I have been arguing for some time that Australia needs a leader who can get us away from the entitlement syndrome. I have to confess that I didn’t have Clive Palmer in mind. But he plans to form a new political party, run candidates in every House of Representative seat, and field a full ticket in every Senate contest. That’s an awful lot of candidates. Who is going to select them? More important, who is going to make sure that they don’t have awkward personal histories that might just spill out in the election campaign proper, to the embarrassment not just of their local supporters, but of other Palmer candidates everywhere.
This is a bizarre decision on Mr Palmer’s part. Some of it is reminiscent of Trollopes’s stories of election campaigns in 19th century England, where money seemed to be the key to everything. Mr Palmer may have a deep purse, but that’s not enough. He has to have good candidates, who have to know what they’re about; he has to have distinctive policies that make sense to at least a decent proportion of the electorate — and are not much the same as those of the other parties. If he is to be the leader, he will have a lot of travelling, talking and arguing to do.
He is speaking of running as the United Australia Party, the Liberal predecessor formed in the depths of the 1930s depression by a few Labor people and the Nationalist Party, the earlier incarnation of the Liberals, only to be given a burial when the Liberal Party was re-formed in 1945. I understand that he believes he owns the copyright or trade mark to the name. But of course the UAP is part and parcel of the history of the Liberal Party, which may not be at all pleased by such a quasi-theft, and may cause more than a few voters to wonder about exactly what the new party is.
But the even more basic question is — what useful purpose does this party serve? Mr Palmer has said, somewhat vaguely, that he would like to be Prime Minister, but that’s hardly an important issue for most Australians. How does he imagine that this might occur? We can do some restaurant-napkin calculations. Let’s assume that Labor wins 40 per cent of the seats in the House of Representatives. That gives the non-Labor forces 60 per cent. And let’s assume that there are no Independents. Let’s assume that Bob Katter’s Australian Party keeps its one seat. For Mr Palmer to get anywhere, in bargaining with the Coalition, he needs to win about a third of the non-Labor seats — about twenty per cent of the seats across Australia.
That’s pie-in-the-sky stuff. Bob Katter has argued that the major parties are on the nose, and that 20 to 30 per cent of the electorate are looking for another option. Maybe so, but my guess is that they would have in mind almost an infinity of options, and that Mr Palmer’s position, which I take to be well to the right of the current Liberal/National Coalition, is quite unlikely to appeal to all 30 per cent, even if Mr Katter is right about the numbers.
I can’t find any policy positions that would be distinctive. Mr Palmer would abolish the carbon tax retrospectively, whatever that might mean, but the Coalition will also end it. He has a proposal to bring asylum-seekers to Australia by plane. If I’ve got the idea right, asylum-seekers get on a plane without a visa, though visas seem to be pretty standard across the world, in my experience, and you usually need one to board the plane. Set that aside. The refugees get to Perth, say, and are taken to a waiting room where they are interviewed. If they seem genuine they’re let in; if not, they’re shuftied out again back to where they came from. Simple! What about ASIO reports? What about the language and other skills needed by the Immigration people at each of the international airports in Australia? What happens while everything is being checked out? We would need camps in every city.
All told, I find it hard to see any real differences between Mr Palmer’s policies and those of the Coalition, save that his are further from the centre. How many voters will that set of policies appeal to? And wouldn’t their preferences be likely to go to the Coalition anyway? The ALP is saying very little about this change to the party system, for good reason. There is always some loss of support when preferences are distributed, so Labor is likely to pick up a few votes wherever there are both Coalition and Palmer candidates.
What is the likely outcome? I offer two. The first is that before long Mr Palmer will announce that he is reducing his ambition, in order to concentrate on one or two States where he thinks the UAP will make a crucial difference. The other is that, despite his ambition, he simply won’t be able to bring off an Australia-wide electoral challenge. The attack will be spotty, and paper-thin in many seats. The opinion polls will show that he simply doesn’t attract a lot of popular interest, let alone support. And he will wash his hands of Australian politics, saying that the time isn’t ripe, or something like that. Oh, and he will have spent quite a lot of his own money.