Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Evolving Genius of Clive Palmer, MP

It's a topsy-turvy kind of day.

Scott Morrison is playing humanitarian, releasing 150 asylum seeker children from mainland detention centres on bridging visas (some 300 will remain offshore in Nauru and Christmas Island) and Barnaby Joyce is lecturing Clive Palmer on restraint in media interviews after the Member for Fairfax's colourful broadside against China on last night's Q&A.

To say Clive Palmer is an interesting character would be an understatement. The former LNP life member has been a thorn in the side of the Coalition government and is as energising and engaging as he is unpredictable and chaotic.

A living, breathing contradiction, Palmer stands in stark contrast to the Australian economic and political elite. While Rinehart et al. agitate for third-world pay and conditions from their bastions of western wealth, Palmer has offered support for penalty rates and a decent, basic wage. As the Coalition declared war on welfare, Palmer refused to countenance most of the government's "core" cuts, including those targeting dole payments for the under-30s. With both major political parties trying to out-bluedgeon each other in the asylum seeker stakes, Palmer has called for would-be asylum seekers to be flown in to Australia and processed on the mainland; in his words, given an "opportunity".

It is this contradictory Clive the Populist as opposed to Clive of the Vested Interests that has taken the established political elite by surprise. Sure, there are big question marks over some of Palmer's business dealings (and the ongoing issues with his Chinese investment referenced last night on Q&A), but his political message, which is an enticing mix of liberalism and statist social democracy, is actually much closer to what mainstream Australia desires and the major parties have largely ignored.

In an interesting piece in The Monthly, Richard Cooke looked at this fundamental disconnect between the policies of the political class and the aspirations of the population. The slow divergence between people and parties that began with the Hawke/Keating market reforms of the 1980s is now a fault line; an irrevocable rift, with the 2014/15 federal budget finally fracturing the aspirations of the people from the ambitions of their elected representatives.

Dragged kicking and screaming through the deregulation and market liberalisations of the 1980s, the broader Australian population has been ill-at-ease with its place in the globalised economic world ever since. As Cooke points out, the (neo)liberal vision of Australia promoted by the major parties is actually the opposite to how most people want their country to be:
The public is extremely hostile to privatisation and foreign investment. We want the government to take measures, up to and including nationalisation, that will protect local jobs and manufacturing. We want more spending on health care and are willing to pay higher taxes to fund it. We support regulation, and we think big business has far too much power. (read the full article here)
How many time have we been told - by both sides of politics - that "our" economy is "world-class", only to see entire sectors suffer massive job losses, shut down and go off-shore. This, we were told, was the price of globalisation. Sure, a few inefficient industries may close, but you can now buy t-shirts and plastic clothes pegs at a fraction of the price. Re-training, re-skilling and re-tooling. In the end, everyone's a winner! 

Except we're not. With the mining boom winding down and the Coalition government taking an axe to the fundamental base of the welfare state (and leaving the bloat intact), Australians are beginning to wonder what all the pain of deregulation was for. At the moment, Palmer is one of the only voices in Canberra articulating the aspirations of a large chunk of Australia. Palmer's denunciation of China (while coated in self-interest, lacking subtlety, eloquence and any sort of tact) speaks to the large portion of skeptical Australians. Skeptical about, literally, selling the farm.

For some, Clive Palmer's colourful outburst will confirm their worst thoughts of the Member for Fairfax - the LNP will do their darndest to convey this viewpoint. But for many in the broader electorate, Palmer's words will ring true, reflecting a growing concern in the community on the future direction of Australian society.

To the major parties: ignore at your peril.

One last thing: "...emotive and colourful language is not the way to do business," said Barnaby Joyce with a straight face today. Not quite sure how. Here's a few of the Member for New England's greatest hits.

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