The end of the Age of Clive

And then there was one. In the Senate, at least.

Palmer United Party’s Glenn Lazarus announced overnight that he’d left PUP to become an independent, leaving the party with only one vote in the upper house.

Lazarus made the announcement via Facebookand Twitter just after midnight, noting this was a difficult decision and hinting at irreconcilable differences with party leader Clive Palmer:

I have a different view of team work. Given this, I felt it best that I resign from the party and pursue my Senate role as an independent Senator.

A media report suggests Lazarus took this action after his wife was sacked as his chief of staff.

The departure of Lazarus leaves Palmer with only former employee Dio Wang in the Senate and next to no negotiating power compared to what he wielded in that chamber for a few tumultuous months in 2014.

Since his election to the Australian Parliament in 2013, Palmer’s power has not come from his single vote in the House of Representatives but from the three-vote bloc that he controlled in the Senate. Since the new Senate commenced on July 1, 2014 with the eight-Senator crossbench, the Government had to secure six votes from the crossbench to pass any legislation opposed by Labor and the Greens. However, only three votes were needed to block any such legislation.

This essentially gave Palmer the right of veto, and played to his grandiose perceptions of importance and influence.

Only those delusions could explain Palmer’s decision to share the stage with former US vice-president Al Gore to announce a “dormant” emissions trading scheme while simultaneously committing to scrap the carbon tax.

Only an overwhelming sense of self-worth could have produced Palmer’s trenchant statements of opposition to a panoply of government policies, followed by audaciously nonchalant changes of course when the political headwinds shifted.

This inconsistent and autocratic style would have been less an issue if Palmer had been the sole PUP member of Parliament. However it is difficult to manage a party using only tyranny and cronyism.

It may well have only been a matter of time before PUP’s tyro senators began to better appreciate their individual power and got an increasing urge to use it, but Palmer’s overbearing “my way or the highway” style would have undoubtedly contributed to their restlessness.

Former PUP Senator Jacqui Lambie was the first of the party’s federal MPs to expose the dissent behind PUP’s shiny yellow façade. After Palmer was less than effusive about her proposed “burqa” ban, called her a drama queen over her campaign to improve defence force pay, and then suspended her from attending PUP party room meetings, Lambie moved to sever ties with the man who bankrolled her campaign.

In truth, Lambie was never a good fit for PUP. Her penchant for straight-talking and reluctance to toe the party line made her a likely candidate for leaving Palmer’s eponymous party.

But the man who left PUP today would have been considered much less likely to do so. If there’s one thing the former rugby league hero lacks, it’s certainly not the capacity for loyalty. His fidelity to family and the voters of Queensland certainly sit comfortably with the report that the sacking of his wife forced Lazarus’ hand.

For his part, Palmer might not particularly care. Having witnessed the defeat of his nemesis, former Queensland premier Campbell Newman at the recent state election, and the ongoing electoral deterioration of his other foe PM, Tony Abbott, Palmer may well feel his work here is done. His attendance record in the Parliament certainly doesn’t indicate a burning desire to participate or contribute.

This might be just as well, considering Palmer is no longer the media’s darling, partly because he’s no longer particularly relevant but also because he treats the press with impunity. His recent “accidental” call for Abbott to commit (political) suicide was not indulged as it once might have been, and instead was called out for being the desperate ploy for media attention that it was.

The trajectory of Palmer’s hobby-political party has now followed that of his hobby-football team. After recruiting a number of disaffected conservative MPs from other parties in Queensland and the Northern Territory, and then losing them again, PUP has gone from controlling a peak of nine MPs around the country to two – Senator Dio Wang and Palmer himself.

PUP offered voters an alternative to the major parties and a commonsense approach to contentious policies. But in truth it was nothing more than the hollow sales pitch of a white-shoed wannabe.

For the good of the nation, let’s hope today’s departure of Lazarus from the Palmer United Party brings an ignominious close to the Age of Clive in Australian politics.

Dragon’s diary: Tragedy and farce

Joosep Martinson/Getty Images
Joosep Martinson/Getty Images

I won’t add my thoughts to the likely millions of condolences expressed at the sudden death of Phillip Hughes. Mainly because I’d never heard of him until this week as I don’t follow cricket.

That’s not to say Hughes’ death didn’t affect me. I was reminded of my own fragile mortality, gave thanks for the health and safety of those I love, and also looked afresh at the week’s political antics.

