Is it curtains for Clive? What COVID means for populism in Australia

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Gregory Melleuish, University of Wollongong

What can we make of Clive Palmer?

This week, he announced his United Australia Party (UAP) would not contest the upcoming West Australian state election on March 13.

After a dismal showing in the October 2019 Queensland poll, where does this leave his political prospects?

Palmer is no mini-Trump

Given Palmer’s love of publicity stunts and populist policies, one might be tempted to see him as a miniature, Antipodean Donald Trump – but that would be misleading.

Trump was able to garner massive support in segments of the American population, whereas Palmer’s UAP only managed 3.43 per cent of first preference votes in the lower house at the 2019 federal election.

American-style populism does not resonate with large numbers of Australians. Australian political traditions are quite different to those of America especially in terms of welfare and health provision. Those who seek to take the populist route find it a hard road.

Trump supporters at Washington DC rally.
Donald Trump won more than 70 million votes at the recent US presidential election.
John Minchillo/AP/AAP

In the 2019 election, One Nation and United Australia combined only managed to win 7.76 per cent of the Senate vote.

Given the small base on which the likes of Palmer and One Nation’s Pauline Hanson have to work, one wonders what they now hope to achieve.

Australia’s populism culture

The current situation with COVID-19 might provide a clue as to why they have failed to spark a populist surge in Australia.

Palmer’s major contribution to the COVID world was his unsuccessful High Court challenge to force Western Australia to open its borders.

The past 12 months have demonstrated the significance of ‘quarantine culture’ in Australia, a term first coined by cultural historian John Williams in the 1990s.

The natural instinct of Australians is to close borders against outside threats, be they national or state. The only partial exception to this rule at the moment is New South Wales – the one part of Australia that had a vigorous free trade (or internationalist) political culture in the 19th century.

In late 19th century and early 20th century Australia, writers such as W. G. Spence and magazines like The Bulletin talked about a desire to ‘protect’ Australia against a harsh outside world and, if possible, limit the operation of international finance. The ideal was an Australia not dependent on the rest of the world.

In this regard, it is also worth recalling that one of the arguments often given for restricting Chinese immigration at the time was they were seen as carrying diseases into Australia.

This was a form of populism – but one quite different to the American version. It sought to protect Australia and Australians from the outside world, not to assert their right to liberty.

The COVID pandemic seems to have reignited this desire to protect Australians from an outside threat. The most remarkable aspect of this development has been the way in which this desire for protection has devolved to the state level.

Moves to close borders and institute quite draconian measures to halt the spread of the virus have been generally popular. Australians, it would seem, are more interested in being protected than they are in asserting their rights to do as they please.

What does this mean for Palmer?

This makes life quite difficult for someone such as Palmer, who has pushed for freedoms and border openings.

No wonder he has decided not to contest the WA state election. He is not in tune with the popular mood, which has strongly backed Labor Premier Mark McGowan’s hard border approach. It is not the time for libertarian populism.

Clive Palmer speaks to a near-empty press conference.
Palmer has said Premier Mark McGowan can ‘breathe easy’ as UAP will not contest the March election.
Darren England/AAP

It is difficult to know how long this protectionist attitude will last. One suspects the current situation with China has also fed into it. The mood is one of a threatening world.

… and for Morrison?

From here, two comments are worth making.

The first is political. Prime Minister Scott Morrison will need to cultivate this threatening mood if he is to succeed at the next federal election, which could be held as early as August. He will need to convince Australians he is the leader who will protect them most effectively. This means going slowly, slowly on things such as opening the international border.

The second is economic. Even in the 1890s, the Australian economy depended on international trade through the sale of wool. The idea Australia could operate independently of other countries was a fantasy.

The same is true today. The borders will need to re-open and students and tourists let in.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison
Prime Minister Scott Morrison could call a federal election as early as August.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Morrison will have to perform a juggling act. He must appear to be providing protection even as he appreciates protection can only go so far.

In the meantime, the prospects look grim for populists such as Palmer and Hanson.

