enormous contradiction between the billionaire’s personal business interests and his rhetoric about fighting for the little guy. Despite his bluster, Palmer is no real friend of working class people. He is a self-interested and unscrupulous mining baron in it for his own gain. If Clive frustrates Abbott’s budget cuts, it is no bad thing. But his ability to channel discontent is due to Labor’s failure but also that of The Greens, whose role in minority government with Labor led them to compromise with the parliamentary game that so many people despise.

Clive’s support needs to be undercut from the left. A rise in class struggle, with workers across the country on strike against Abbott, is not going to be welcomed by a mining boss like Clive Palmer. This kind of fightback would give people a real outlet for their anger and expose Palmer for what he really is.


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