Just two weeks out from the federal budget, the Abbott government is feeling the heat of incumbency -- the kind of pain the Coalition was so good at inflicting on the opposition.
The big difference is that much of the political pressure is coming not from the Labor opposition, but from the Palmer United Party. Just when Abbott seemed to have a chance to run the ALP out of town, he is being attacked from the right by the inimitable Palmer.
At least we think it’s right. It’s hard to piece together a coherent picture from the fragments of Palmer’s capricious populism.
With his three senators elect, plus the aligned independent Ricky Muir, Palmer is threatening to block legislation for Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme, Direct Action, the repeal of mining and carbon taxes, an increase in the pension age ... and just about anything else PUP doesn’t like.
And while the media image of Palmer is one of a policy weakling who will say anything to win hearts, minds and votes, it’s likely the maverick MP is being underestimated by media commentators. Put another way, I doubt he’s as silly as he looks and sounds. More to the point, 'silly' is attractive to many voters.
To illustrate the point, it is instructive to compare the rise of Palmer with the the rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation in 1996.
Fish-and-chip-shop proprietor Hanson really didn’t get public policy. One of her best efforts was to suggest a 2 per cent flat tax on every stage of production of value-added goods. That would have sunk some industries and given a huge tax cut to others. But it has to be said that her policy mistakes were born from honest ignorance.
By contrast, Palmer observed -- or participated in -- hundreds of policy debates during his 40 years as a member of the Liberal National Party and, for instance, knows full well he can’t give WA back more of its GST contributions -- a key promise in the recent WA senate re-run.
More importantly, Hanson hit a rich seam of xenophobic political opinion that she was able to capitalise on despite a lack of political knowledge, or even very high quality advisers.
Palmer has the advisers, the political knowledge and the money to blanket-bomb the electorate with political advertising. The seam he is mining is not as rich, but he has better mining technology (as one might expect).
But perhaps the biggest point of divergence between Palmer and Hanson is, so far, his lack of any kind of racist or divisively xenophobic utterances. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. His move to co-op three members of the Northern Territory Legsliative Assembly (since 1974 the NT has had only one house of parliament) gives him new balance of power to exercise in the Top End, but that power is heavily dependent on indigenous issues.
While Hanson’s first speech to parliament baldly played the race card against indigenous people, Palmer’s populism would seem to be built on a more inclusive ‘Aussie’ identity.
Hanson famously told the national parliament: “We now have a situation where a type of reverse racism is applied to mainstream Australians by those who promote political correctness and those who control the various taxpayer funded ‘industries’ that flourish in our society servicing Aboriginals, multiculturalists and a host of other minority groups.”
Well the three NT MPs that have joined PUP are doing so in protest over a raw deal for indigenous Australians. One of them, Alison Anderson, told The Australian: “Both major parties have had the chance to represent Aboriginal people and failed.” And Palmer himself told the same paper: “[The three MPs] were concerned about what was happening, the racial vilification of people up there by the NT government.”
Nationalism is a powerful political message, especially in a downturn. As Callam Pickering described yesterday (The real danger in Hockey’s budget cuts, April 28), this government is going to suffer a lot of voter backlash if it hands down a budget as tough as it has promised.
That makes the time ripe for a nationalist message to erode some of the Coalition’s voter base, and Palmer is proving more effective than many expected in tugging on the heart strings of the nation.
The Hanson message was predicated on there being too many ‘Asians’ in Australia, despite the fact that the population then, and even more so now, was heavily dominated by migrants from the British Isles (see table below of top ten ethnic groups by claimed ancestry).
Nonetheless, in hard times Palmer could choose to use xenophobia to attract the extreme fringes of Coalition voters. Yet he hasn’t done so, even on asylum seeker policy.
It’s instructive to note that the UK Independence Party is making huge political gains from its anti-immigration policies. In the May European Parliament elections UKIP is expected to win more votes that either the British Conservative Party or Labour Party.
Meanwhile, Palmer wants to fly asylum seekers into Australia, process them at the airport and let in genuine refugees. He is buying into indigenous rights in the NT. And on non-ethnic lines, he and his senators make frequent appeals to national pride in bold statements on veteran affairs.
In short, Palmer is trying to create a different kind of nationalism. With both Labor and the Coalition aligned on unnecessarily harsh treatment of refugees, and with both main parties having ‘let down’ indigenous Australians and returned servicemen and women, Palmer sees a chance to harvest votes that were not the preserve of Pauline Hanson.
It is still an attack on Abbott’s flank at a vulnerable time. And it reveals a much more sophisticated strategy behind Palmer's apparently foolish and chaotic media appearances than many have assumed.