Continue reading “Dragon’s diary: Tragedy and farce”

Time to start blogging again

I was showing someone my blog yesterday and was mortified to realise I don’t post much any more, other than links to my columns and posts that are published elsewhere. This has made my blog a pretty boring place to visit.

Today I’ve decided to rectify this with at least a semi-regular commentary on my week (or so) in politics including published pieces and observations of the discussions that followed, particularly on Twitter.

Continue reading “Time to start blogging again”

Lambie doesn’t want to stay, doesn’t want to quit

It’s no longer a matter of when but how Jacqui Lambie will leave the party that delivered her one of the most decisive (and divisive) roles in today’s polity.

Back in 2013, with minimal experience in party politics and a fast-diminishing campaign war-chest, Lambie had her heart set on getting into the Senate despite having unsuccessfully tested the waters with Labor and been rejected by the Liberals.

The offer from cashed-up Clive Palmer to join the Palmer United Party’s Tasmanian Senate ticket must have seemed almost too good to be true.

And so it has been. Lambie may have ridden on PUP’s short-lived swell into the Senate – a feat she would not have achieved in her previous incarnation as an independent candidate – but since becoming a minor celebrity due to her pivotal membership of the Senate crossbench, the new Senator has quickly outgrown the limits of party solidarity.

Lambie has been agitating about her right to speak out on matters of interest, even if not necessarily of interest to PUP, ever since she arrived in Canberra. Various thought bubbles have ensued, starting with the one on mandatory national service for young Australians and most recently the even more controversial call to ban the “burqa”.

In response, Palmer has evolved from commenting that Lambie is entitled to express her own views, to having to reject some of her suggestions such as the call for a “silent protest” at Remembrance Day ceremonies.

Lambie has consequently been unhappy that party solidarity is not a two-way street, even though according to Palmer the Senator appears to have made no effort to bring those issues to the party room for discussion or to determine a PUP position.

Whether she’s perceived as behaving like a petulant teenager, or a passionate defender of those she represents, Lambie is ratcheting up the pressure on Palmer to throw her out of PUP. (Or her senior adviser is doing so, depending on the extent to which one believes Rob Messenger is Lambie’s David Oldfield or Svengali.)

Earlier this week Lambie delivered on her commitment to oppose all Government legislation until the ADF pay decision is overturned, and split from her party to vote against the revised social services bill. She also voted against anti-doping legislation that in other circumstances she says she would likely have supported.

Today’s news that Lambie will join Labor and most of the crossbench Senators to disallow the FOFA regulations continues that war of attrition. In voting to disallow the regulations, Lambie will directly oppose a deal her party leader made with the Government.

If Lambie had been a Labor member, voting against her party in this way could be grounds for expulsion. However, the Coalition is somewhat more flexible on such matters, with Malcolm Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce being two high-profile examples of Coalition MPs having crossed the floor against their parties and not only survived but been appointed to Cabinet.

There is no question that Lambie will soon be an independent member of the crossbench. Over past days, the Senator has removed the PUP logo from her website, refused to attend PUP meetings, chosen to sit away from her party colleagues when attending the joint meeting of the Parliament, and removed all trace of yellow from her wardrobe.

In turn, Lambie has essentially been excommunicated from PUP: cut from the list of PUP MPs on the party’s website, removed as the party’s deputy Senate leader and deputy whip, and (in a classic case of shutting the gate after the horse has bolted) suspended from attending party meetings.

In short, Lambie is daring Palmer to sack her, while he in turn is trying to make her leave. This manoeuvring is all about who can position themselves as the victim once the split has taken place. Lambie wants to be sacked, firstly so she doesn’t have to break a previous commitment made to Palmer to stay, but more importantly so she can continue to claim underdog status.

Palmer however didn’t come down in the last shower. The canny operator is biding his time, putting pressure on Lambie to leave by isolating her and her staff from the party, while offering empty platitudes so that he can capitalise on what would be her broken commitment to stay and paint himself as the wronged party.

This will be important if Palmer follows through on a suggestion made last weekend that he will pursue Lambie with lengthy and expensive legal action if she leaves.

Palmer’s Lambie headache just became a migraine

The Palmer United Party’s problem child, Senator Jacqui Lambie, is again causing headaches for the eponymous party’s leader Clive Palmer. And according to Lambie, it’s not a matter of whether she will leave PUP but whether Palmer will allow her to remain.

