Populist Palmer drops his jester act to appeal to middle Australia

Federal MP Clive Palmer vowed to block the budget’s ‘horrific cuts’ in his Queensland Media Club address this week. AAP/Dan Peled

It looks like there’s a new Clive Palmer in town. At Monday’s Queensland Media Club lunch in Brisbane, where the Palmer United Party (PUP) leader talked down the federal budget and spruiked his own ideas, Palmer tried hard to ditch the clown-like image.

In its place, we saw a more measured and reflective Clive Palmer, who appears to be positioning himself not just as a politician of substance, but as Australia’s alternative opposition leader.

Palmer’s strategy is clear. First, capture the white-hot anger that Australians, from all walks of life, are giving off over the country’s toughest budget in 20 years.

Second, recast his image as a sensible, thoughtful political leader, who’s shocked at the Coalition’s insensitivity.

And third, convince aggrieved Liberal and National voters, who could never support Labor, to park their vote with an ostensibly “centrist” PUP.

If it ends up feeding the PUP’s popular appeal to conservative voters, the Coalition may come to regret this “crash or crash through” federal budget.

Are we seeing the ‘real’ Clive?

Palmer’s new style, along with the substance of what he’s said this week, is worth noting. In a wide-ranging speech that tore strips off the Abbott and Newman governments, Joe Hockey’s allegedly cruel budget, and what he called the phony debt crisis, Palmer eschewed most of the theatrics we’ve come to know, love and hate.

That’s not to say there weren’t any. Before giving his scathing budget rebuke, journalists, lobbyists and other guests were shown a musical cartoon mocking Abbott and Hockey, with the chorus “Tony it’s a big surprise, All your promises were lies”. The cartoon also poked fun at Palmer, ending with a caricatured Clive dozing in parliament.

But the bigger surprise was that Palmer’s case for reform – not just of policy but of politics itself – was as rational as any we’ve heard from a major party leader this year.

Within his first few minutes, Palmer spoke about the separation of powers, Abbott’s pre-election promises, the cost of living and core Australian values: all ripe for PUP exploitation at the next Queensland state election, due early next year, and for a potential double dissolution as early as Christmas.

In short, there was little in Palmer’s address to alienate middle Australia.

Monday’s speech may mark a watershed in PUP’s fortunes. Gone is the zany clown whose priority was publicity. Welcome instead to the serious politician, armed with graphs from the International Monetary Fund and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to back up his claims about Australia’s relatively strong economic health. It was all designed to stake out a claim to fiscal credibility, while wearing a welfare heart on his sleeve.

From the dole to having ‘too much money’

Palmer’s populist pitch extends beyond wooing unhappy conservative voters. Explaining why he will oppose the government’s push to force people under 30 off the dole every six months, Palmer told the story of how he collected unemployment benefits for six months as a young man.

But coming from a former life member of the Liberal-National Party, it was still a surprise to hear Palmer thank former Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam for that government leg-up when Palmer was just starting out.

Later, when asked about his party’s finances and its big-spending federal and Western Australian election campaigns, Palmer ended his appearance on the punchline that a lot of that money had come from him “because I’ve got too much money and that’s a burden for anyone”.

What does PUP stand for?

Gone, too, in his post-budget reply was the wholly negative attack on the major parties. Instead, there was a more nuanced style where criticism was balanced with positive – if still fuzzy – policy alternatives.

But while Palmer has been clear in flagging his senators’ plans after July 1 to thwart the Medicare co-payment and changes to pensions and Newstart allowances, the man who would be prime minister still skirts around other policy detail the way a road worker would a manhole.

For instance, while Palmer talks nobly of abolishing HECS debts for university students – why saddle creative minds, in their most productive years, with heavy debt, he asks – his vague mention of scholarships as a HECS alternative raises only more questions of university affordability.

But accusations that Palmer’s political mission is little more than “getting square” with former Liberal and National colleagues will only be revived by his announcement that, after July 1, his PUP senators will push for a senate select committee to investigate the Queensland state government.

This is Palmer’s ultimate challenge. Part of the PUP’s success until now has been rooted in voters’ deep disenchantment with the major parties, especially for what they see as a petty politicking while Canberra burns.

This week, for the first time, Palmer sounded like a mainstream leader offering positive change. Whether PUP moves from the margins to the Australian political centre will depend heavily on which Palmer – the statesman or the jester – walks the public stage.