Guy Rundle, Clivosaurus (Quarterly Essay 55)
Since I first met Guy Rundle’s writing in the late 1980s I’ve thought of him as two writers in one. He wrote brilliant scripts for Max Gillies’ stage and TV satires, and at the same time wrote formidably, even impenetrably, abstract prose for the Marxist periodical Arena. In Clivosaurus those two Rundles are working well together: the essay is bitingly funny where it needs to be, and provides much-needed serious analysis of its subject. Its prose, happily, is far from impenetrable.
The essay begins with an episode from the familiar Clive Palmer narrative, the epic weekend at Palmer’s Coolum resort just before the first Senate sitting of 2014.
‘I donnn’t wannnnn’t to see any more dinosaurs,’ said a small girl. ‘We’re going to see the dinosaurs,’ said her dad, pulling her along. The weekend was rich in analogy.
Over at the Coolum rooms, other big beasts were gathering. The PUP’s Queensland senator, Glenn Lazarus, the ‘brick with eyes’, rolled in with a posse of good ol’ boys, enormous men in male bling, tapping on BlackBerries as they walked. Palmer’s other media guy, Andrew Crook – improbably but inevitably trading as Crook Media – buzzed around, harassed and bothered. Then a golf cart pulled up, and Crook imposed himself in front of the two camera crews as His Cliveness struggled out.
In general, the press has focused on the comedy of Clive Palmer, treating his entry into federal politics as if it was akin to his animatronic dinosaurs or his plan to launch a new Titanic, needing no further explanation than naked economic self-interest and his vendetta against the conservative parties of Queensland. This essay relishes the comedy, going so far as to include some of Palmer’s eminently mockable poetry. It also goes into the swashbuckling history of the Gold Coast and Queensland conservative politics, in which Palmer has been a player. But it goes on to argue that behind the twerks and twaddle is a consistent political outlook rooted in Palmer’s Catholic centre right background:
Palmer has been completely consistent in doing what he said he’d do – vote to abolish the carbon and mining taxes – and completely in accord with his stated beliefs in developing a set of policies in response to the surprise budget. For six months he has said he and his party would not agree to the Medicare co-payment, the harsh new arrangements for unemployed youth, an increase in university fees or ‘assets recycling’, and he hasn’t. Much of what he was willing to compromise on with the government involved issues and policies peripheral to his philosophy. His rapid deal-making, a legacy of his real-estate and mining-lease years, and his ability to package and repackage sets of options at a rapid pace seemed to bamboozle people, to convince them that anything was up for grabs. Yet this was nothing more than the horse-trading that is a necessary part of politics everywhere else, but that has been lessened by the lock-step nature of the Australian party system.
Perhaps the essay’s final movement is its most interesting. ‘It is not Clive Palmer per se,’ Rundle writes, ‘ that is the source of this merry dance we have been on in the past six months.’ He goes on to discuss what he calls ‘the now sclerotic apparatus of Australian government’, by which candidates who receive a tiny fraction of the primary vote can gain seats on the Senate, and the way the major parties and the media have vested interests in not challenging that system. People may be upset at the disruptive effect of Clive Palmer and the PUPs wielding such power, but just imagine if it had been Gina Reinhart or someone similarly lacking in Palmer’s social concerns (such as they are) had bought their way into parliament the way he did! What’s more, we have
a Treasurer whose family fortune is constituted by his wife’s skills as a banker, and whose family’s future fortune will be considerably affected by the general decisions the Treasurer and his party make on taxes, interest rates, deductibility and the like. The party system masks the latter set of interests – Palmer’s, at least, are right out there where we can see them. … [In] the longer term we will only have come out of this period successfully if we are pointed towards an era when big beasts no longer, with such impunity, stalk the land.
So this started out looking like one of the Quarterly Essays that probe the personality of a public figure, or explore the way they appeal to some generalised Australian national psyche, but it turns out to be a call to action on a serious problem with our ‘democracy’.