Paula Matthewson, communications adviser
Clive Palmer has generated much political success from his image as a lovable buffoon — a man who loves to grab a headline, whatever the cost. He splashes cash on flights of fancy like building a working replica of the Titanic, or installing life-size dinosaur monuments around a golf course. This week, fresh off the mirth he provoked by rocking up to Parliament House in a classic Rolls Royce, Palmer has pledged to drive a different set of wheels to the national legislature each day — working his way through his collection of 150 different cars. He is the ultimate show pony. And now he’s about to become one of the country’s most influential politicians.
While Palmer is currently the sole representative in Canberra of the Palmer United Party — as member for the lower house electorate of Fairfax — from July, he will be joined by three newly minted Senators. He will also effectively control the vote of a fourth Senator, Victoria’s Ricky Muir, who has agreed to vote with Palmer’s team as a bloc. That leaves Palmer with the potential to stymie the government’s legislative agenda, where Labor and the Greens oppose particular measures. That is precisely the case for many of the contentious policies announced in the federal budget last month. Palmer, who does not shy away from playing the populist, has already signalled his concerns about many of the measures too. Indeed, he’s threatened to derail any government legislation that isn’t properly explained to him (which is why he’s also trying to extract public funding to hire political staffers).
But blatant populism can also backfire, as Palmer has this week discovered after launching a broadside against Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s chief of staff. Palmer accused Peta Credlin of pushing Abbott to support a generous paid parental leave scheme purely on the basis that she would personally benefit from such arrangements. The reaction was swift: government frontbenchers slammed Palmer as insensitive for targeting Credlin, who (as she revealed in a bombshell interview early last year) has had difficulties conceiving through in-vitro fertilisation. Journalists too were quick to perform their own ‘fact checks’, noting that Abbott had articulated his parental leave policy well before he hired Credlin. And, by the by, Credlin would already be entitled to leave arrangements more generous than those statutorily required, which are available to public servants.
Palmer has refused to apologise for his remarks, and broadening his assault on Credlin to argue that she wields too much power for an unelected official. Her role, in Palmer’s eyes, makes her ‘fair game’ for political scrutiny. At first pass, this seems like an after-the-fact rationalisation for ill-informed comments. Certainly, Credlin is a political high flyer — she is ‘within scope’, to the extent that it is her decision making that is called into question. But as Paula Matthewson notes, that is not the case here. This was little more than a personal attack on Credlin, with Palmer hinting at something untoward about a ‘strong woman’ leading Abbott’s political machine. In short, it’s not just that Palmer is factually wrong, it’s that he’s sexist too.
For my money (which, admittedly, I have rather less of than Palmer), the bigger concern is that there remains a remarkable lack of scrutiny of Palmer and what he stands for. It’s not that questions aren’t being asked — journalists routinely interrogate Palmer at press conferences. But Palmer laughs off difficult questions, and there seems little community interest in holding him to account. If Abbott (or opposition leader Bill Shorten) misspeaks, it leads the evening news. If Palmer misspeaks, it might become a meme shared between politically engaged Twitter users. That might seem proportionate: Palmer doesn’t lead a major political party, after all. But his party is about to assume the balance of power in the Senate. If that doesn’t warrant the public’s attention, what does?
Do you know what your degree costs?
Today, groups of university students across Australia participated in a ‘national day of action’ to protest changes proposed by the federal government to higher education. The government has outlined plans to remove the cap imposed on the fees universities can charge for their courses. The likely consequence is that fees will rise at the most prestigious universities and for the most expensive courses. It is important to note that Australia’s Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) will continue — that is, the changes (if implemented) will not start requiring students to pay any fees upfront. Rather, they will pay back more once they start earning an income above a certain threshold.