The heightened tensions between Lambie and Palmer have this time flared as the Senator escalated her campaign against a meagre pay deal for ADF personnel, one which involves an increase that is less than inflation and a cut to leave entitlements.

Lambie had initially called for Australians to silently protest against the Government on Remembrance Day by turning their backs on any Coalition MPs speaking at events to commemorate the occasion.

But today Lambie has upped the ante, saying she will oppose any legislation the Government tries to get through the Senate before the end of this year, unless ADF personnel are provided with a better pay deal.

Lambie appears unconcerned about whether her party leader agrees to such a strategy. Claiming to be tired of Palmer “back-flipping all over the place”, the Senator told the media that “it’s getting to the point where I just don’t care what Clive Palmer’s position is on this at the moment”, that Palmer can no longer “sit on the fence” on the issue, and that “if [Palmer] had a conscience, he’d stand right beside me and our troops and our veterans and make a stance on this now”.

For his part, Palmer has endeavoured to portray the actions of his rogue political progeny as evidence of the healthy and diverse debate that takes place within the canvas walls of the PUP tent.

Telling the media that Lambie’s call for a Remembrance Day protest was not PUP policy, Palmer also stressed “individual members can say what they like whether they’re right or wrong and we’ll discuss it in the party room and the policy will be determined”.

“She’s never gone against our policy, she’s always voted in Parliament with the team,” he added.

And this is the key point: it’s one thing for Lambie to campaign on her pet projects in the public domain, but when it comes to votes in the Senate, she is expected to toe the PUP line. Palmer cannot continue to enjoy his role as the ultimate decision maker in the Australian Parliament without Lambie’s vote.

Until now he’s depended on Lambie’s loyalty to him and to PUP to keep her in line. As a PUP spokesman noted earlier today, “Senator Lambie has always voted with the Palmer United Party and we expect that to continue.”

Lambie has already implied frustration with the imposition of this party discipline. In another of her many media interviews, the Senator recently said she was concerned PUP’s support for the Government’s FOFA reforms would adversely affect “the battler” and that PUP was “starting to steer off course a bit when it comes to the underdog: the pensioners, the people on disability payments”.

For perhaps the first time, even though it has been long speculated upon by the political commentariat, Lambie flagged in that interview that she would leave PUP if she judged the party had lost its way:

I won’t betray the underdog. If it starts to move in another direction – the party – you won’t see me part of that party. Put it that way. I will not lose my own moral bearings. If the party starts to lose its bearings, then I will get up and leave.

Since publication of that statement less than a week ago, Lambie appears to have changed tack.

Her comments today, challenging Palmer to join the ADF pay campaign, suggest the Senator is determined to test the limits of Palmer’s patience and willingness to let her roam widely outside the bounds of PUP’s (admittedly ever-changing) policy positions.

Lambie now says she has no intention of leaving PUP and is threatening to cross the floor against her party in the Senate, noting, “Clive will have to decide whether or not he wants to see his party separated in the Senate.”

Lambie’s challenge to Palmer is clear; not only does she want the right to roam free on her pet issues but also the right to make a difference on those concerns. And if Palmer doesn’t like it, then he’ll have to force her out of PUP.

“If I’m told that I’ll (need to) follow the party line, well then the party will be shown that I won’t be following the party line and it’ll be up to Clive Palmer to ask me to leave,” Lambie said this morning. “If Clive Palmer wants me to leave then that is Clive Palmer’s call. He is the leader.”

Being ex-communicated from PUP would seal Lambie’s reputation as Queen of the Underdogs, and Palmer knows it. He can’t control her, nor can he afford to lose her.

Amongst the political chaos that such manoeuvrings produce, it’s refreshing at least to see that Lambie knows how to outsmart the old dog.

‘Attack by inquiry’ the latest political whip

Just when political pundits thought Parliament couldn’t descend any further into farce, last week the Abbott Government lowered the bar. In doing so, it may have assisted in damaging a political ally and set a risky new precedent.

As part of the deal negotiated with Clive Palmer to repeal the mining tax, the Government agreed to support an inquiry into the establishment of what is essentially a slush fund for failing businesses – even though it doesn’t support the idea.

