We're in the palm of Clive's hand

Even a small percentage of votes would, in many seats, give a United Australia Party real bargaining power with Tony Abbott. But first a word of advice, Mr Palmer.

Clive Palmer is fast becoming the automatic stabiliser of Australian politics – dare one say the ballast of the good ship Australia?

Palmer’s announcement of the first two MPs to join his still-unregistered United Australia Party confirms his serious ambition to shift parliamenty weight to either port or starboard side of the federal parliament. (Though as described below, his attention is all on the right.)

The two recruits are being hailed in the media as ‘defections’, though both men – Alex Douglas and Carl Judge – had already left the Newman government to become independents before succumbing to Clive’s indubitable charms.

And according to their boss they will be, alongside Palmer himself, the first three of 127 candidates his almost-born party will field in the September election.

A word of advice if I may, Mr Palmer. Make sure most of the remaining candidates are recruited for their blandness. Pure beige and grey. Otherwise there is the risk of repeating some of the nasty outburts of politics at the last election – remember, for instance, the very short political career of David Barker, after he slammed Labor for taking Australia "closer to the hands of a Muslim country"?

No, a handful of smart cookies will do. The rest should be unremarkable milk-arrowroots.

The 127 seats may be mostly bluff, of course – it’ll probably be far fewer. There is a good deal of the Palmer campaign that looks like bluff. His roots run deep in the Liberal-Nationals traditions, and it is conservative politics he wants to reform.

Though Palmer has promised to recruit disaffected Greens and Labor members, his power will derive, ultimately, from his ability to extract policy-change commitments from Tony Abbott. Palmer is claiming 40 per cent support in the community, but even 4 per cent will become a powerful weapon in many seats, where the threat to preference Labor will give him bargaining power with the party in which he was formerly a life member.

Though Palmer is seen by some as a threat to the fledgling Katter’s Australia Party, its national director Aidan McLindon told reporters last week that both groups were pulling in the same direction – mopping up swing votes and preferencing each other.

In marginal electorates, those preferences ultimately have to flow to Liberals/Nationals or Labor, meaning negotiations between KAP and UAP (to preference each other), and negotiations between the two minor parties and the two major parties, will be at the heart of Palmer’s eventual power.

Given Palmer’s previously good relationship with Tony Abbott, and that fact that a blow-up with Abbott began Palmer’s move away from the Coalition, this process is likely to involve a face-to-face meeting between to the two.

Palmer, if he has managed to recruit credible characters in marginal seats, will look Abbott in the eye, tell him how many seats he can hand back to a flounding Labor Party, and make his demands.

So far, the policy list is short:

– Palmer wants to tear up the carbon tax and pay back any money to disgruntled emitters. Abbott has staked his career on the first promise, but actually can’t afford to meet the second.

– Palmer wants to chase political lobbyists out of Parliament House (perhaps he could herd them onto his full-size Titanic replica and send them away for good?). This will be more of a challenge for Abbott, given that the Liberal Party has just as many of the charming creatures crawling through its offices as the Labor Party.

– Palmer has sketched out a plan to encourage asylum seekers to fly to Australia rather than attempt the trip in leaking boats. This would not be as hard to sell to Abbott as some might think. The Coalition ‘stop the boats’ plan can’t work in its present form due to Indonesia’s growing hostility to the idea that we can simply ‘turn the boats around’ in international waters. A token fly-in plan would just be part of Abbott’s attempt to ‘fix Labor’s mess’ after the election.

– And Palmer has promised to make same-sex marriage a conscience vote for UAP members. This, also, is far from a stretch for Abbott in his own party, where there is growing pressure to revisit the Coalition’s stance on an issue that has two-thirds support for change within the community.

Katter Australia Party national director Aidan McLindon told reporters last week: “Where the KAP can't access some of those LNP votes, I think Clive can ... In a compulsory preferential system, depending on the negotiations, I think the two parties can be a formidable threat to Liberal and Labor.”

Not exactly. Palmer is mainly a threat to Abbott. Yes, Labor wants any helping hand it can get from re-directed UAP preferences, but Palmer will only deliver them to progressive candidates if Tony Abbott fails to accede to any of his demands before the election. Happy sailing.

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