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The Columbo Effect: Clive Palmer and the rise of populism in Australia

By Jaime de-Loma Osorio Ricon - posted Friday, 8 November 2013


When I was a child living in Spain, I used to watch the popular detective series Columbo with my grandmother. In it, Peter Falk played a garrulous, dishevelled-looking detective who was consistently underestimated by his suspects. Despite his unimposing appearance and apparent absentmindedness, he shrewdly solved all of his cases. His impressive skills and methodology, though apparent to the viewer, always became clear to criminals when it was too late. In the Australian political scene (aka #auspol), we seem to have our very own Columbo, but this one is literally worth more than his weight in gold.

I used to find Clive Palmer very amusing. Whenever he was interviewed on TV, I could not help but watch in amazement as this apparently uncultivated, sometimes almost imbecilic character found his way out of difficult questions using completely ludicrous, but admittedly funny remarks. Early on, I was surprised by the amount of air time he received given the shallowness of his arguments, his inability to answer questions and his constant recourse to commonplace and stereotype.

Looking at it in retrospect, I can now see clearly that I was fooled into dismissing him as some sort of rich lunatic, and I did not think much of his chances at the 2013 Federal Election. Well it turns out that he, through his party, the PUP, may well have turned into one of the most influential politicians of this federal parliament, thanks to the balance of power he may hold in the Senate from July 2014.

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How could I be so wrong? Well, similarly to the criminals in Columbo, I was unable to distinguish Clive Palmer as a person from his public persona. As a good friend of mine says, not many stupid people turn into billionaires. However, I could never integrate that thought with what I saw whenever he gave an interview.

If we stop underestimating Clive Palmer, we can then start to understand that what he is doing is indeed very smart. Here is an outline of some of his strategies:

1. Avoid scrutiny by refusing to answer questions properly. If the interviewer insists, resort to vagaries about how much you love this country, make a stupid joke or even turn the question on the interviewer (e.g. when he asked Leigh Sales about her income and assets). As long as it is funny, you can pretty much get away with anything, including ridiculous conspiracies about the CIA and the Greens or the Australian Electoral Commission and the military.

2. Use your money and influence to create a political party, using candidates that have been hand-picked and financially supported by you so that you have total control over their vote (as demonstrated by Jacqui Lambie's backflip on the Carbon Tax, or by the press conference the PUP held after the election).

3. Be provocative and try to separate yourself from mainstream parties through bold differentiation, even if many of your policies are virtually the same as those of the Coalition (lower taxes and a pro-business agenda). This can be done despite serious inconsistencies in your policies (you can rebuild the Titanic in China while ranting about the need to support Australian jobs and industry).

Why does all of this matter? It matters because it is a fraud, and because just as he fooled me into dismissing him as some lunatic, he has fooled thousands of voters into thinking he is an honest, larger than life character with the interests of Australians at heart. Far from that, he is a radical politician and a walking conflict of interest, even if he wants you to think his business interests have no bearing on his ability to serve the public. Let's not forget that the Australian Government is about to dismantle the Carbon Tax and the Mining Tax, which will have an impact for the owner of Mineralogy, Waratah Coal and Queensland Nickel, among others.

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What can be done about it? The only way to address this is through public scrutiny, carried out by politicians, mainstream media and people like you and I. Luckily, the Murdoch press may be quite willing to do so, as will the ABC, provided the LNP does not dismantle it, of course!

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About the Author

Jaime is currently the Deputy CEO at Banksia Gardens Community Services, where he has worked since 2007. Recently, he has been a member of the Robinson Reserve Neighbourhood House Committee of Management and of the CERES Environment Park Board of Management. In 2012, he was the recipient of one of the Hume City Council Teachers’ Scholarship Awards in the Open Category. Jaime has qualifications in Science (M.Sc. in Applied Physics) and Engineering (Master of Engineering in Sustainable Energy).

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