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QUARTERLY ESSAY 56 Clivosaurus



Richard Denniss

Two-thirds of Australian adults didn’t vote for Tony Abbott. Democracy doesn’t work the way we are told it does, and the conservatives who oppose virtually all constitutional change rage against senators for doing exactly what the framers of the constitution envisaged they would do.

In his illuminating analysis of the history and politics of Clive Palmer, Guy Rundle made none of the above points. But by placing his analysis of the leader of the Palmer United Party (PUP) within a broader analysis of the Australian body politic, Rundle’s essay forces us to look carefully not just at Clive Palmer, but at the performance of our parliamentary democracy in its totality.

Rundle sets himself apart from the pack with his premise that Clive Palmer is an inevitable consequence of the strains our democratic system is under, rather than the cause of those strains. That is, rather than lay the blame for the “chaos” of the current parliament at the feet of the billionaire who “bought his way into parliament,” Rundle instead points the finger at the caste of political insiders whom he sees as so removed from the concerns of ordinary Australians that they are unable to comprehend, let alone respond to, the electoral appeal of Clive Palmer, Nick Xenophon, the Greens or the growing number of independents who find themselves in state and federal parliaments. Rundle brings an outsider’s eye to the insider game of political commentary, and he observes that our democratic emperors are not only stark naked, but in poor health as well.

The clearest evidence that Australia’s democracy is ailing is the fact that in a country with so-called “compulsory” voting, at the 2013 election only 75 per cent of adult Australians cast a valid vote. There are 2.3 million voting-age Australians who are not enrolled to vote (some being residents who never registered for full citizenship, others full citizens who just never registered), a further 1 million who are registered but didn’t bother to show up, and a further 800,000 who voted informally. All up, the 4.1 million adults who cast no valid vote is neck and neck with the 4.3 million who voted for the ALP and is fast closing in on the votes cast for the Coalition.

When you combine those who didn’t vote for Tony Abbott’s Coalition government with those who didn’t vote at all, it becomes obvious why it is so hard to find someone who is enthusiastic about the Abbott government’s “mandate.” Fully two-thirds of adult Australians did not vote for his government at the 2013 election. If the disenfranchised voters of Australia could be bothered forming a political party, it would be a major party.

The accusation that modern politicians are “poll-driven” is now so common that it barely receives examination. Why then, given that 90 per cent of Australians support a ban on junk-food advertising during children’s viewing hours, does neither of our major parties support such a ban? Shouldn’t poll-driven politicians jump on the opportunity to do something that would cost the budget nothing, save the health budget a fortune and make so many voters happy? No chance.

Similarly, given that 99 per cent of Australians earn less than $300,000 per annum, why wouldn’t the major parties support reform of the tax system to raise revenue from the 1 per cent in order to fund services for the 99 per cent? Why wouldn’t the major parties chase votes promising to come down hard on rorting of superannuation and capital-gains tax concessions? Again, no chance.

In examining both the trajectory of Clive Palmer’s political life, and the environment in which he wields political power, Rundle’s essay sheds harsh light on the extent to which the established political parties have silently decided to agree on a wide range of issues. The voting public (and the non-voting public) are significantly more concerned with population growth, free trade agreements, corporate donations and the rise of corporate power in Australia than the leaders of the ALP and the Coalition.

But when neither the prime minister nor the Opposition leader will take an issue seriously, then it is a rare individual or non-government organisation that can manage to get the media to do so. Clive Palmer is one such individual.

While bipartisan political determination to ignore an issue might be enough to silence the media, it is not, however, sufficient to assuage community concern. Indeed, the harder the insiders work to stifle debate on big issues, the more they marginalise the political appeal of the once major parties. Put simply, the major parties’ control over what they talk about is not the same as control over what the public care about.

There is a straightforward economic explanation for the convergence of the ALP and the Coalition on many issues. In 1929 Harold Hotelling spelt out the “principle of minimum differentiation” in order to explain, among other things, why ice-cream vendors on a beach might cluster in the middle of the beach rather than spread out along it.

The principle goes like this: imagine a one-kilometre beach with two ice-cream vendors, each 333 metres from opposite ends. Assuming that sunbathers are evenly spread out along the beach, the vendors’ decision to position themselves in such a way ensures that both vendors will get 50 per cent market share, while minimising the distance that any beachgoer has to carry a melting ice-cream back to their kids.

Now imagine that the southern ice-cream van moves 50 metres closer to the centre of the beach. They will still be the closest to the sunbakers at the southern tip of the beach, but they will also pick up some new customers from the middle. Of course, the rational response of the northern ice-cream van is for it to start heading south, until – you guessed it – both vans wind up parked next to each other in the middle.

