The Palmer 'Six Pack' may not be easy to control

With freewheeler Clive Palmer courting non-major party senators, and wild card Ricky Muir on the sidelines, Tony Abbott’s Senate monopoly is not as assured as it would seem.

As the ‘scandal’ involving travel expenses on both sides of parliament fizzles out, perhaps we can kick-start the opposite idea. MPs should travel more at taxpayers’ expense, not less.

In an off-the-record chat last week, one Labor figure told me the problem with another sitting MP was he “was never in the country”. That’s bad for the public purse, but good for improving one of our national deficiencies – seeing ourselves as our trade partners and political allies see us.

Now, it’s fairly clear that Clive Palmer is a man of the world – you can’t get into as many contractual scrapes with the Chinese as Palmer has done, without actually visiting the Middle Kingdom.

But if Palmer is elected (remembering that the recount for ‘his’ seat of Fairfax is still in progress) he will be de facto leader of a rag-tag team of new senators who would most likely benefit from a few study trips abroad. That is not to belittle their life experience, but to suggest that the Senate must not be an echo chamber of ideas that fail to recognise the globalised nature of trade and political-economy that has developed in the post-1980 era.

As Tony Abbott’s self-confessed ‘apologies’ to Indonesia and Malaysia over boat arrivals have demonstrated, Australia doesn’t get to make the rules alone – it has to work within an evolving geopolitical framework, and work hard to maintain some influence in that sphere.

To recap, six of the eight cross-benchers in the Senate that will sit from July 2014 are fairly Abbott-friendly: Family First’s Bob Day, the Motoring Enthusiast Party’s Ricky Muir, Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm, and three Palmer United Party senators – Tasmania’s Jackie Lambie, Queensland’s Glenn Lazarus, and Western Australia’s (still contested) senator Zhenya Wang.

Tony Abbott will have to work with these six to pass any legislation Labor and the Greens oppose. And Clive Palmer is too smart to let them be picked off one at a time. The Australian reports he has just arranged a get-together for them in Brisbane. (And no, that doesn’t count as ‘overseas’, even for the Tasmanian Lambie).

I note that my colleague Robert Gottliebsen sees strong unity in this group to help Abbott achieve his objectives in government (Abbott has won control of the Senate, October 9). However, that is yet to be proven.

We know that Nick Xenophon is ready to play hardball on certain issues, which is why Abbott will want to bypass him by cultivating the other ‘bloc’ of six votes. And the Coalition has already incensed Democratic Labor Party senator John Madigan by supposedly leaking against him. Not very smart.

But what about the ‘Palmer Six Pack’? Will they really be the tight team Abbott needs, or will they get flabby and difficult to control?

Ricky Muir is the wild card, and that is putting it mildly. While he is suspected of being under a gag order from the Queensland party’s founders (Muir is a Victorian senator), there are two things we know that could give Muir a mind of his own.

First, he is that rarest of beasts in parliament, a worker – and a retrenched one at that. Doing hands-on work in a timber mill, as he previously did, gives one a different perspective on issues such as industrial relations, occupational health and safety, progressive tax scales and the Gini index, to name a few.

Australians may be the richest people in the world by median wealth (second on the measure of average wealth), but Muir and his mates will wonder why that doesn’t apply to Central Gippsland.

The obvious answer is that Labor’s carbon tax has ravaged the economy, shut down healthy businesses, and thrown thousands out of work – an obvious answer that is also completely wrong.

Which brings us to the second ‘known’ about Muir. Apparently what clinched his place on the AMEP Senate ticket was footage of him, posted online, working with the Muir family to clean up after themselves at one of their beloved bush campsites. You see, 4x4 enthusiasts are not all bourbon-swilling, gun blasting, die-back spreading hoons. Some of them quite like the natural environment too.

And this is the point at which Muir should board a plane to see what the rest of the world is doing about the mammoth, globally socialised cost of the industrial age – human induced climate change. He won’t get a balanced view of this issue from 'coal-baron' Palmer.

Nor, it would seem, from the Australian media.

Head of the conservative UK government’s Committee on Climate Change Lord Deben railed against the media’s warped version of ‘balance’ yesterday, likening it to giving equal time to the arguments for and against smoking causing lung cancer.

And he singled out Australian media as a prime culprit: “When you’re discussing the science of climate change, you really shouldn’t go off to Australia because you couldn’t find another person who had some scientific credentials to appear because you feel you’ve got to have that balance.”

The Palmer Six Pack may line up with Abbott to effect his core policy commitment – the repeal of the carbon tax. However, just as Nick Xenophon has promised, they should only do so if it is replaced with something better. For Xenophon that’s the Frontier Economics model (Xenophon won’t back down on carbon pricing, September 2).

The world is moving on addressing the kind of ecological disaster that threatens the kinds of wilderness areas Muir has long enjoyed, as well as threatening agricultural systems that support billions of our near neighbours – a new report today names Indonesia as one of the early ‘tipping point’ nations. Heaven forbid that that should happen – today’s boats crisis would be a spit in the bucket compared to the kind of population dislocation that would cause.

So we just don’t know what this wild-card in the Six Pack will do. Abbott would be wise to cut back on travel allowances immediately, to stop any of the new senators' minds being poisoned by the rest of the developed world.