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Magazine of the Socialist Party in Australia

Behind Clive Palmer’s populism

In less than a year the Palmer United Party (PUP) has become a minor force in federal politics, and a thorn in the side of the Abbott Government. Set up by the billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer, the PUP received 5.5% of the vote at last year’s federal election.

Recent figures show the PUP polling at about 7% nationally. In part this support can be explained by Palmer having tapped the underlying feeling that the federal budget is unfair. While lacking any real substance, the PUP has given the impression that they are on the side of ordinary people.

In some regions the PUP’s support is even more pronounced. In Palmer’s home state of Queensland polls indicate support of about 12%. The PUP has been able to tap the popular mood by opportunistically attacking the Newman government’s budget measures.

Similarly Palmer has attempted to portray his opposition to the carbon tax as motivated by a desire for lower utility costs for households. In reality his motivation was to lower the tax burden for his own businesses.

The PUP has also won some support by presenting itself as ‘anti-establishment’. With most people seeing the major parties as the same, there is a desire for a political force that is seen to stand against the status quo. The truth is, as a wealthy capitalist, Palmer is not interested in anything that might genuinely challenge the domination of big business.

Palmer is a former life member of the Liberal National Party. His world view and policies are no different to those of the major parties. He is primarily driven to protect his profit making interests but given his party is unlikely to be in government in the short term he leans on populist rhetoric in order to try and eat into the Liberal’s and Labor’s support base. Given the absence of a mass left wing force putting forward a genuine alternative, this approach inevitably appeals to some.

The example of the PUP is not without precedent. Palmer himself has said that his party looks towards the United Australia Party (UAP) as a model. The UAP emerged during the Great Depression of the 1930s when the ruling class were debating how to salvage Australian capitalism.

The UAP came about as a merger between right wing ALP dissenters and the Nationalist Party. They came together promoting so-called ‘national unity’ claiming that employers and workers shared common interests. In reality the UAP favoured a hardline austerity approach whereby workers were forced to pay for the depression that capitalism had created.

Right wing populist forces, while often an annoyance to the ruling class, can sometimes be leant upon by as a way of safely channelling anger away from more radical alternatives. At this stage the ruling class has no need to use the PUP in this way but given the party has significant resources at its disposal it is still possible that it can continue to be a minor factor for some time.

That said the lack of a real social base, and the absence of a set of cohesive ideas, means the PUP will likely be unstable. At a certain stage Palmer’s political opportunism will be exposed as his business interests will come into conflict with the interests of those who voted for him.

While the PUP has many negative features, its rise also shows the potential for new political formations to develop quite quickly. For example if trade unions, community groups, and other progressive forces came together, and pooled their resources, they too could make swift breakthroughs.

The difference being that a formation of this character would have a real social base and could unashamedly represent the interests of ordinary people without being comprised by big business. Such a development would not only undermine the two party system but it would cut across the growth of fake anti-establishment forces like the PUP.

By Ben Convey