Dubbed the Australia Fund, the proposed entity would “support rural and manufacturing industries in Australia in times of crisis and support communities affected by natural disasters” through a range of measures including emergency or ongoing financial relief, loans, acting as guarantor, purchasing debt, waiving interest, or even assuming control of the business for a period.

Essentially it’s an industry protection scheme slanted towards struggling operations in the farming sector.

In addition to establishing whether such a fund is needed, the inquiry will also examine whether “existing bankruptcy and insolvency laws” should be modified or temporarily relaxed for businesses in times of crisis.

Unsurprisingly the Government’s most vocal opponent of industry protection, Treasurer Joe Hockey, does not support the concept, stating in Parliament that industries should not become reliant on taxpayers’ support, “because ultimately industry assistance is revenue from another person”.

Hockey did, however, make it clear the Government would  “allow the parliament to have its inquiries and not pre-determine the outcomes”. That’s code for “it’s better to agree to an inquiry and have control over the chairmanship, than have an ALP-chaired one imposed on us by the Senate.”

Committee work goes mostly unnoticed in the to-ing and fro-ing of national parliament; conducted mainly by backbenchers, it is one of their few perks. The chair and deputy chair receive a salary increase, while other committee members benefit from travelling the nation to hold public meetings and receive evidence.

Even more important than that, committee inquiries are a way of raising one’s profile and building political capital through the pursuit of agendas and the gathering of ammunition to be used against one’s foes.

The inquiry into the Australia Fund clearly has this purpose. Being conducted by a specially-created committee, and comprising MPs from both the House of Representatives and the Senate, it will give Palmer and his senators the opportunity to visit rural communities all around the country.

Under cover of the inquiry’s public meetings, PUP MPs will be able to lend a friendly shoulder to representatives of those communities as well as business interests that are under pressure, while exposing the “shortcomings” of various governments that have “failed” to support them. Expect much of the committee’s early action to take place in Queensland as a consequence.

In short, the inquiry into the Australia Fund will be little more than a taxpayer-funded road show that allows PUP to build political capital in rural Queensland for both the state and federal elections.

No wonder Queensland LNP Senator, Barry O’Sullivan has jumped on board, supporting the establishment of the committee inquiry despite seeing no merit in the Australia Fund, noting that he’s nevertheless “keen to start a conversation about how we can encourage investment in agriculture and in rural communities”.

Palmer has made it abundantly clear that he intends to do whatever is necessary to destroy the Newman Government, be it through legal action or the ballot box.

Having snatched voters from the Nationals federally, and more importantly from the LNP in Queensland, as a result of this inquiry, Palmer will ultimately not give a fig whether the Australia Fund is realised. His mission will have been accomplished.

While the Australia Fund inquiry will facilitate PUP’s rearguard assault on the Queensland LNP, Palmer is also negotiating the establishment of a more direct attack on Campbell Newman’s regime with Labor and the Greens.

With the support of the opposition parties, Palmer aims to use his numbers in the upper house to establish a Senate inquiry into the Queensland Government itself. The inquiry’s proposed terms of reference focus on identifying rorting of Commonwealth funds, human rights abuses in the administration of the state’s judicial system and prisons, and breaches of approval processes for the export of resources of services administered by the Commonwealth. They also propose the inquiry committee of five be chaired by Labor, while the deputy chair is to be elected by the committee.

Most tellingly, the inquiry is due to report by March 31, 2015 – in time for the Queensland state election.

Palmer has made it abundantly clear that he intends to do whatever is necessary to destroy the Newman Government, be it through legal action or the ballot box. This Senate inquiry will help him gather further ammunition to do so, while garnering more publicity for PUP in Queensland along the way.

Labor has reportedly indicated it will not obstruct “a senator’s ability to inquire into issues where there are resources available”, while the Greens are said to be reserving judgement until they see the final terms of reference.

If the inquiry is established with Labor’s sanction, it will set a risky precedent for similar inquiries to be held into current or former state governments, with the results being released in time for respective state elections. Such tit-for-tat inquiries could quickly become part of the new campaigning landscape.

Of course, this tactic would not be restricted to scrutiny of state governments. There appears to be an increasing appetite for governing parties at the federal level to launch inquiries and Royal Commissions into each other once elected.

“Attack by inquiry” may soon become the new political game in town. However, the participants would do well to remember that increased scrutiny of this kind tends to come doubly-edged, as the Liberals have learnt in NSW.