The prime minister and his coalition have the opportunity to steal many of their supporters. The pandemic shows that to be successful in Australian politics, leaders need to pose as the protector of the people, not promise more freedom and more openness.

I suspect Morrison understands this very well.

The Conversation

Gregory Melleuish, Professor, School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Do you think we have seen the end of Clive Palmer as a political force?

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Total Comments: 11
  1. 4

    An interesting article. I’m no fan of Trump, Palmer or Hanson but to think that Morrison’s LNP politics will lead us into this decade as an independent, progressive multicultural country is the stuff of fairy tales. One only needs to reflect on the LNP record and on Morrison in particular – holidaying while the country burned, a complete failure to establish a sound progressive energy policy, proposed draconian legislation restricting our already limited freedoms and clinging to dogma in the face of facts in terms of climate change. Oh yes, and being stupid enough to poke the Chinese Dragon on the origins of Covid19 and wrecking many of our export markets in the process. Seems like just the man to lead us into the future, I don’t think. Populism isn’t the real issue in Australia athe moment, stupidity within our leadership is. Roll on the next election and please remember the immediate past of the LNP.

  2. 3

    the LNP like all the others benefits from running its own silent slave labor force ( Carers ) foreigners have more rights that carers who have none . after what Clive palmer did to Townsville, he should be locked up ( unfortunately the laws are soft of criminals because the laws are made by crooks. ). Id like to line up all the politicians shoot every second one of them give the rest of them one month to go back into parliament and work for the benefit of all Australian people . we would end up having to shoot all of them but at least it cant be said that they weren’t give a chance.

  3. 2

    What stands out for me is the need for students to be allowed in urgently. Then I realised that the article was written by a university professor. It is well documented that a lot of Australian universities have invested too heavily in overseas students and that investment is providing the bulk of the financing for a lot of universities. Add to that the impact China has on some universities with curriculums being changed to suit China.

    However, the article is purported to be about Clive Palmer and whilst it may be argued that he is gone as a political force, the fact remains that Australians are concerned about the two party system and we have seen a lot of Independents and minor parties being elected. We may not need Palmer and Hanson per se but we appear to need that type of person to, as Don Chipp so succinctly put, “keep the bastards honest”.

    Lastly, the comment on Morrison is puzzling. I don’t believe that he is projecting a “threatening attitude”, quite the contrary, as he is trying to be a conciliator with the states and trying to maintain a degree of uniformity. He is obviously not happy with border closures but his public comments about state premiers and their methods is supportive, not threatening. Is the good professor aware that the borders are only closed to people and that trade is continuing at a satisfactory rate, apart from China spitting the dummy.

  4. 3

    I agree with Bugsie and tisme. I’ll be happy if Clive disappears from politics. Also need to get rid of Pauline, and the majority of the LNP. All useless, self serving parasites.

  5. 0

    Clive is lucky not to be in jail the man is a cheat.How he was used in the last Federal election was beyond belief ,never thought it could happen in Australia but it did.What a way to win a election.

  6. 0

    Horace Cope obviously doesn’t appreciate the massive, billions of dollars, contribution that overseas students make to the Australian Economy; nor the additional benefits that accrue from building cultural relations and long lasting friendships with students returning to their homelands. Universities are as much an essential industry as Mining, a fact that goes unacknowledged by our PM. Nor does the placement of an overseas student deprive a local student of a place as some claim, there is room for all. In practise mixing o/s and local students is a great way of expanding the minds of our locals for the benefit of them and our guests.

    • 3

      You mention the expansion of minds for locals, mIKER, but a paper by Professor Bob Birrell suggests that for Australia’s universities, there has been an erosion of teaching standards and a resulting mounting threat to their reputation. This flows from the creation of overseas student enclaves in the fields these students focus on, mostly in business, administration and to a lesser extent information technology. Universities have had to adjust their curriculum and teaching standards to accommodate the limited academic preparation and often poor English skills of the students in question.

    • 0

      The university system was doomed to fail as soon as they made education a business, not a service. Foreign students come here to learn our technology then go off to use it against us. I am tired of money being the sole reason for an action.



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