Thursday, May 22, 2014

In defence of Clivezone populism

Australia's first Federal Cabinet in 1901
I confess that I never read Larvatus Prodeo from cover to cover, as many of its posts seemed boring to me with interminable series on subjects that didn't grab me. LP alumnus Mark Bahnisch's new blog is much more accessible, however, as in his budget posts like this one, which is of a piece with the Piping Shrike's thoughts on the matter. Both bloggers identify this budget as some sort of apotheosis of the failure of mainstream politics to engage with the public - the Shrike blames the loss of major party connection with their traditional bases, while Bahnisch concentrates on the psychopathy of the "political class". These are aspects of the same story: unaccountable elitism meeting electoral reality.

The opposite of elitism is populism, and this is the large empty space that Clive Palmer has decided to #occupy. As the Shrike argues, some of the noises out of the Palmer United Party have sounded left wing, and it's tempting for leftists to enjoy the carnie atmosphere of the 44th Parliament for reasons of schadenfreude, but he evidently thinks we should direct a jaundiced eye at such theatrics:
The real threat comes from those who have interests in taking advantage of the weakness of both sides. Clive Palmer has immediately focused on the weak point, the ideological nature of [the budget], and has been the only one refusing to give ground that the deficit is a problem in the first place. If Clive sounds rather left wing, however sincere/insincere, it indicates not only which way he sees the votes are going right now, but also how little difference there is between what passes for left-wing and what big business like Palmer’s actually wants – more spending to prop them up.
Threat is a strong word. Is Clive threatening, or dangerous, or other such weighted words of alarmism? Who does he threaten?

The last great populist in the Australian Parliament was Pauline Hansen, who was legitimately dangerous and threatening. Her isolationist Small Australia policies would have plunged the country into recession and led to a far less tolerant society. To the extent that the Howard administration adopted her platform - not to mention her long white fingers manipulating Rudd's asylum seeker policy - the nation is poorer for it, both economically and culturally.

As Bahnisch points out in a subsequent post, Palmer hails from not far away from Ipswich but has a different pedigree:
My strong suspicion is that Clive Palmer will equivocate over some of the Budget measures, thinking out loud to draw attention to PUP and to the impacts of the said measures, then end up voting against most of them. [...] Don’t forget that the anti-politician Palmer learnt his politics at the feet of Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Now he was a cunning populist…
Palmer cut his teeth in the Liberal National Party and has now defined himself largely in opposition to it, which means he has more in common politically with Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. The latter two collaborated with the Gillard regime to make the 43rd Parliament one of the most productive in terms of passed legislation in national history. Palmer faces Abbott: a man with no mandate to call his own, representing much of what he is sworn to oppose, who has shown exactly zero skill in negotiating with anyone who is not on his side.

Palmer will become in July the effective leader of the opposition, an avatar empowered by Australia's founding fathers (as per my last post) to represent the voice of the people to veto an unpopular leader's peccadillo policies. Some may try to portray this as a period of craziness, and looking at the words coming out of Jacqui Lambie's mouth it is easy to come to that conclusion. However, the major parties and Abbott in particular only have themselves to blame for having to deal with someone like Clive through their abandonment of democratic responsibility, and Palmer's rise only underlines the greatness of the foresight of those founding fathers in allowing someone like him to stand up to political elites.

Just as the Tea Party wagged the GOP dog to bring gridlock to Washington DC by using constitutional protections against executive power to limit the activities of Barack Obama and force him to shrink the size of government, if what Bahnisch predicts does come to pass then Palmer will do much the same to Abbott by blocking most of his legislative agenda and preventing him from setting fire to the furniture. In the continued absence of the emergence of fascist superpowers from the Prime Minister, he will have to continue on with many of the Gillard era reforms, as the public wanted in the first place. Palmer's effect will be to hold Abbott to his promises, which were to support Labor's popular policies. Abbott will have to be content with keeping up spending levels but doing a really, really crap job of delivering outcomes.

That it took a billionaire to buy his way into Parliament to do this does not gainsay the power of his populism, nor lessen the impotence of the Prime Minister in protesting against the will of the people. Clive and his circus troupe will get more than a little loose, no doubt. Queensland under Joh was called Godzone, and now we are all living in Clivezone. The Australia that is created from this sudden reintroduction of democracy won't be so bad.

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