Clive Palmer is the careless clown of Federal Parliament, but he is also a hint of the future of politics, the post-politics politician bringing about change the political class fear, and worse, don’t even understand.
The Trickster is an enduring character in folklore, literature and religion. Irrational and mischievous, he is the wisefool who disrupts the status quo and, by making us laugh at him, reveals our own hilarious stupidity.
His actions, while they usually cause pain, have an ultimately positive outcome. The Trickster is often helpless, but he acts and speaks with borrowed authority. He mimics the behaviour of the ruling class and thereby draws attention to their hidden shams. He plays the essential role of bringing about change, which is always painful, but rarely pointless.
Clive Palmer is the Trickster of Australian politics. Loki, the agent of change, destined to be his own worst enemy even as he bring destruction to the powerful; Amadan na Briona, the fatal fool whose touch is death; the Coyote, the hopeless jester who expects to be taken seriously but can never succeed in being serious; Palmer has elements of all of them. And because he is so risible it’s easy to miss how much his actions throw into sharp relief the genuine idiocy of the established politicians we are meant to take so seriously.
In the ongoing dance between politicians and political journalists, the only aim is to create or avoid a miss-step, to say nothing using as many words as possible. Palmer is not a politician and, not knowing the steps, dances to his own tune and appears to have no fucks to give about the delight with which the media will seize upon a gaffe. He seems to be concerned only (and equally) with his own entertainment and the good of the nation.
Calling Wendy Deng a Chinese spy may have been something about which he was entirely sincere, or it may have just been for shits and giggles. Political pundits don’t recognise humour from politicians outside the proscribed lines, Puckishness from the leader of a political party is too unfamiliar, too uncategorisable; so it remains unexamined. And it shouldn’t, because he is, without ever being acknowledged for it, describing the shape of things to come.
Tim Dunlop pointed this out to me after watching Palmer on Lateline last week. We are so used to hearing politicians talk senselessness about politics that a non-political politician sounds foolish by talking sense. And Jones, the consummate MSM journo, so impressed by his own self-applied layer of gravitas, ignores utterly what Palmer is saying about policy in his desperate attempt to get him to talk about the politics.
TONY JONES: Now, a couple of other measures. We know you oppose the debt tax on high income earners, but of course that will still get through the Senate if Labor ends up voting for it. Will you be trying to persuade Labor not to do that?
CLIVE PALMER: We oppose anything that is based on a lie and we don't have a debt problem, as I said. We're the third lowest debt country in the OECD. All this is manufactured.
TONY JONES: Yeah, sure, but I guess my question is, since you actually oppose the debt tax, in the end to stop it, you'll need Labor's support in fact. Will you be talking to Labor? Will you be negotiating in fact with both major parties?
CLIVE PALMER: No, well, we haven't done that. We'll just do what we think's the right thing to do and we don't think that we should impose taxes based on what's a lie.
TONY JONES: Let's talk though about the negotiating process briefly. Is it true that Christopher Pyne is the designated go-to man to actually negotiate with you?
CLIVE PALMER: Well that's what it says in the press, but we're not into so much negotiation, just explaining what the strength of the argument is. It's ideas that really matter and it's the benefit of Australian citizens that we won't desert them.
TONY JONES: But we know what happens behind closed doors when negotiations happen. I mean, do you and Christopher Pyne have some sort of rapport that he's been chosen as the one to negotiate with you?
CLIVE PALMER: Well I've known him for a long time, but I think he's chosen to discuss things with our party because he's the Leader of the House and that's in the House of Representatives and Senator Abetz is the Leader in the Senate. He's the one that would discuss it with our senators. But, all in all, we can say that those fundamental things are things that we can't support.
TONY JONES: Well, Tony Abbott says he will accept a certain amount of horse trading over some of these measures. I'm wondering do you regard him as an honourable man that you can negotiate with?
CLIVE PALMER: Well, I don't think I'm prepared to trade our pensioners for anybody, and if we have to go to a double dissolution, it's fair enough that the people of Australia know what they're voting for and we'll have to accept that. That's our democracy we live in.
