Selling a PUP: The astute political analysis of The Saturday Paper

Don't let media billionaire Rupert Murdoch tell you what to think, let real estate millionaire Morry Schwartz guide you instead!

Don’t let media billionaire Rupert Murdoch tell you what to think, let real estate millionaire Morry Schwartz guide you instead!

In yesterday morning’s The Saturday Paper, as Western Australia went to the polls in a Senate election rerun, Mark Seccombe asked just what kind of voter “can you sell a PUP”.

He spun us a tale of a dwindling number of older, less educated, and unemployed white males, duped by a billionaire’s extravagant advertising spend. The Palmer vote in 2013 was an outlier, after a poor showing in the Tasmanian state election it was clear that the Palmer United Party would struggle to make 4%. The not so subtle message was that the Palmer voters who remained where dupes, unemployed, under educated, older and angry.

Last night the Palmer United Party won 12.49% of the vote, 7.48% more than in the federal election last year.

Seccombe’s article is fascinating, largely because of where it appears. The Saturday Paper is has been marketed as “a newspaper without the Murdoch”. The assumption that underlies it is that the failure of the social democratic left in this country has been due to the nefarious influence of an all-powerful Rupert Murdoch, and a working class stupid enough to believe him.

What passes for Australian social democracy has a convenient scapegoat in Murdoch. Why did Labor rush to the right? Murdoch. Why do governments torment refugees? They’re appealing to stupid racists who believe Murdoch. Why did the Gillard government fail? Murdoch and stupid people. Why haven’t the Greens broken through into the mainstream? The evil Murdoch monster tells lies.

When confronted with a phenomena like Clive Palmer, how does this “left” understand him? He’s a rich man duping stupid people, and there is nothing else going on that we have to understand.

There is something else going on. The failures of Australian social democracy are not due to some all-powerful media baron, or that Australians are simply too stupid to understand that the left are correct. Rather, Australian social democracy fails because of its total disconnect from the reality of the Australian working class, and its own lack of political content.

Clive Palmer’s success yesterday means something, and explaining it is important to understanding what is going on. The two explanations that the mainstream left will offer are wrong. Clive Palmer did not buy the vote, advertising spend does not determine the course of an election, if it did he would have won far more than 12.49% of the vote. And the Australian working class is not stupid. Formal tertiary education is not some indicator of intelligence (especially when you look at what the Australian edufactory produces), and the Australian working class did not somehow acquire some form of stupidity recently that it did not have when those darlings of the current left, Whitlam, Hawke and Keating, were elected.

Don’t get me wrong, Clive Palmer is a joke. He is a self-interested dinosaur-building Titanic-raising coal-mining billionaire. But this isn’t some secret. 12.49% of Western Australians voted for him even though he is a joke. The vote for Clive Palmer is an indication of growing disillusionment. When faced with the vacuous circus that is Australian politics, 12.49% of Western Australians consider a joke like Clive Palmer the better alternative.

The mainstream left will nash their teeth. But for the radical left, this is actually a good sign. Parliament is a farce. Our democracy is a sham. The parliamentary process does not serve the interests of the Australian working class. Evidence that the legitimacy of authority of the official political process is being slowly eroded should be welcomed.

Further Reading:

Tad Tietze at Left Flank:

The rise of PUP in WA, winning 12.5 percent of the vote has again wrong-footed mainstream and Left observers. Most still seem to think that attacking Palmer’s economically undeliverable promises will expose him as a fraud. Or that damning him for using (his own) corporate cash to win votes will reveal him to have no real support. Or that his erratic anti-politician persona, complete with scathing vitriol directed at the established parties, will simply show he is not to be taken seriously. Or, finally, that his status as a member of the business elite will repel people, as soon as people wake up to it. All these views miss what is happening, because in fact political attacks only increase the anti-political appeal of operators like Palmer. It confirms to voters that the insular, self-obsessed political class and its media lapdogs are simply trying to shore up their own interests against the threat he poses. After all, these same politicos don’t blink when the established parties makes promises they don’t intend to keep, amass corporate money for their campaigns, ridicule their opponents, and get entitled about their entitlements. Palmer’s success is a reflection of the disdain for politics that is the defining feature of the political situation today, and his nasty anti-democratic side matters little when voters see the sick state of actually existing democracy.

1 Comment

  1. ablokeimetApril 10, 2014 at 5:06 am

    Palmer is selling a populist, Right wing brand of politics. As both Kieran & Tad have observed, however, he’s not the only one putting up ridiculous policies and making unbelievable statements. I would further note that he’s such a loose cannon that his positions are as often to the Left of the Libs as to their Right.

    What caused the 12.5% vote for PUP? I believe it was, fundamentally, the promise to fight to get more of the GST money raised in WA to go back to WA. It is short-sighted parochialism, pure and simple. Nothing else he was saying could have caused so many people to switch their vote, rather than just have a laugh and vote how they did last time.

