Like a half-dead mouse, the Abbott Government’s first budget has so far endured seven weeks of being Clive Palmer’s plaything, arising timidly from one indignity only to be batted about by another.
Abbott has taken this fairly meekly until now, clearly preferring to minimise the opportunity for Palmer to take any more umbrage from him, the budget or the Liberal and National parties more generally.
But following the eponymous party leader’s outburst against the Chinese on Monday night, it appears this strategy is changing.
Protection of Australia’s crucial relationship with its number one trading partner has swiftly taken precedence over the need to save the budget, with a veritable conga-line of Coalition cabinet ministers denouncing Palmer for calling the Chinese government “bastards” and “mongrels” while claiming they “shoot their own people“.
Treasurer Joe Hockey may well have wondered at this point why he had even bothered taking his travelling supplicant show around the country.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop called the comments “abusive” and the airing of them on national television as inappropriate, while Treasurer Joe Hockey said they were “hugely damaging”. Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce was more circumspect, commenting that such “emotive and colourful language [is] not the way you do business”.
Even the Prime Minister has taken Palmer to task, describing the tirade on commercial radio in Palmer’s home state of Queensland as “over the top, shrill and wrong”.
Palmer has rallied his own troops in response. The former military police corporal and now Palmer United Party senator Jacqui Lambie issued an impassioned press release warning against “the threat of a Chinese Communist invasion”, while Chinese-born PUP senator Dio Wang said Palmer had been “taken out of context”.
This is of course not the first time Palmer has made outrageous accusations against the Chinese, nor will it be the last as the miner continues to battle with his Chinese-government owned business partners Citic over royalties and other payments.
The altercation adds to the reasons why voters around the country, but particularly in Queensland, are now reassessing their perception of Palmer as an honest broker. It follows on from his sexist comments about the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, questions over his use of business funds for election campaign advertising, and what appears to be blatant nepotism in the pre-selection of candidates for the upcoming state election.
Meanwhile, the federal budget sits whimpering in the corner. What little hope the Government took from Palmer dithering over the past week or so over the GP co-payment and university fees dissolved on Monday night when the PUP leader declared:
I don’t want to destroy the values of this country and I assure all Australians that we will stand as the last sentry at the gate. There will be no co-payment. There will be no changes to the education establishments in Australia. There will be no deregulation of universities. That’s why people elect us and that’s what we’re going to do.
Treasurer Joe Hockey may well have wondered at this point why he had even bothered taking his travelling supplicant show around the country over the past few weeks to personally meet with Palmer and the PUP senators.
However, Hockey’s better half, the Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, has stepped in to stress the budget is not dead, but just resting.
Cormann essentially called for political commentators to take a chill pill, pointing out that “no government in recent political history had passed all of its budget measures through both houses of Parliament by the end of August”, the supply bills had already been passed, and “a number of the measures that are the subject of the most intensive post-budget debate are not due to take effect for some time”, leaving ample time to keep engaging with the Senate crossbenchers.
This may well be a message for Palmer, which when decoded from Cormann-speak means “we do not negotiate with terrorists”.