While it makes perfect sense for duopolists to cluster near each other, this means that the big players are always vulnerable to “new entrants” taking market share on their flanks. The coalition of the Liberals and the Nationals is specifically designed to manage such splintering on the right, while the ALP and the Greens are unwilling, or unable, to broker a similar deal to divvy up the “left” market and allocate the spoils. (Note: the Nationals, who poll 4 per cent of the primary vote, nominate the deputy prime minister when the Coalition is in government.)

As the major parties chase the same votes in the middle, it is inevitable that they will move further away from their bases. With compulsory preferential voting, however, political parties can do what ice-cream vendors only dream of: they can force people to take the long walk across hot sand to vote for them.

Rundle talks about the mutual benefit that incumbent political parties receive from designing electoral rules that help protect the political market from new entrants. Indeed, he describes the “triple lock” that helps entrench their political power and market share: compulsory voting, preferential voting and taxpayer funding of incumbent political parties.

Ice-cream vendors who get too far away from their customers run the risk that their customers will choose to go without rather than go on a long hike. Rundle rightly credits (blames) compulsory voting for forcing us to buy metaphorical ice-cream. But, as discussed above, a large and growing number of voters are opting out.

As Rundle makes clear, the media have, on the whole, missed both the decline in democratic participation and the steady rise in electoral support for minor parties and independents. Unlike much of the Canberra press gallery, Rundle analyses the emergence of Clive Palmer in the context of such trends and, in turn, draws more interesting conclusions about both the strategy and prospects of the PUP than those whose analysis of the crossbench starts from the premise that the PUP are illegitimate self-promoters who have simply “gamed the system.”

There are some good reasons for gallery journalists to focus on the priorities of the prime minister and the Opposition leader and to pay less attention to the motivations and strategies of the crossbench. The constitutional power of prime ministers, for example, is in no way limited by the proportion of the electorate that voted for them. Similarly, when there is no chance of parliament debating junk-food advertising or population growth, it is understandable that political reporters don’t bother discussing such issues.

The problem arises, however, when political commentators conflate the set of issues the major parties are willing to discuss with the set of issues of interest to newspaper readers and the population more generally. Experienced gallery journalists simply “know” that population growth, for example, is a “non-issue.” Significantly, however, this knowledge comes not from a careful examination of the concerns of voters, but from a long history of watching senior politicians ignore the issue.

Pauline Hanson provided an explosive example of what can happen when an independent decides to give political voice to an issue the major parties had decided not to discuss. The rise of far-right parties in Europe since the global financial crisis provides a range of examples of what happens when the public thinks that the major parties of Europe are determined to limit the problems that are up for discussion or limit the range of solutions that warrant consideration. Again, stifling debate in the parliament should not be confused, by politicians or journalists, with winning a debate in the community.

The Australian Senate was explicitly designed by the authors of our constitution to act as a check on the power of the government of the day. It was specifically designed to ensure that the smaller states were overrepresented, and it was specifically given the power to block not just legislation, but the passage of money bills. Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal Party famously used all of those powers not merely to obstruct, but to destroy the Whitlam government. Presumably, such use of Senate powers was “OK” because it was a major party that used them, and a “conservative” major party at that.

For decades, independents and minor parties have used the Senate not just to block legislation, but to scrutinise government performance, to amend legislation and to give voice to issues that governments would prefer not to discuss. Unlike Fraser’s Liberals, if crossbench senators use their constitutional power to vote down legislation, they are typically accused of “wrecking” things and causing “chaos,” rather than simply doing their job. Do conservative commentators and business groups really want taxpayers to spend hundreds of millions of dollars electing and supporting senators who rubber-stamp whatever governments, including ALP governments, want to do?

There is now widespread support for reform of the way senators are elected, but why stop there? Why not inquire into why so many people no longer vote? Why not inquire into what, if anything, the Australian Electoral Commission is doing to find millions of non-voters and remind them of their obligations? Why not survey the non-voters to ask them what would be required to draw them back into our body politic? Why not have a Senate inquiry into the state of our democracy? The political caste would hate it.

In The Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey’s character said the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn’t exist. The greatest trick that Rundle’s political caste has played is to convince the public that politics is boring and policy is something made by experts.

While some politicians can be boring, politics isn’t. In a democracy, politics is how fights between powerful (and not so powerful) players are settled. Anyone who tells you politics is boring either isn’t watching closely, or doesn’t want you to watch at all.


Richard Denniss is an economist and the executive director of the Australia Institute. He contributes columns to the Canberra Times and the Australian Financial Review and has co-authored Affluenza, An Introduction to Australian Public Policy: Theory and practice and the forthcoming Minority Policy: Rethinking government when parliament matters (with Brenton Prosser).

Note: I was described in Rundle’s essay as a former chief-of-staff to Greens leader Christine Milne; I was not. I was chief-of-staff to Senator Natasha Stott Despoja when she was leader of the Australian Democrats, and strategy adviser to the then leader of the Greens, Senator Bob Brown.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 56, Clivosaurus. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 57, Dear Life.


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