    Most people who supported that proposal would have done so without considering the consequences. This is understandable, since even the so-called “quality” press hasn’t bothered to explain it to people. It is, however, a fundamental attack on the principle of horizontal fiscal equalisation.

    Horizontal fiscal equalisation has been in place in Australia since 1933 and is based on ensuring that each State has the same capacity to provide services, regardless of its capacity to raise income. It can be thought of as a solidarity pact between the States. It should be noted that the focus is on equalising capacity, not on equalising outcomes. Each State government still has the right to levy taxes of its choosing, at rates of its own choosing, and provide whatever services it decides. The amount of the transfers is decided by the Commonwealth Grants Commission, according to a complicated formula which is subject to endless debate.

    For about 60 or 70 years, Western Australia was a net beneficiary of fiscal equalisation. In that time, no Western Australian government had complained about the policy. In recent years, as the mining boom has changed WA from being a net beneficiary to a net contributor, the WA Government has taken up complaining about not getting its fair share. There is a long and dishonourable history of State governments in Australia doing this. What is new, however, is having a party campaigning for the Federal Parliament running this line. Normally, a party running for Federal Parliament will want to be quiet about that, because what it says to advance its fortunes in one State will hurt it in others. A brief look at how the GST is distributed to States & Territories in Australia for 2013-14 is illuminating. The figures amount to the proportion of GST revenue collected in the State & Territory that is distributed to that State or Territory.:

    NSW 0.97500
    Vic 0.88282
    Qld 1.07876
    SA 1.28803
    WA 0.37627
    Tas 1.63485
    NT 5.66061
    ACT 1.23600

    The low figure for WA is surprising, but it has been produced by the use of the same methodology the Commonwealth Grants Commission has been using for years. BEeore I criticise it, therefore, I would like to understand the detail of the methodology, rather than just the general principles of it.

    Note that Queensland and Tasmania are both net beneficiaries of fiscal equalisation – and both of them elected PUP Senators last September. PUP’s new WA Senator, therefore, would be advocating a policy that would take money away from the people who voted the other PUP Senators into office. Palmer could get away with this, however, because only WA was going to the polls last week and the other States were bystanders. It would be interesting to see, therefore, what Glenn Lazarus and Jaqui Lambie have to say about the matter.

    So, he’s telling his audience what they want to hear, rather than a policy based on a consistet analysis of the facts. What else is relevant?

    Well, one thing is that, on the issue of the Palmer United Party, Murray Schwartz & Rupert Murdoch are on a unity ticket. In fact, Murdoch’s papers have been consistently attacking Palmer – the Courier-Mail and The Australian in particular. The reason for this is that, while Murdoch understands that drum-beating for populism is necessary in the current era for getting a Parliamentary majority for a party of the Right, it needs to be safely subordinated to Big Business once inside the party room. You can’t have dissident forces on the Right voting against the Big Business agenda just because they’re electorally unpopular. Therefore, the Liberal Party mustn’t have to compete with a populist party for the votes of the Right.

    Finally, a word on populism. It is continually castigated in the media, but never defined. It is best understood as a form of capitalist democracy, but an unsustainable form. It is based on the principle that “the majority can do what it wants, full stop”.

    On this basis, populism can often run into conflict with Big Business because of the gut level egalitarian perspective of the mass of the electorate. Populists don’t like privatisation and also don’t like massive inequalities in wealth & income. The PUP, therefore, may interfere with some of the current Coalition Government’s agenda.

    Populists are a form of Right wing politics, however, because they don’t balance their gut level egalitarianism and democratic sentiments with a recognition of the rights of the individual. Populists are suckers for almost any attempt to scapegoat a minority for the sufferings of the majority and are happy to legislate away minority rights, especially when carried away with a burst of emotion*. Thus, they are hostile to refugees, they don’t recognise indigenous land rights, oppose migration, support knee-jerk “law & order” policies, etc. Depending on the proclivities of their leaders, these prejudices can be exploited to deprive unpopular minorities of their rights.

    What most of them don’t realise (and their leaders are careful not to inform them of this) is that the egalitarianism they treasure is dependent on certain inalienable rights of the individual. In the final analysis, every person on Earth is a minority of one and, by allowing populist leaders to cut and dice society into majorities and minorities of their own choosing, supporters of populism can find themselves having disenfranchised virtually everyone. Populism is, therefore, a form of democracy that chops at its own roots.

    * The earliest example of this of which I am aware was the execution of Socrates in 399 BCE. One of the prominent politicians of the day, when upbraided by an observer for the injustice of the execution, is reputed to have replied “Why can’t we [i.e. the male citizens of Athens, collectively] do what we want?”


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