There is a misconception in some segments of the community that university students currently bear the full costs of their education. In fact, even with HELP, degrees remain heavily subsidised by taxpayers. The graph below, published by Harrison Polites today for Business Spectator, provides a crude way of illustrating the magnitude of the subsidy for various degrees — comparing what full-fee international students pay with what local, HELP-assisted students are charged. The graph may overstate the gap between cost and HELP debt in some instances, as international students may be charged fees in excess of course costs, thereby cross-subsidising local students.
Many students — and both the Greens and the Palmer United Party — reckon university students shouldn’t pay a cent ever for their higher education. Certainly, it is a proposal that carries much popular appeal. But the bill for such a policy would be considerable. It would also be unfair. As the Grattan Institute has previously reported, the vast majority of students obtain benefits that more than justify them meeting the full costs of their education. It is hard to justify imposing on non-graduates the costs of university degrees, when the benefits accrue primarily to graduates.
Paul Williams, Griffith University
Tony Abbott never experienced much of a post-election ‘honeymoon’ — a temporary high in the polls, which new leaders usually enjoy as voters reward a government that has yet to do anything substantive (and therefore nothing to upset constituents). Many pundits attributed the lack of a bounce to the low personal approval ratings that Abbott registered prior to last September’s vote: put simply, the story goes, Abbott was not ‘wanted’ by the electorate, just less ‘unwanted’ than prime ministers Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd. Now Abbott’s approval ratings have plunged to levels familiar to his immediate predecessors. Voters, it seems, have been stunned — unpleasantly so — by last week’s budget, with a litany of broken promises documented by critics. Suddenly, the man who had campaigned on honesty and integrity in government was caught out as a liar.
Of course, we are more than two years out from when the next federal election is due. And the Labor party, while ascendant in opinion polls now, is still in the grips of internal party reforms that are likely to hinder its short-term capacity to capitalise on the Liberal/National coalition government’s electoral woes. So, perhaps Abbott has little to worry about. Except he does: come July, the Senators elected at last year’s election will take their seats. That will hand the balance of power to Clive Palmer’s Senate contingent — hence, Abbott will need Palmer’s support to push ahead with the government’s legislative agenda. Palmer, however, seems in little mood to play ball.
It was once easy to dismiss Palmer as a political joke: a master of stunts, an amateur on policy. And while policy development still isn’t Palmer’s political forte, his political strategy is becoming far more advanced. As Paul Williams argues, the budget has provided Palmer with a new narrative: appealing to middle Australia’s sense that fiscal discipline is important, but the budget roadmap outlined by the government is simply too harsh. To this end, Palmer has pledged that his Senators will oppose changes to public healthcare provision, pensions and unemployment benefits. All the same, he still supports the government’s plans to abolish the minerals resources rent tax and any form of carbon pricing scheme. It’s magic pudding stuff: reject spending cuts, support tax cuts.
Palmer is undoubtedly a populist. Because he has little chance of taking government — despite his own bold predictions — he can afford to make outlandish policy demands. After all, having no responsibility for the consequences of dud policies is one of the few perks a minor party enjoys. But Palmer also has something that other minor parties don’t have: money, and bucketloads of it. That makes his voice an unusually influential one. Palmer is now attempting to woo the very swing voters that both the Labor and Liberal parties rely on to win power. High voter dissatisfaction with the mainstream parties gives him every chance of growing his electoral success. If Palmer continues his metamorphosis from class clown to professional politician, both sides of politics will have reason to be nervous.
Treasurer Joe Hockey hands down his first budget tonight. At 7.30pm (AEST), he will stand before parliament and unveil the government’s fiscal programme for 2014-15. Much has already been announced, with a package of measures to be sold as a commitment to balance Australia’s finances. As the government has itself acknowledged, much will be unpopular — spending cuts, tax rises and changes to eligibility requirements for various entitlements. It is not the budget you win elections with: it is the budget you deliver once you win an election.
With so much on the agenda, this blog will provide real-time updates, commentary and analysis on the 2014 federal budget. Follow along live, and have your say!