Not so much striding across the political landscape as huffing and puffing his way through the back rooms, Clive Palmer is an oddity even by the standards of Australian public life, which has thrown up its share of strange characters. Yet somehow, by the vagaries of numbers, he has reached a position of influence, and for that reason it is time for a considered examination of him. It is a shame this book does not provide it.
Rundle was a former editor of the Left magazine Arena and is now attached to the website Crikey. He is a peculiar choice for this QE project, mainly because he seems allergic to primary research. While Clivosaurus provides the biographic facts of Palmer’s life – although some of the anecdotes, coming from Palmer himself, seem a bit dubious, such as the one about him once sitting on Mao’s knee – Rundle admits that much is drawn from Steve Parnell’s Clive.
Since the publication of that book a good deal has happened, but Rundle largely ignores it. The central omission is the lack of any discussion about the legal charges facing Palmer over the mis-use of funds paid by a Chinese firm to a Palmer firm for the development of a port. It appears that Palmer withdrew millions of dollars from the company to finance his party campaigns, as well as for a variety of other reasons. The Chinese are saying that this constitutes criminal actions. Palmer argues the money was like a salary that he could spend as he liked.
Is he saying that other people’s money is a private piggy-bank for him? Is he, and is Rundle, aware of the laws that govern this field? Even more, along the way there is an important document which was improperly back-dated, something which is itself a serious matter. Palmer denies any wrongdoing but it is now a matter for the courts. If the criminal charges are upheld, Palmer will not be able to sit in Parliament.
How could Rundle miss this? He mentions the legal actions only in a roundabout way, mainly noting not the actions but the reporting of them, and in some ways he comes close to accepting Palmer’s view that it is all a huge conspiracy against him, apparently because he revealed that Rupert Murdoch’s wife was really a Chinese spy. In Palmer-world, it all fits together, it seems.
The conspiracy theories fly thick and fast. Palmer’s entry into politics stems from his feud with the Queensland LNP, on the basis that the government refused to provide a rail line for a mooted Palmer resources project. Palmer’s view that the government was obliged to build it appears central to his philosophy. The core of his thinking seems to be that the role of government is to provide infrastructure for private companies and, well, that’s about it. It links up with Palmer’s proposal to fly illegal immigrants into Australia – to provide a cheap and grateful labour force, presumably.
Rundle describes Palmer’s political position as ‘centre-Right’. On which planet would that be, Guy? It seems more like a variation of the agrarian socialism of the Bjelke-Petersen era, in which Palmer first connected to the political sphere. It has a strong mercantile flavour (ironically, not unlike the attitude of the Chinese government that Palmer hates so much) and the emphasis on exclusive rights and private deals is the opposite of the balance of an open economy with prudent regulation that is the basis of centre-Right philosophy.
Rundle accepts that many of Palmer’s proposals would seem to provide him with a direct commercial benefit but he does not appear to have a problem with it. He even goes so far as to say that at least Palmer’s private interests are known, whereas those of Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey are not. This is just silly, unless Rundle believes that the parliamentary register of interests is all part of a conspiracy too.
In fact, reading this book one starts to wonder whether it is actually about Palmer at all. Rundle spends a huge amount of time attacking the Abbott government, calling it ‘Brutopian … sado-conservative … lying … chaotic’ and so on. As for Abbott’s election victory, with a two-party vote of 53 to 47, Rundle says that ‘most people would recognise it as a close result’. Really?
Rundle also adheres to the line shared by Palmer and the ALP, that the public debt is no concern. That anyone could believe that debt servicing charges of over $15 billion a year, or $40 million a day, is not worth mentioning is remarkable; that they would oppose any attempts to rectify the situation is truly astonishing.
But this is what it has come to. Rundle’s embrace of his subject – he ends up calling him ‘the great man himself’ – is tied precisely to Palmer’s opposition to Abbott. Otherwise, the Left would have no time for Palmer – who once said that the Greens are a CIA plot – and would probably dismiss him as a dishonest buffoon. Now he has a use, as another weapon against Abbott, and any examples of him co-operating with Abbott, such as on the carbon tax repeal, can be overlooked for the larger purpose. In this view, anyone who is a thorn for Abbott is up for canonisation. It reminds one of Susan Mitchell’s fulsome endorsement of Pauline Hanson in her hatchet-job book on Abbott. The enemy of my enemy, however awful and unlikely they might seem, must be wonderful. This appears to be all the Left has: hatred of Abbott. It is not much, and certainly more should be expected from the Quarterly Essay series.