Late in Clivosaurus, Guy Rundle warns against over-interpreting his subject and argues that it “would be an error … to seek to find in Palmer’s life the key to his current hold on the political process” and that he “is not a cause of our current fractured politics: he is one of its most spectacular effects.”
Unfortunately, for most of the rest of the essay, Guy ignores his own advice and ends up missing the most salient factors driving the Palmer phenomenon, as well as failing to grasp its weaknesses.
Perhaps most tellingly, for an intervention that purports to explain Palmer’s success, Guy’s essay has almost nothing in it about who actually voted for Palmer, or why. Instead, Guy tries to anatomise Palmer’s idiosyncratic politics through a mixture of retelling his life story in the context of a rough sketch of Australian, Queensland and Gold Coast social and political history, observing Clive speak to public audiences (Guy never gets a personal interview), quoting various journalists’ disapproving op-eds, and recounting the big man’s often erratic pronouncements and manoeuvres. All this is leavened with more than a little wishful projection about Palmer’s progressive side, because – as Guy cannot avoid acknowl-edging – the contradictions of the PUP leader’s program are hard to miss.
Guy’s descriptions of Palmer’s personal quirks and obsessions leave us with a portrait that could have been drawn of any number of second-string political operators from the Queensland National Party’s Joh-era heyday. There is certainly nothing specific about Clive’s politics that could explain how he’s had so much electoral impact. So it’s no wonder that Guy ends up taking a soft swipe at Palmer’s ability to use his wealth to “buy” an election, a complaint more commonly heard from politicos shameless enough to attack others for injecting self-interest and big money into politics.
You cannot satisfactorily explain the PUP’s success without grasping a deeper process of the breakdown of the political arrangements that dominated Australia during most of the twentieth century. Until things started to unravel in the late years of the post–World War II boom, democratic politics had a mass social base, organised around the pivot of Labourism, which rested on powerful but deeply conservative trade union organisations in civil society. Both left and right defined themselves in relation to this social fact, which provided stability even when major shocks like war and depression intervened.
Perhaps the key accelerator of the decomposition of this political order, and the hollowing out of the social base of the political class as a whole, was the thirteen years of union “Accord” under the Hawke and Keating governments. Labor’s working-class base suffered real wage decline in the service of a massive upward redistribution of wealth. Yet this was also the high point of Labourism, with mass sacrifice traded for unparalleled governmental influence for union leaders. It exhausted any distinct Labor Party and trade union relevance to workers – unionisation now plumbs depths not seen since the beginning of last century – as well as leaving the conservatives with no distinct agenda of their own, Labor having delivered so well for business without their involvement.
If there was ever a period of “neoliberal” hegemony in Australia, it was over by the time Keating turned on a dime and campaigned successfully as the anti-economic rationalist against a hapless John Hewson, who was, after all, just trying to continue what Labor had started. Since then, the major parties have had to deal with their declining authority in the electorate by largely avoiding big-bang economic reforms, a fact which troubles commentators desperate for a replay of the glorious 1980s. Yet this political caution has not halted the contraction of stable voter bases, rising electoral volatility, falling party memberships, increasing segregation of a political class with little “real world” experience, growing reliance on public funding of politics and, perhaps most worryingly, mounting voter detachment from politics.
Such developments have driven the dissolution of right–left allegiances, followed over time by the rise of new political forces tapping into public discontent with politicians, who are increasingly seen as self-obsessed and lacking relevance to people’s lives. These new formations, from less stable entities like One Nation to more enduring ones like the Greens, have gained by cannibalising the fragmenting bases of one or other major party, or appealing to the anti-political mood of the electorate, or usually a bit of both.
It is impossible to understand how Palmer could come from nowhere to get 5.5 per cent of the national vote in 2013 unless you recognise that his success rested much less on any positive agenda than on something almost entirely negative: the long-run erosion of the old political order.
Guy is unable to acknowledge this political crack-up in any substantive sense. So he tends to attribute the rise of parties like the Greens to the growth of a new “class of knowledge/culture/policy producers” (even though the vast bulk of this demographic group still votes for the major parties), rather than the breakdown of Labor’s political hold in certain geographic locales. He also downplays the generalised anti-political mood in society, which is now so obvious that even the commentariat and the polite middle classes talk about it openly.
At one level this rejection of “anti-politics” as an explanation is not surprising. Guy makes pretty clear he is looking for a way to revive politics as a reflection of “the general will” of society, rather than considering the possibility it’s actually not really about that kind of thing at all. Furthermore, he seems to associate anti-politics with “angry resistance” to the mainstream, when in fact what marks developments in recent years is the detached quality of the punishment meted out by voters.