What would happen if Bill Shorten was that firm and succinct with Tony Jones in a Lateline interview? Actually, that’s a bullshit question, because it wouldn’t ever happen. Shorten would have responded to the politics rather than the policy. And the dance would move smoothly on.
Again, Palmer knows this, his farewell to Jones "It's good to talk to you, Tony. You're a great journalist." delivered with a twinkle in his eye, was a nod to everything in the interview that was a failure of journalism. Jones, in dismissing it as a joke, was and will always be, blinded to his own deficiencies.
If the media and the politicians are refusing to listen to him, it is also clear that they do not understand why so many in the electorate are. In the same interview, Palmer, the leader of an Australia political party who had this to say on the recent budget cuts to youth unemployment payments:
You'll see an increase in youth suicide, increase in crime. How are these people supposed to get money to eat or support themselves if their parents don't support them? Who's going to look after them? And what sort of society do we want to be as Australians? Do we really hate people so much? This is an ideological budget, it's just about ideology and about smashing someone. It's not really about what's best for the country.
This is not Palmer being or making a joke, this is a political leader speaking truth uncoloured by ideological opposition to a person or party. This is just the world as he sees it, and many many people in the electorate agree with him.
In the article he wrote for The Guardian yesterday, as well as succinctly puncturing the inflated lies sold to the electorate by the government in collusion with the media, Palmer said:
Australians began to desert the major parties in September, when a quarter of the electorate decided to vote for another party other than Labor or the Liberals. It continued in the Western Australian senate election in April, when 46% of Western Australians voted for a party other than Labor or the Liberal party. With a swing of more than 7% against the government (minus 5% for the Liberal party and minus 2% for the National party) the government was a clear loser. The Labor vote in WA crashed to its lowest level in more than a century, with just 21.5%.
Still, the mainstream media and commentators failed to report the significance of what was happening. They were looking back and not forward. Palmer United received a swing of over 7%in the Western Australian senate election. Our vote was nearly two and a half times more than what we received in the 2013 election. Still, the establishment's heads were in the sand. They can't recognise the shift that is taking place in Australian public opinion.
Palmer United will hold the balance of power in the new senate and yet we are still routinely excluded from opinion polls in most of the national papers. This is especially true of the Newspoll in the Australian and the Galaxy Poll in the Courier Mail.
Why is this so? Is it that the owner of Newspoll or the Courier Mail didn’t like what began in September last year, or are they just too slow to understand what is happening? To many Australians, it seemed those papers were just condemning themselves to extinction as they moved out of step with the electorate.
Clive is not a serious politician, in many ways he enjoys that he is not taken seriously. Twerking at a radio station, falling asleep in parliament, claiming the Greens are a CIA conspiracy, the dinosaur golf course and rebuilding the Titanic, not only can you not take him seriously, it’s also clear he doesn’t want you to. Not all the time.
But the comic relief is not just comedy. The interview with Jon Faine, where Faine asked him if his senate candidates had stopped beating their girlfriends yet, was a classic Cleiv:
''Why don't you talk about policy? Why don't you talk about reducing the pensions?
''I'm not going to talk about things…which are not true. These were allegations in a court. The court dealt with them and found them to be no case to answer.''
Mr Palmer then said ''goodbye'' and hung up. Faine said that when his producers called Mr Palmer back, he told them to ''get stuffed''.
Again, the politicians, who would never dare to hang up on an influential talk back radio host or tell their producers to get stuffed, look both stupid and serious by the difference Palmer’s behaviour highlights. His point about policy and pensions is entirely valid. What matters more in media coverage of politics, a gotcha moment or an examination of the basic function of government – how they raise revenue and how they spend that revenue?
Palmer is hilarious because he wants to be, ridiculous because he is everything a politician should not be, but by being the jester in a court of fools he clarifies the very foolishness we all despise about politics. His refusal to play by the rules, particularly given the power that PUP has in the senate, will be a source of pain and laughter, but, as the Trickster always must, he will be a flashpoint of change. By taking our pain onto himself and making us laugh at it, he both makes it more bearable and gives us the opportunity to find another path.
And maybe, he might even stay awake long enough to watch it happen.