On The Hill: Australia, We Need To Talk About Clive

I know some of you were fond of him enough on Saturday to give him your vote but we need to ask why some of you decided to put a one in the box next to the Palmer United Party.

There is something deeper at play. People don’t ditch their long held voting patterns with ease. The choice to shift from Labor or the Coalition and vote for a plumb billionaire who accuses Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife, Wendi Deng, of being a Chinese spy without evidence to that effect mid-campaign and cannot go through an interview on Lateline without telling the nation how much he adores Tony Jones’ journalism is an odd one. Maybe it was the lure of a shiny new Titanic.

Maybe voters enjoy his cunning strategy. After all he did say, after Campbell Newman was elected, that his previous claim that the CIA was conspiring with the Greens was balderdash during the last Queensland election campaign.

He later defended himself with:

“It took a great lot of attention off some of the negative aspects of the election. That was a very good thing.”

“It’s wonderful that all of you [the media] could play a small role in having Campbell Newman elected as premier of Queensland, so well done, you all deserve a round of applause.”

Maybe the Australian public enjoys sadistic skulduggery in their parliament and erroneous distractions during elections. After all, he did accuse Deng of being a spy the very day the Coalition’s costings were released. I imagine this useful distraction also played a small role in having Tony Abbott elected.

There must be a deliberate suspension of disbelief now that Clive Frederick Palmer has parliamentary privilege meaning that he is protected against civil or criminal liability for statements made in the course of his legislative duties. I will be attending Question Time more often.

So who thought it was a wise idea to have Clive represent them in Canberra? The vote was strongest in economically declining, suburban and rural electorates with lower levels of education. We don’t know much about the 600,000 people who gave Palmer their first preference yet but we will soon.

I have previously argued that the Palmer vote was a “vote of frustration” which has a lot of similarities to the One Nation vote which was a revolt against the convergence of Australian political party’s ideologies and cartelisation of government, as political scientist Murray Goot has argued. Segments of poorer, lower educated, suburban and rural voters shifted to One Nation particularly in Queensland. Queensland did have the highest Palmer vote and has Australia’s 11 most right-wing electorates, according to Vote Compass.

The vote of frustration is linked to a declining local economy. Why the economic decline? There are a number of factors at work.

Rural and suburban geographies are highly dependent upon car usage. Petroleum costs are ever-increasing due to peak oil which “is very much alive, and squeezing its hands ever more tightly around the throats of oil-dependent economies”, according to University of Melbourne research fellow Samuel Alexander. Our entire economy is based on the burning of high amounts of petrol, particularly in suburbs. The further people live from the middle of cities, the further they tend to travel and consume more petrol, meaning that they have less discretionary income. This has the flow-on effect of less monies spent in local economies and they go into decline.

Furthermore, the last 30 years of economic reforms, such as ending tariff protections, have benefited some classes more than others. Those with lower levels of education who were employed in manufacturing in suburban areas are not doing all that well; their protection, the tariffs, have been lost. However, in professional jobs such as law or medicine, there are very high barriers to entry and there is no international competition. Few people in the developing world have been admitted to the NSW Bar Association or have been trained and examined by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons or can simultaneously be in Bangladesh, China and in Sydney. As a result, wages are frequently inadequate, according to ANU Emeritus Professor of Economics Bob Gregory. He indicates that Australia’s economic booms often translate into employment that fails to pay a living wage.

In rural areas, the move away from controlled markets with floor prices, which once maintained the living wage, have impoverished the regions. In the diary industry, for example, famers sell their milk to a duopoly of two companies, Italian Palamat (you know them as Paul’s) and Japanese Kirin (you know them as Dairy Farmers), which squeeze farmers through predatory pricing. That duopoly squeezes producers and the Coles-Woolworths duopoly squeezes the suppliers.  For example in South Australia, 20 years ago, farmers got 31 cents per litre of milk, while today they receive 35 cents.  If it had kept up with inflation, it would be 57 cents per litre today, with an annual inflation rate of 2.7%. The Coles-Woolworth duopoly are so powerful that Robert Gottliebsen reported that when “the price of diesel skyrocketed”, Woolworths “refused to let the farmers raise prices to compensate.”

No wonder people are angry.

Living wages are not being paid to a majority of rural and suburban workers. There is frustration in the Australian polity with the cartel of Australian government. People see the same effective economic policies implemented no matter which party is in government. It has been expressed through the ballot box over the years. ANU political scientist Professor Ian McAllister noted in 1987 that 89% of Australians identified with major parties, while in 2010 it was 77%. This almost mirrors the 79% of the primary vote they received. The political voice of this desperate group of wage earners and their families are not strong and are clearly not well-represented. It is oblique for Labor to refer to “working families” and their frustration with labour and housing markets when they’re trying to court the “aspirational voters.”

Now that people are voting for Palmer like they voted for One Nation back in 1998, the Liberal Party is worrying that Clive will break up the Labor-Liberal Cartel by consuming them just as it did back then. But does a billionaire represent his group of voters? Or as a capitalist to the bootstraps, major LNP political donor and Coalition member from 1979 to early 2013, is he merely interested in cleaving downtrodden voters off Labor and redirecting their preferences to the Coalition? After all, that would benefit his big business interests.