Almost all the politicians sworn in today for the new Parliament are much constrained, glued to the parties that put them there.
That imposes disciplines at multiple levels. Clive Palmer, as he showed again in today’s appearance at the National Press Club, is neither constrained nor disciplined.
He built his own party and, though he would insist otherwise, it remains substantially his personal possession. With at least two senators-elect (whether there is another is hostage to what happens in the West Australian Senate imbroglio) and an alliance with the Motoring Enthusiast Party’s Ricky Muir, he will from mid year have huge power.
Palmer gives the impression that he doesn’t give a damn about his critics (though his frequent reference to The Australian newspaper – which has pursued him relentlessly – suggests he might care rather more than he acknowledges).
We are used to politicians who dodge and try to avoid the difficult balls. Palmer just picks up the ball and throws it off the field. Asked today about his business interests, he declared, “I’m a retired person in business. I’m a politician now. I’m not in business.
"I haven’t run most of my businesses recently. That’s the reality. We’ve got an executive team that runs our businesses. I’m just an investor. I might be on the team, but I’m not certainly in charge of all that – no more than Rupert Murdoch runs The Australian”.
As to whether his company should pay its $6 million carbon tax debt, especially now he is a legislator, Palmer was equally dismissive. “We’ve got a High Court challenge to the validity of the law”, he said. Anyway, “you should be asking the ATO [Australian Taxation Office] why aren’t they issuing writs against us?”
“It’s not me complying with anything. Companies I own are not me. I’m a different person. Companies are not flesh and blood. We can justify it to our shareholders.
"The government, if they think they’re owed the taxes … should commence legal proceedings against us. We’ve commenced legal proceedings in the High Court of Australia against them”.
Palmer is no respecter of persons and those who criticise him are derided. Independent senator Nick Xenophon has become “Xenophobia”.
But his tone when talking about Tony Abbott is interesting. The two had a big row over Palmer’s push for a ban on party officials being lobbyists, and Abbott did not want Palmer to become an LNP candidate (a decision he may regret – that would have at least avoided a PUP party).
Now Abbott is PM and Palmer has parliamentary power, the relationship has moved on. Abbott can’t be cavalier about Palmer. Palmer will be negotiating with the government in situations when it will want things and so will he. He praised Abbott for “courage” in adopting the lobbying ban. “I think political courage in politics is a very rare commodity and Tony Abbott showed great political courage by doing that”.
With Labor and the Greens determined to give the government a hard time on core issues including the repeal of the carbon and mining taxes, Abbott will want PUP (including ally Muir) on side not just to get key legislation through the new Senate but to do so quickly if possible, especially to minimise business uncertainty over the carbon tax.
More routine discussions with PUP will be handed by others, notably Senate leader Eric Abetz. But Abbott acknowledged today: “I certainly expect that from time to time he will want to see me. From time to time, I may want to see him”.
Palmer boasts that his party’s polling is showing support of more than 10% nationally. On state elections he said that “it’s very possible based on our polling that we can win the balance of power in Tasmania, and also in Victoria”. Both elections are next year. ABC election analyst Antony Green believes this is a possibility in Tasmania but unlikely in Victoria.
More immediately Palmer claims that if there is a fresh WA Senate election, “our polling is showing we’ll win two senators … you might start to consider that as a real possibility”.
PUP got a WA seat in the first count and lost it on the recount. If the High Court decided a fresh election was needed, it would be a critical moment for PUP.
Only occasionally, in the odd byelection, do voters get a chance quickly to review their decision.
Second time round, they could decide they really were impressed by the man with a political swagger, or that voting PUP had been a bad idea.
If PUP’s support crashed in a rerun WA election, it would not change materially the power it will have in Parliament. But psychologically, it would prick the balloon. On the other hand, if PUP’s vote grew noticeably, there would be some sharp intaking of breath in all sorts of places.
You can be sure, if there is another WA Senate poll, that Palmer will be throwing massive resources at the challenge.
Footnote: the chef at the National Press Club cooked Filet Mignons Lili for today’s lunch, the fourth course for first class passengers at the last dinner before the Titanic sank.
Listen to Mitch Hooke on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.