Jacqui Lambie: the PUP is outgrowing the kennel

For the vengeful and electorally rampaging Clive Palmer, disaffected disability pensioner Jacqui Lambie would have been little more than the means to an end when he coaxed her to run for the Palmer United Party before the 2013 federal election.

The born-and-bred Tasmanian nursed her own reasons for putting one up the establishment, and her outspoken vehemence dovetailed conveniently with Palmer’s own mangled sound grabs castigating the Coalition at federal and state levels.

But having been peremptorily preselected and then elected on a sweet preference deal, the PUP Senator for Tasmania is now fast outgrowing the kennel.

If the blossoming of Lambie’s political brand continues apace, and canny political operators can find the right enticements to unravel her ties to Palmer, Lambie could become an independent Senate champion for her embattled home state.

Such a turn of events would allow the unashamed champion of the underdog to deliver bounties to Tasmania not seen since the heyday of the late Brian Harradine.

If not for Palmer, Lambie would have been just another Australian downtrodden by bureaucracy.

She joined the army early in life, serving in transport and military policing roles and later losing a stripe for punching a colleague. Lambie finally left the army after 11 years due to a back injury sustained in 1997 from carrying a 40kg pack for a two-day bush skills course.

What does she stand for?

  • Veterans Affairs: Concerned about misogyny in the Australian Defence Force and the high rate of suicide amongst former ADF personnel. Has demanded the Government extend the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce indefinitely, and called for a Royal Commission into the Veterans’ Affairs Department.
  • National Security: Believes Australia’s national security is weak and that defence force spending should be bolstered. Advocates compulsory National Service for all young Australians.
  • Tasmania: Wants an extra $5 billion over four years diverted from foreign aid to establish a special economic zone in Tasmania to help business employ more workers and lower the unemployment rate.
  • Transport: Wants $180 million cut from mainland road and infrastructure to be invested immediately in the Tasmanian Freight Equalisation Scheme.

She battled the veterans’ affairs bureaucracy over the next 5 years, to overcome accusations of malingering and finally be allowed to draw a disability pension. These experiences awakened Lambie’s political awareness in 2008 when she was given work by former Labor senator Nick Sherry as part of her rehab. But in 2009 she attempted suicide, and then spent time in a psychiatric ward, following which she found God and lost 40 kilos. She then led an unsuccessful run for Liberal pre-selection in Braddon for the 2013 federal election.

After deciding to run as an independent anyway, Lambie accepted Palmer’s invitation to jump on the PUP bandwagon after realising she couldn’t afford to bankroll a decent campaign on her own.

Lambie’s and Palmer’s political relationship may be one of convenience, but it is nevertheless a fruitful one.

While the multi-millionaire Palmer may claim to be a man of the people, Lambie is genuinely representative of the underclass that most politicians would never encounter unless they visited the local dole office. Lambie shares the concerns and language of this under-represented segment of the Australian community, and unashamedly gives voice to the disdain they hold for the establishment they believe has abandoned them.

Through Lambie, Palmer has a direct line to these disgruntled voters and the opportunity to harvest their protest votes.

The problem for Palmer is that he needs Lambie more than she needs him. Whether she’s inside PUP’s yellow tent or out, Lambie wields one of the six votes needed by the Government from the eight crossbenchers to pass legislation when Labor and the Greens oppose it. Without Lambie, and on the occasions when Muir decides to vote with the Government, Palmer’s bloc is reduced to two and he no longer has the power of veto.

What does the future hold?

Lambie shares Palmer’s passion for political vengeance, but her future will be determined less by revenge than by ambition.

She has not been afraid to brandish the leadership baton kept in her knapsack, reportedly stating not long after the federal election that she would become Leader of PUP if Palmer was not successful in getting elected in Fairfax.

So it’s hardly surprising that other reports have emerged suggesting Lambie is unhappy with her colleague from Queensland, Glenn Lazarus, being unilaterally made Leader of the PUP in the Senate.

Such quibbles would be music to the ears of Government strategists looking for a way to cleave Lambie away from the PUP voting bloc. It would however be a mistake for the plotters to focus only on Lambie’s ambitions for herself.

More important by far appears to be the Senator’s ambitions for the state she represents and the disadvantaged people she’s determined to champion.

The spoils of victory will go to the party that can deliver on that ambition for her.

A multimedia version of this piece appears on the ABC’s tablet app The Brief, which can be downloaded here.