Why students can’t trust Clive Palmer

Last week, Clive Palmer sat down to lunch with Christopher Pyne to discuss a potential compromise on university fee deregulation. The meeting happened on Pyne’s forty-seventh birthday, which the pair celebrated over a cake just big enough for two, followed by Palmer singing the Education Minister ‘Happy Birthday’.

Fortunately for the thousands of students and potential students who face having their own hopes and dreams quashed by the minister’s plans for universities, Pyne hasn’t had his budgetary birthday wish granted … yet.

The night before, Palmer dined with Treasurer Joe Hockey to talk about a compromise on the $7 Medicare co-payment, proposed by the AMA, about which he has also stated that he remains ‘open minded’.

Clive Palmer and the Palmer United Party (PUP), which holds the balance of power in the senate, have had the government and much of the country on tenterhooks since the budget was announced in May. Palmer, and his PUP acolytes, came out hard early against the deregulation of university fees. But since then he has vacillated a number of times.

The government has made it clear that, even if it doesn’t get its changes to universities, especially fee deregulation, through this time around, it will try again and again to do so – such is the determination to re-shape the university system after the American model. And the government is doing all that it can to butter up Palmer to get him on side.

Palmer knows how desperate the government is to shove through its deeply unpopular budget in one form or another and that his position will be decisive on what goes through. But these private, wheeling-and-dealing dinners – one of the more contemptible aspects of the political establishment that Palmer purports to so despise – are indicative of the way that Palmer operates in the political sphere. He is angling to get as much as he can for himself out of the situation – and we should not put it past him to, sooner or later, renege on his ‘promise’ to students.

While Palmer may play at being a loveable clown, his unprecedented rise represents a dangerous political phenomenon about which students, as much as anyone else who will be hit by this budget, should be extremely worried, as a brief look at his past makes abundantly clear.

Palmer is estimated to be worth between $795 million and $2.2 billion, with investments in a series of labyrinthine business interests.  While he presents himself as somehow distinct from the established political elite, Palmer’s business activities have shown he is anything but a friend to workers. His companies have paid no tax in the last six years; his nickel company, QN, has been trying to drive down wages and conditions on the waterfront, effectively cutting workers’ pay this year.

Palmer was a central figure in the Queensland NLP throughout the 80s and 90s. He fell out with the party after Campbell Newman’s austerity drive (which Palmer believed would lead to a recession and ultimately provoke a fall in the profitability of his own enterprises) and coupled with a key decision about the Galilee mining basin falling in favour of competitor Gina Rinehart. It was after this that Palmer decided to form the PUP, just months before the 2013 election.

In the same way that Palmer’s rejection of Newman’s sweeping privatisations and butchering of the public sector was out of concern for his own long term business interests, not the thousands of state employees made redundant or the social devastation that it brought upon Queensland, his opposition to the 2014 budget is ultimately for his own seamy political and economic agenda.

Critically, Palmer’s move away from the NLP has not meant a rejection of its fundamental political tenets. The PUP is essentially a liberal, pro-business party. Support for free education is not incompatible with such an outlook. Indeed, an educated, highly skilled workforce has always been to the benefit of big business. But this is not part of a social vision of equity and fairness.

In fact, Palmer doesn’t appear to have a particularly well-constructed political vision. The PUP is structured so that Palmer personally makes the majority of key policy decisions, which his representatives, who are either single-issue politicians or work for him, are expected to fall in line with.

The PUP’s posturing as a socially progressive party, including its dubious pro-refugee stance, goes a long way in explaining its rise on the back of Labor’s long-term slide to the Right. Unlike other populists of the past couple of decades, however, such as Pauline Hanson, Palmer has not built his political profile on racism. Instead, he has recognised that most people’s real fears lie in their increasing economic vulnerability, which the 2014 budget brought into sharp relief.

The process leading to Palmer’s rise began way before the budget. He has been able to take advantage of mass disillusionment with the ALP, underway since the early 80s when Labor betrayed its voting base by introducing the Prices and Incomes Accord. Labor has since become a party of neoliberalism, introducing pro-business policies on state and federal levels. Throughout this time, casualisation and inequality have massively increased, and the ALP has haemorrhaged members and votes.

Labor has slowly but surely abandoned its social democratic program, attacking welfare and the social wage promised to workers as part of the Accord, while blaming refugees for the social consequences of Labor’s own decisions. The policies introduced by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, such as Work Choices Lite and cuts to single parents payments, have been part and parcel of this trajectory, leaving workers without a political option representing their interests. In the absence of a party to fill this space (which the Greens have done in some part), the political terrain has been prepared for the likes of Palmer, who has done best in regions with high levels of unemployment.

Given the excruciatingly cautious response by federal Labor, which tried to outdo the Libs in its concern over the deficit, it makes sense that people should have been taken in by Palmer’s (initially) unequivocal rejection of the budget.  As the opportunity to block supply whooshed by, with the federal Greens (despite internal debate) concerned themselves over whether they might appear too radical if they opposed the budget, it was Palmer who gained from Abbott’s plummeting popularity by voting to block the bills.

So it with this in mind that we can begin to fathom how the futures of potentially hundreds of thousands of students, not to mention pensioners, unemployed people and the disabled, came to lie in the hands of this eccentric mining magnate.

Labor has taken until now to oppose fee deregulation outright, despite the fact that SMH polls show that fee deregulation is one of the most unpopular aspects of the whole budget.

Students should take heart from the fact that Bill Shorten has now, finally, come out against fee deregulation and the 20 per cent cuts to funding: this indicates that federal Labor is feeling the pressure, or has been given the confidence to stand against the policies.

But the ALP are no champions of public tertiary education. We mustn’t forget that only last year the Gillard government cut $2.3 billion in funding to universities.

The government’s changes mean that students could pay upwards of $100 000 in the elite universities, while smaller universities compete with cut-price, teaching-only providers. We may be saddled with interest-collecting debt for decades to come, and find ourselves without any welfare to fall back on upon finishing our studies. These are changes that will be extremely hard to reverse if passed.

For these reasons, I would argue that students must look beyond Palmer and parliament, and continue to build the movement on the campuses for a fair, equitable university system and the reinstatement of full public funding. We know the money is there, with more locked up in un-taxed corporate profits –all while the government takes more money out of services, and students are squeezed for all they are worth.

While the Greens can and should be a mouthpiece for such a movement inside parliament, we have seen that we cannot rely on a return to power of the ALP, which is liable to bring the cuts in some other way, or buckle under pressure from the voracious VCs of the Go8. And the only thing we can rely on from the unscrupulous Clive Palmer is that he will continue to act in the interests of Clive Palmer. We should hold Palmer to his word – but any stance that Pyne ‘takes heart’ from is something about which we should be very, very wary.

In the immediate term, we have to bury Abbott’s budget, and hopefully the Liberal government and its anti-social, user-pays logic with it. But the student movement has the potential to act as a detonator for a broader movement against the budget. In order to do so, however, we have to be building our own organisations and politicising a wider student body, while forging connections with other sections of the anti-budget campaign. It also means working alongside university staff, who will also suffer as a result of these attacks, to push back the tide of corporatisation, irrespective of who is in parliament.

Caitlin Doyle-Markwick

Caitlin Doyle-Markwick is an activist, writer and performer from Sydney, by way of Newcastle. Her writing has appeared in places like Overland, Antipodes and FBi Radio’s All the Best. Recently, she was a Playwright-in-Residence at Sydney’s Old 505 Theatre. Caitlin is a member of Solidarity and the NSW Refugee Action Coalition.

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