30 April 2012


Clive Palmer won't succeed in his bid to become Federal MP for Lilley. It doesn't matter how much money he has or what the polls say. He won't do it because the banal activity of campaigning would bore him, and that lack of attentiveness would be detectable even by the most disengaged voter. Any voter who had their doubts about Wayne Swan would be wary of sending a message that they'd prefer the country to be run by someone who regards politics and all other activities as sundry to business.

Whether it's the on-again-off-again float of Resourcehouse in Hong Kong (why will no finance journo look into his skittishness on a matter in which billions of dollars are at stake?), Gold Coast United or his proposal for Not The A-League, Palmer is an absolute dilettante at any activity which does not directly involve mining.
Mr Palmer said there was a need to lift standards in Parliament.

“I think Tony Abbott’s a great leader,” he said.
Now there's a non-sequitur for you, an indication of poor judgment. Look at the performance of Parliament and you cannot make the claim that Abbott, Pyne and other poachers of parliamentary standards will become gamekeepers of parliamentary propriety.

Swan was first elected to represent Lilley in 1993, following a retiring Labor MP in what was then considered a safe seat. The 1996 election saw the biggest swing against Labor in Queensland since Federation; Swan lost Lilley but won it back in 1998 and has held it since.

After 1996 Swan took to the streets, the community organisations and the homes of people in Lilley, working hard and applying a lifetime of campaigning skill to the task. He had been Queensland state secretary of the ALP and was highly regarded for his campaigning skill; had he lost then he'd be history, and [insert counterfactual historical frolic here].

Liberals use safe Labor seats like Lilley to blood inexperienced but promising candidates, or else give long-serving locals a reward. While Palmer has his go that role is closed to the LNP and its aspirants. After the 2010 Federal election and the 2012 state election I'd be surprised if the LNP can uncover vast reserves of yet-untapped talent. Palmer is likely to find the local LNP branches in Lilley to be beneath the level at which he operates, and even if he does humour them at first he didn't get where he is today by listening to people like them.

None of the paid shills he brings in will compensate for the lack of an authentic presence in that community. If he alienates local LNP branch members then his credibility is shot from the outset.

Bob Hawke built a reputation over decades as a highly effective campaigner. One slip in the late 1980s, referring to an old man who talked back to him as a "silly old bugger", stayed with him as an indication that this legendary quality was on the slide. Palmer has no such reputation as a campaigner and it is hard to imagine him running a campaign of such discipline with ordinary members of the public that he is never anything but courteous and sensitive to them at all times, and that he can demonstrate the ability to respectfully disagree with someone.

Despite what the media will tell you, very little of the activity involved in political campaigning is glamorous, or even particularly interesting. The most you can get from a person is their vote; not some huge opportunity, just their vote and with enough of those, all you end up with is something Palmer thinks he's entitled to already. The sheer amount of effort required, day after day, and the sheer lack of reward, will discourage Palmer. Like teaching or nursing, grassroots campaigning is all about public service and if the intrinsic rewards don't keep you going, or if you can't even fake it, people will notice and your campaign is shot.

I've worked with plenty of dud Liberal candidates who thought they were pretty good in other walks of life, and I made a point of targeting pikers at preselection time, building a reputation as both a whinger and someone who put in the effort in election campaigns. There are few worse sins in politics than being small-r right. If I was a Liberal preselector in Lilley I'd be against Palmer and copping plenty of flak in the process, mainly from people who made themselves scarce when hard work was called for, and it would make no difference at all.

Yes, Clive Palmer is a political animal, but so was the only other Australian businessman who can claim greater success beyond this country than he: Rupert Murdoch, who at one stage aspired to a Country Party seat in the NSW Legislative Council. Party discipline will kill Palmer, and the credibility of those who dare to impose it on him. Like Murdoch, Palmer will find other interests more than compensate for never having occupied the parliamentary benches.

That's why it's Michelle Grattan who is cracking hardy when she observes from far-off Canberra:
Swan's seat of Lilley is on 3.2 per cent. Even before the Queensland election it was dicey; now it is potentially diabolical for the ALP.
Not all seats swing evenly, and successive elections do not have the ratchet-like effect that simplistic analysis would have, and besides ... why does it fall to me to point this out to someone who should know better?

