Clive Palmer and the plutocratic impulse

In the US, the plutocratic era dawned some years ago; an age where the super-rich, rather than letting a major political party represent their interests – controlling them from behind the scenes – decide to choose a particular champion within the party, or themselves run within the party structure, or go it alone. This has been going on for quite a while in the US. Ross Perot ran a one-man party, based on his software fortune, in 1992, thus ensuring the election of Bill Clinton. More recently, billionaire financial services broadcaster, Michael Bloomberg simply bought the mayoralty of New York with a massive outspend of his opponent, while Vegas property developer and ultra-zionist Shelton Adelson pumped tens of millions into the one-man crusade of Newt Gingrich (in return, Gingrich’s speeches would veer alarmingly from the structural economic problems of the US to a demand that the country’s Israeli embassy be moved to Jerusalem). Adelson did his dough, and demonstrated one of the factors that limit the full plutocratisation of politics: embarrassment. At the White House Correspondent’s Dinner last week, President Obama noted that for all the money spent, Adelson could have bought an island and named it ‘Nobama’.

In Connecticut, the World Wrestling tycoon Linda McMahon burnt close to $100 million on two failed Senate campaigns, demonstrating another truth ¬– that plutocratic campaigns are subject to the law of diminishing returns. To saturate the airwaves is easy, but beyond a certain point it has little effect. Votes are overwhelmingly got out by people on the ground. Yet even if you hire an army of them, they will be less effective than a grassroots volunteer effort who understand, and believe in their own policies. That may change as politics decomposes.

Now in Australia, we have a new entrant with Queensland mining billionaire Clive Palmer announcing the creation of his own outfit, the ‘United Australia Party’. There’s obvious overlap, with another populist outfit Katter’s Australia Party. It’s a measure of where we’re at that Palmer’s new outfit makes Katter’s mob look like a grounded professional outfit. The Katter party have responded to Palmer’s new organisation, well, Kattily.

Nor can one blame them. For though on the one hand Palmer’s party represents a further assertion of hard-right political muscle and determination, it is also a symptom of atrophy in that section of the body politic. The Right is decomposing politically, in a manner related to the decomposition of the Australian economy, the giant quarry fringed with rather intriguing little bars.

Katter may have personalised his party, but it unquestionably has a socio-economic class base, emerging from the same small rural producers who initially formed the Country Party in the 1920s. The National Party has long since deserted them and their particular interests, becoming an enforcer of globalisation on behalf of the Liberal Party, and gaining a few crumbs from the table in mitigation. That Katter struck out on his own, rather than trying to retake the National Party, is a measure of how far gone that outfit is. The geographical-social base he claimed dictated his policies. Some of his supporters are well-off cattle-runners; others are tobacco and other farmers who would long ago have gone broke were they not recipients of generous subsidies. And of course, it’s the communities around them, dependent on the continued existence of such activities, that constitute the numerical bulk of his support. This mix helps explain the curious mix of the KAP’s policies – economically nationalist, mixing right and (a bit of) left populism, anti-gay marriage and pro-busting up the big grocery duopoly, and so on. These are policies for communities that no longer have a real economic base, and live, by and large, by the good graces of a state that does not want to see rural Australia disappear as a community more or less entirely. Consequently, what are required are policies that gird a fixed and settled social identity, as much as it does an economy. Hence the obsessive focus on same-sex marriage, safe injecting rooms, and other malarkey. If Katter now seems keen to downplay the more obsessive social conservative aspects of his party, it is because he has suddenly realised that his party’s appeal is wider than he initially believed, and might have purchase in urban areas, among disaffected workers – hence the bizarre announcement that Katter intends to create a new multi-industry workers’ union, with Labor-Greens-Labor ETU gadfly Dean Mighell writing the IR policy.

Palmer, wealthy from mining and bound by no social base whatsoever, thus has no political form dictated to him. Consequently, the politics are haywire beyond the obvious pro-mining planks of abolishing the carbon tax (retrospectively, thus reimbursing mining and big business). Palmer assails the federal government on debt and economic management, but argues that the LNP Queensland government is bigging-up state debt in order to promote unnecessary state asset sales (although this may be a pure swipe at a government which did not award him a lucrative contract for the Galilee Basin). He wants to ban lobbyists, fly asylum seekers direct to Australia, and give his party’s MPs a free vote on same-sex marriage. However it should be noted that he is also building a replica of the Titanic and an animatronic version of Jurassic Park. ‘Professor Palmer’, as he styles himself on the party’s website – due to a part-time appointment some years back by Deakin University business school – is thus all over the place, a mad white-shoe prince capable of catering to his own every whim, combining personal interest, class interest and the idea of the day, as it occurs to him.

That a private-resources economy should produce such people is inevitable.

Like many of these people who have grown fantastically wealthy on a resources sector that should have been in public hands, Palmer’s wealth (estimated at $800 million plus) has probably come from a half-dozen big decisions based on prospecting claims and buy-outs. Once you’ve hit the motherlode, you’ve, well, hit the motherlode – the iron ore keeps on coming, and it would take enormous talent to actually fuck it up, rather than simply let the money roll in.

But that is not a very satisfactory way to think about yourself. And thus mega-rich figure such as Gina Rinehart and Clive must reimpute value to what they do, figure it as the measure of something that comes, not from the earth, but from their own creative dynamism. Hence Rinehart’s emblazoning of appalling emmetalled doggerel on poor, defenceless rocks at the gates of mines; hence Palmer’s inability to simply subscribe to a party, but instead to start one, which will then be a political expression of his unique creative genius – supposing, that is, he can gather the signatures required to register. Australia’s contradictory politics – a boomtime windfall economy, slowly going backwards in terms of development, R&D and infrastructure, with two major parties unwilling to put together a program that would connect this wealth to real collective betterment – is the setting for such interventions. Palmer has already wrecked the conservative side of politics once – he was a young prime-mover in the 1987 Joh-for-Canberra push which derailed the Coalition at a bad time for Labor. Perhaps he’s ready to do it again, damaging not merely Abbott but Katter in the bargain. But Labor would be unwise to rely on such. They have ignored the real conditions of their key constituencies for so long that they are exposed to any populist push that promises to ‘unite the country’ and ‘put aside politics’. However much money they can wield, the Right will always be prey to their phantasmagorical myths of where value comes from, and that will cause them to go blundering around like a T-Rex or a stray iceberg. Who will be predator and who prey in the emerging plutocracy remains to be seen.

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle is currently a correspondent-at-large for Crikey online daily, and a former editor of Arena Magazine. His ebook, And the Dream Lives On? Barack Obama, the 2012 Election and the Great Republican Whiteout, is forthcoming.

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  1. might want to do an edit of the article. In the third paragraph it states that Clive Palmer is from Western Australian when he is actually from Queensland.

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