Clive Palmer reaffirmed his claim to the title of Australia’s Donald Trump on Friday (as if he didn’t already have it in the bag with the hair) by announcing a run for federal parliament. As the leader of his own party, naturally.
The coal magnate, sports team owner and Titanic revivalist will apparently run for the seat of Fairfax in Queensland as the candidate for a “reformed” United Australia Party – although that name reportedly remains unregistered despite his intentions being reported as early as January. The former UAP, which boasted Joseph Lyons and Robert Menzies as Prime Ministers in its 15-year existence until 1945, sank in an era now largely forgotten by most living Australians – much like the Titanic.
It’s easy to make fun of Palmer. Loud, brash, overweight and fond of hair dye, he is an almost-billionaire writ large and given a soapbox by the resources boom and the upstart political activism Queensland has long fostered. Palmer’s projects are eccentric in the way only those of the very rich can be. His dreams of being elected prime minister in September on the back of voter dissatisfaction and his “courageous stand to get government back for the people” are obviously doomed to go the way of the Trump presidency.
But poking fun seems like the easy way out. As Joe Hockey said – disregarding the tsunami of irony – “I want to see his policy”. As one of the LNP’s most significant backers until a recent falling out, Palmer is a man who has always been politically involved, and identified, with conservative Queensland politics. But his views appear more nuanced than this, and it may be worth pondering just what kind of a country Australia would be under a Palmer government.
It’s fair to say the mining tax would be put out to pasture fairly quickly under a Palmer administration. In fact, Palmer went further in comments to the ABC, reportedly saying: “If you want to stop something… you tax it.” This is arguably at odds with his view on the carbon tax – actually aimed at stopping something by taxing it – which Palmer says would be repealed under his government with any adverse cost impacts retrospectively repaid.
Palmer is evidently a hard-line anti-tax believer. He has said he doesn’t believe in taxing some sectors higher than others (good news for those among us after a cheaper bottle of whisky), because it discourages growth. In 2010, he told the Courier Mail: “No one believes that taxation creates more jobs, otherwise the government may as well sit in Canberra and just issue taxes all day.”
This is not a unique view. But it is in direct opposition to statements this week from Tony Abbott, who suggested businesses and workforce participation would benefit overall from an increase to the company tax rate to pay for parental leave. The mainstream conservative line of reasoning in Australia, then, is that selective tax hikes can actually create jobs. Those voters who genuinely believe in low-tax, small-government theories of economic growth would apparently be better off voting for Palmer than Abbott.
All that said, it’s worth remembering why Palmer quit the LNP in a huff last year. When Campbell Newman was elected Queensland premier in a landslide, one of the first actions of the new government was to sack thousands of public servants. Palmer claimed Newman was acting beyond his mandate and donated to a union fund supporting the laid off workers to emphasise his point.
While this may have been posturing, it does suggest Palmer could be loathe to trim the public service if elected – leaving the cost savings from his low tax policy to be found elsewhere. Palmer is all about jobs, so it may be fair to assume a Palmer Australia would focus on spending to create employment, rather than cuts in Canberra.
Given the few actual policy announcements or even potential policy indications so far, Palmer is refreshingly specific about his aim to target indigenous infant mortality, which he says neither party has addressed. Julia Gillard repudiated this claim on Darwin radio, and ABS data shows a strong downward trend for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander infant mortality so Palmer has picked an odd battle here.
Choosing this as a policy area also puts him in a potential role advocating for increased government intervention in social affairs, which seems unlikely. The most logically consistent policy approach here would be the privatisation and deregulation of regional health services, with healthy tax subsidies or incentives when targets are met.
The Australian has also reported on Palmer’s desire to see asylum seekers flown directly to Australia to stake their claim to stay. This appears consistent with a growing trend among the political right (especially the Marco Rubio Republicans in the US) towards the view that immigration, even of unskilled workers, is an underappreciated economic boon and a potential voter pool.
But it’s also fairly clear social policy would take on a strong libertarian slant.
Discussing his constitutional challenge to the carbon tax, Palmer said: “That's the country we live in - freedom of speech. We've all got the right to say what we think. You may not agree with it, but that's a right we fought for in many world wars.” This displays both clear policy intent and a lamentable but not uncommonmisunderstanding ofhistory and the actual protections granted by the Australian Constitution.
Then there’s the environment. Greenpeace wouldn’t last long in Palmer’s Australia, not after the memorable CIA conspiracy conference and the carbon tax would be done for. Palmer’s Yabulu nickel refinery gave Queensland the choice last year between potential toxic dam overflows and dumping on the Great Barrier Reef, which isn’t the finest line on his resume. It’s almost certain environment groups would be disadvantaged by a push for resources growth and fossil fuel use, but such a scenario could actually backfire and strengthen grassroots support for green initiatives. Radicalisation of political issues tends to polarise in both directions.
So join up
Palmer doesn’t have a book to sell or a career on the speaking circuit to bolster, so more than anything, the stunts and the headlines appear aimed at making sure Palmer stays relevant – that his voice remains at the political table. And as a low-tax mining-friendly businessman with a soft spot for immigration and indigenous affairs, that voice is actually not too far off those politicians currently enjoying overwhelming support in the polls.
One last thing to consider is that Palmer’s public statements to date have had a clear and consistent claim: he supports democracy. This is a man who quit his party hollering about mandates and members’ views, and launched his own party on the auspices of giving dissatisfied Australians a voice, and it raises an interesting question. Would he change his policy positions if enough UAP members told him to?
There’s only one way to find out. Palmer has apparently just nominated himself to be a voice for what Australian voters really want. Perhaps those who join up should tell him, and test whether he means it once and for all.