Guy quotes a much-discussed 2014 Lowy Institute poll showing high levels of dissatisfaction with democracy. I’ll add what researchers found when they asked why people felt this way: the two top responses were “democracy is not working because there is no real difference between the policies of the major parties” and “democracy only serves the interests of a few and not the majority of society.” Despite this, Guy proposes tweaks to electoral processes to make them more technically representative, rather than something more fundamental. He also speculates:
What if Tony Abbott receives a distinct majority of the vote in 2016, but Labor wins one more seat, and the government is decided, in Labor’s favour, by an informal caucus of Adam Bandt, Andrew Wilkie and Clive Palmer, who can also guarantee the new government a working majority in the Senate? Would the Coalition accept that very, very possible scenario as legitimate? More to the point, would their supporters outside the political caste?
Maybe it will take an event of that magnitude to shake us from our complacency, our mistaking of torpor and disengagement for orderliness and legitimacy. If so, bring it on.
This is no more than a replay of 2010–13, with hardly any of the names changed, but Guy has nothing explicit to say about why the last government was such a depressing political failure. After all, it opened the way for an Opposition leader as disliked as Abbott to become prime minister, and led to a large drop in the left’s vote and the rise of Palmer, the latter delivering a large chunk of former Labor votes to Abbott via preferences. Palmer’s program didn’t matter anywhere near as much as his ability to play to the popular disdain for both the government (with the Greens frittering away anti-establishment credibility by propping it up) and the Opposition. The PUP generally did best in the working-class suburbs of big cities: that sea of swinging voters endlessly mythologised by the old parties. According to analysis by Peter Brent, the PUP’s ability to harvest votes from Labor was on display again in the West Australian Senate by-election, this time in the context of a falling Coalition vote and Greens revival.
Following these wins, rather than copy Labor’s partisan hectoring about the “lies” and “broken promises” of the May budget – as if no previous government had committed such sins and convinced voters of the necessity of reforms anyway – Palmer told Lateline’s Tony Jones, “This is an ideological budget, it’s just about ideology and about smashing someone. It’s not really about what’s best for the country.” It was a supremely anti-political moment, fingering Abbott for hurting the country by playing to his side’s fixations. It came as the PUP’s popularity scaled closer to its July 2014 peak in the context of high-visibility manoeuvres on the floor of parliament.
Despite Palmer’s appeals to widely held values associated with the political centre, his ability to take on the government rested not on popular support, but on the conservatives’ lack of authority. This authority problem was something that wrong-footed LNP supporters, because the right had won a nominally large two-party-preferred victory over a shambolic (but, thanks to Rudd’s return, still viable) Labor Party. The PUP leader’s own lack of a base gave him space to play the anti-politics card as a form of pure politics, free of dreary constraints like the views of a membership or dissenting voices in the party room, let alone a stable constituency.
But after July, as it became more apparent that the Coalition would deal with Palmer rather than simply try to monster him, his eagerness to play backroom negotiator began to undermine his image as an anti-political crusader. As the PUP’s poll numbers fell, the constant hostile media barrage suddenly seemed to have an impact. Finally, fearing their own premature political mortality if they tagged along with their leader’s increasingly cuddly approach to the government, Jacqui Lambie and Ricky Muir pulled away, with the Tasmanian senator opting for an open split.
Because Guy is entranced by the virtues of the Clive Palmer he has constructed in his mind, he misses why, even by the time he filed his essay on 1 November, the writing was on the wall for the PUP, with its poor polling and mounting internal problems. As Kevin Rudd’s ignominious demise in 2010 demonstrated, those who fail to deliver on implicit promises to shake up a reviled political system quickly fall foul of the voters. It is too soon to tell whether voters have passed a final judgment on Palmer as their representative contra the political class. But either way, the mood that he was able to tap into shows no sign of dissipating.
Across much of the Western world, this mood has become the new normal. It has meant rising anxiety for political classes as they seek ways to manage their populations without even the appearance of looking after people’s social interests. Perhaps the most spectacular example of this has been in Spain, where millions were involved in the explicitly anti-political 15-M social movement, and where the recently formed Podemos party – which campaigns on the basis of expelling the entire “political caste” – leads some national polls. Things are nowhere near as acute in Australia, but chronic political turmoil has provoked growing concern among elites that the country may become ungovernable should a serious reform program need to be undertaken. This breakdown, more profound than Guy’s shallow reading of a temporarily unresponsive political process, is what made possible Palmer’s rise.
Tad Tietze is a Sydney psychiatrist who co-runs the political blog Left Flank. He was co-editor (with Elizabeth Humphrys and Guy Rundle) of On Utøya: Anders Breivik, Right terror, racism and Europe. He has written for a wide variety of publications on politics, psychiatry and electronic music.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 57, Dear Life.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY