Towards the end of the Gillard years, voters had had enough of independents and minor party MPs holding the balance of power. This disenchantmentlikely stemmed from the two country independents, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, giving Julia Gillard the numbers to form minority government and their support for the price on carbon.
Even though Australians were dissatisfied with Tony Abbott and Gillard, political pundits anticipated that at the 2013 federal election voters would take out their resentment on the bit players and return to the major parties in droves.
This proved mostly to be true. The Coalition secured government with a healthy majority, including the seats relinquished by the retiring Windsor and Oakeshott, while Labor lost fewer seats than the opinion polls suggested. The only new independent to be elected was Cathy McGowan, who tapped into grassroots determination to get a better local MP and ended up snatching a seat from the incoming Coalition Government.
McGowan’s success in particular heralded a continuation of the legacy left by Windsor and Oakeshott, replacing their considered voices with hers in the Parliament. Independents and minor party MPs were therefore given a reprieve, and with McGowan as their new torchbearer it was tempting to think their future would be a long and fruitful one.
But their colleagues in the Senate may yet squander what remains of voter goodwill towards politicians that are not from the major parties. For when the new Senators take their places on the red leather benches in July, Australian voters will reap the whirlwind that is Clive Palmer.
Granted, Palmer sits in the House of Representatives, but his populist and mercurial approach to facts, policies and legislation will guide his party’s voting bloc in the Senate.
Palmer may seem a novelty politician, bringing delicious schadenfreude to anyone who lodged a vote against Abbott at the last election, but in reality he is a wilful source of political chaos.
Palmer has become emboldened by the knowledge that Abbott needs six of the eight Senate crossbench votes to pass any legislation that is opposed by Labor. With three PUP Senators and the Motoring Enthusiast Party’s Ricky Muir, Palmer now has control over four of those votes.
As a result, Palmer’s behaving like a bully on the beach, flexing his Senate numbers while kicking demands into the face of the diminutive Abbott. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if Palmer was agitating for selfless or even consistent causes.
But Palmer is all over the shop, careening from narcissistic disdain (Abbott needs to be able to count) and near incomprehensible politico-babble (we can make an impact in the field of ideas) to painful ignorance of our nation’s democratic processes (such as the implications of blocking supply).
Palmer tells people what they want to hear, with seemingly little thought given to the possibility that conflicting promises will be exposed or indeed whether they can be achieved at all. One week he’s telling Western Australia voters that he’ll deliver them a greater share of GST revenue (which is not actually determined by Parliament), and the next he’s claiming he can protect Indigenous Australians from racial vilification by the NT Government.
By the time the Palmer party is over, voters may well have given up on minor parties and independents altogether.
Having sold PUP to voters as the only party that can scrap the carbon and mining taxes, Palmer is now threatening to block their repeal unless the carbon tax cancellation is made retrospective (thereby saving Palmer’s mining operations many millions of dollars) and a $200 top-up payment for the orphans of defence personnel that was meant to be funded from the mining tax is retained.
These two demands demonstrate the murky mix of self-interest and public good that make up Palmer’s political agenda. He may well believe taxpayer funds would be better spent raising pensions than paying for emissions reduction, but that’s more a reflection of the coal magnate’s belief that man-made carbon emissions are not the problem than on the efficacy of the Coalition’s Direct Action policy.
And if Palmer is prepared to block a supply bill to stop the introduction of Direct Action, to what lengths would the politician who still runs his multi-million dollar coal mining operation also go to protect tax breaks for business, reduce environmental regulations, have the GST increased, or have industrial relations reforms brought on earlier than Abbott would prefer?
Windsor wrote on the weekend in a cautionary note to the “Senate’s wildcards” that the political class was expecting PUP MPs to be “self-serving, particularly towards Clive’s business interests, and to be novices in a world of political strategy and propaganda.”
Windsor added, hopefully, that PUP would come under the most scrutiny because “it has the capacity, if credible, to encourage voters away from the two-party dominance in our lower house.”
Regrettably, Windsor’s hope is ill-founded.
Palmer is more intent on causing havoc for Liberal and Coalition governments around the nation than he is on “making an impact in the field of ideas”.
The resulting chaos will produce more than amusement for those wishing to see Abbott’s legislative ambitions poetically frustrated.
It will result in perverse outcomes that have little to do with good government and everything to do with Palmer’s patchy political priorities.
And by the time the Palmer party is over, voters may well have given up on minor parties and independents altogether.