It's one thing to expect Palmer to disown his wacky comments about the CIA or whatever, but he will have a harder time fighting off the credibility-leeching attentions of conspiracy theory nutcases. They will see him, if not as their most prominent ally, then certainly as their sugar-daddy. Palmer will hate that but there is nothing he can do about it, which he'll hate even more.

Lilley is within metropolitan Brisbane and therefore he would face little threat from Katter's agrarian insurgency (although it would be interesting to see him deal with duopoly as the reason for high supermarket prices, and what government might do about it). Palmer would, however, have to play nice with those who sit with the Nationals in Federal Parliament. One clash with Barnaby over farmers blocking mining exploration and it's COALITION SPLIT SHOCK. The power that Palmer has spent decades building up is covert power and it simply may not withstand the hyper-public nature of a general election campaign.

The fact that Palmer has not announced that he is standing down from his business roles is significant. He hasn't told the ASX and thereby not risked the wrath of the market for distracting his attention away from the challenges facing his business in order to engage in what increasingly looks like an extended practical joke against Wayne Swan.

Even if he does become MP for Lilley, he will be one of a number of backbenchers from seats that are unlikely to be retained in 2016. Palmer will rail against the irrelevance of the backbench while those from more humble backgrounds take a longer-term and more measured approach. Imagine Barnaby lording it over him as a Minister. If Abbott promoted Palmer straight into the ministry, he would be unable to resist advancing his own business interests ahead of those of Australia more generally.

If Palmer wants to do one thing and Abbott another, it is Abbott who will be unable to resist. Swan's article on billionaires and his statement today about Palmer owning the LNP in Queensland is all very well: Abbott should be his real target. A political assassin like Paul Keating would have shaped a narrative that Abbott is beholden to Palmer, wrenching an asset off the Coalition and turning it into a weapon aimed directly at its leader's heart. Made successfully, this is a charge that Abbott will not succeed in laughing off or ignoring, even with the supine press gallery we have today: working journalists have made their peace with doing whatever billionaires bid them do for the sake of their jobs.

If Swan produces a cracker budget then you can expect Palmer's business interests to turn his head away from politics much more suddenly than might otherwise be the case. If you can persuade all but the silliest journalists to realise this is the most likely option, there's more hope for that profession than is obvious at the moment.

The NDIS will be - could be - hugely beneficial for our country. Clive Palmer promising to build some boats is not in that league, and all the editors who hold the contrary view and get carried away with it are the real problem with our media - but don't get me started.

While the journosphere will shrug off the prospect of Palmer et al running the country for their benefit, voters will not.

Update 1 May: Greg Baum's most excellent piece on Palmer's topsy-turvy view of the world.


  1. Clive Palmer is feeding the chooks. Again. And the chooks keep on lining up to eat.

  2. I agree with Robert - though God knows what Clive thought he was achieving by it. I'm actually a little surprised Andrew that you've chosen to write about it as though it's a serious proposition.

    1. I'm pissed off that it's become a big deal in the media at a time when there is so much going on long-term.

  3. An opinionated billionaire mouthing off about Australian politics is a perfect story for our media. No policy analysis or legwork required, fits comfortably within whichever confected narrative they choose for it and so trivial that no one will remember reading it.

    I'm just surprised the New Ltd papers haven't devoted a column to disseminating Dear Leader's tweets from on high

  4. "why does it fall to me to point this out to someone who should know better?"

    Ha! My 14 year old has been pointing out the obvious errors in Grattan's articles for the past 12 months! I think it's safe to say Grattan's best days are way in the past.

    "I'm just surprised the New Ltd papers haven't devoted a column to disseminating Dear Leader's tweets from on high"

    Dear Leader tweeted about the need for an election on the weekend. Guess what poll News Ltd ran in its papers yesterday? Of course, as with PMs, Dear Leader didn't actually ask for anything from his editors...

  5. It appears that Fairfax today has completely fucking mad.

    Leadership speculation has gone into overdrive, in addition to the tripe being served up regarding Slipper and Palmer. And the thing is, literally NOTHING has happened in the last week. Slipper is being sued, and for some reason this is the supreme fault of Gillard's and she must "fall on her sword".

    The worst part is they know their readers are sick of it. Me thinks the convergence review results are making unhappy editors nationwide.

  6. Why is it the case that no journalist mentions why Palmer was kicked out of the Liberal Party in the mid 1970s?

    And why he took such revenge when he financed the emergence of the LNP?