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A question of influence: Clive Palmer, the UAP and preferences

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Political character and businessman Clive Palmer (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Despite attracting a string of criticism, Clive Palmer still remains a major player in the lead-up to the May elections, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

LIKE THE GARGANTUAN PROJECTS he pursues with boyhood lustiness, Clive Palmer remains undeterred by failure. Having tasted it much since falling from grace as a parliamentarian, the nickel magnate got a helping hand from the Liberal Party for his United Australia Party ahead of the 18 May elections. Party strategists and hacks have decided that a second placing on Liberal how-to-vote cards is warranted, a move designed to secure UAP preferences in marginal rural seats, largely in Queensland.

The UAP uses a familiar strategy in Queensland and Western Australia, remodelling itself in the very distant and distorted spirit of the original party by that name. That particular incarnation won four federal elections between the World Wars. Palmer’s UAP is an odd mish-mash of anti-elitism, populism and traditional fearmongering.

The themes are not new. The states, notably WA and Queensland, are distant from Canberra’s rapacious operations. Politicians are remote. Representatives are inattentive to the needs of the voter, notably in rural climes. And they might sell out the country by opening the doors to foreign concerns. 

The national policy platform is uncomplicated, but resonant in some quarters, notably on the issue of returning wealth to the communities that generate it. This reprises a customary, if well-worn, stab at the axis of all-consuming evil: Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne. 

‘For example, if a particular region creates wealth, a significant percentage of that wealth should to back to the region.’

There are also promises to clean out the soiled stable of machine politics. Party officials, the UAP asserts, ‘should not be Lobbyists’. Given the political sclerosis major Australian parties suffer under lobbies and an assortment of interests, the message has some bite. Where the UAP is less convincing is on the matter of the fossil fuel lobby. As long as it’s a local product, preferably not Chinese, such lobbies can go about their business.

Current refugee policy should also be revised, protecting Australia (specifics vary) but also giving refugees ‘opportunities for a better future and lifestyle’. Renewables and the greening of Australia barely figure — ‘creating mineral wealth’ does. In this sense, Palmer continues in the mould of the traditional conquistador of the Australian environment, ‘utilising’ (read plundering) the resources of Queensland and Western Australia ‘to continuously contribute to the welfare of the Australian community’.

Rather optimistically, he seems to ignore the shocks of the global economy and the nature of demand — exported products, the policy statement goes, will be sold ‘at a higher dollar value, thereby creating more revenue, jobs, tax and more facilities’

While Palmer can be rightfully placed in the dock of public opinion and submitted to a stern grilling (the Federal Government had attempted to recover millions of dollars from his businesses owed to workers), other criticisms strike an odder note. Bad blood runs through commentaries and nerve-wracked opinions from Liberals and Nationals. 

Colin Barnett, former Western Australian Premier, warned:

“I am concerned if a formal deal is done between the Liberal Party and Clive Palmer.” 

The move might assist in certain seats, on the proviso that preferences would flow to the Liberal Party, although that premise lacked certainty. Then came the profile of the Liberal voter; those "soft or swinging voters’" might "react adversely to any sort of deal with Palmer". Winning or retaining seats in rural areas would come at the expense of losses in the metropolitan areas.

"And indeed it could be the case that while a couple of seats might be saved, a number, significantly more, could be lost simply because of this."

Barnett’s views have been treated with cool distance, even disdain, by senior Liberal Party stalwarts at the federal level. Do not blame us, focus on the state branches and their individual calculations.

As Michaelia Cash explained:

“They weigh up everything. They look at the different parties, they look at the different policies and, at the end of the day, that is a decision the state parties have made.” 

The problem here is how accurate such weighing is.

Barnett’s fears extend further, giving a different slant to the idea of “influence” in Australian politics. Love the mining industry; curse the politically opportunistic mining magnate.

“Clive Palmer has been quite outrageous in the way he’s dealt with a Chinese state-owned enterprise called CITIC on the Sino Iron Project, a project of over $10 billion.” 

His point? Palmer’s litigious streak, which risked causing “real loss of faith potentially, or face for the Chinese”.

Barnett’s near neurotic approach to Palmer belies a deep confusion in Australian policies and its politics towards China. While a technology giant such as Huawei is kept at arm's-length for being all too dangerous to Australian interests, other concerns are allowed generous access to the Australian market in a range of services. That devil may sup from the same bowl, but with spoons of varying length depending on the audience.

This is a point Palmer has been keen to exploit. Barnett’s beef with the treatment of China’s colossal conglomerate, CITIC Limited, is a neat flashpoint in Australian commodity politics. Foreign giants like Adani and CITIC are treated as investment deities by state and federal governments, making arguments about restricting influence in the Australian political process laughable. In an odd sort of way, Palmer has managed to extol the spoiling efforts of his own company, Minerology, as patriotic: do not let CITIC Ltd expand the Sino Iron Project without a fight.

Western Australia also figures in another UAP spat over foreign ownership. Beginning in 1995 when the China Southern WA Flying College was established, Merredin in rural Western Australia became an important part of aviation training for Chinese pilots.

Former Merredin councillor Martin Morris is all praise:

“If anything, Merredin should be held up as being leaders to get multinational investment into country Western Australia.” 

Aviation and anti-foreign ownership veteran Dick Smith is all fury

“It’s a real problem the Chinese now own a tremendous amount of our land.”

Palmer has endorsed the Smith angle on this, boosting the dangers posed by the intrusions of the “Yellow Peril” while emphasising the spinelessness of state governments.

In a January media release, Clive Palmer stated:

“It should ring alarm bells for all Australians that the WA Labor Government has allowed Merredin Airport to transfer into Chinese ownership, meaning Australian aircraft need Chinese permission to land on their own soil.” 

The Foreign Investment Review Board, he charged, had been circumvented in the name of a “secret takeover”. As elastic a reading as this might be, some voters will be singing to the UAP song sheet for precisely such points.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

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