By: Helen Clark

Australian mining billionaire and self-funded politician Clive Palmer is best known for his clownish personality. But as the ruling coalition sinks in the polls and the eponymous Palmer United Party is set to hold the balance of power in Australia’s Upper House Senate come July 1, he is emerging, and behaving, as a more serious candidate.

The 60-year-old Palmer comes off as the quintessential Australian mining baron, owner of a wide range of mineral holdings, resorts and golf clubs. He is regularly savaged in the national press as a buffoon for his behavior and his political pretentiousness and was dubbed the “Bogan Berlusconi” by writer Richard Flannigan, an unflattering reference often used in the same breath as “trailer park trash” along with an allusion to the recently departed, infinitely scandalous former Italian premier Silvio. He also has stirred a considerable amount of bemusement both at home and abroad with a 2012 announcement that he intended to fund the construction of a full-scale replica of the steamship Titanic, which sank in 2012 with the death of more than 1,500 passengers and crew.  The project has stalled, at least temporarily.

But with Australia’s government once again plummeting in the opinion polls, the Palmer United Party looks more and more like becoming a political fulcrum, clownishness or no. The latest poll says that 67 percent of respondents feel that Prime Minister Tony Abott is out of touch, and overall Labor leads the coalition 52 to 48 percent on a two-party preferred basis. So far, so much the same.

The budget, which many believe comes seriously close to austerity measures, is hugely unpopular. The debt, Treasurer Joe Hockey argues, must be managed before things can get any worse, Triple AAA rating and positive IMF forecast or not. The budget proposes many cuts: to health, education, the arts and to scientific research institutions such as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO); will eventually up the retirement age to 70; an A$7 co-payment for previously free doctors’ appointments; no income support for those under 30 for the first six months of unemployment; the deregulation of university fees and a fuel levy after “no new taxes” was a main election promise.

The portly Palmer was spotted on May 28, dining at a Canberra restaurant with Malcolm Turnbull, the Minister for Communications whom Abbott earlier replaced as leader of the opposition. Turnbull confirmed to media they had discussed the budget but Palmer said the standout of the evening was the banana split. He did confirm it was no chance meeting although Joe Hockey on morning television later suggested it was chance, pointing out the few number of restaurants in the small capital city and saying, “Obviously Clive might have more than one meal a night so it is quite possible you will bump into him at a restaurant. I think it is probably just coincidence, nothing more.”

Abbott’s most recent gaffe – winking as a grandmother called in to a radio show to say she had to work as a phone sex operator to make ends meet – and the revelations his daughter was given an A$60,000 scholarship to a design school that does not ordinarily offer scholarships – haven’t helped his image. Hockey’s being caught smoking expensive cigars in between speeches against “entitlement” have also been poorly received.

Enter a suddenly considered and cogent Clive Palmer, member for Fairfax in Queensland, a portly billionaire with questions of possible probity still hanging over his own head regarding business interests. He entered, or arrived most recently in his own Rolls Royce (which later broke down) at parliament in Canberra, telling the press he preferred it to a taxpayer funded car. The working man’s billionaire, Palmer has been strident of his criticism of the budget and its possible effect on families, students and the old.

Palmer has long suggested his Palmer United Party is a real alternative to the two main parties, a more serious claim now that the Liberal-National Coalition is alienating even some of its own voters: they will hardly vote Green in protest.

Writing in the Guardian, Palmer noted that the recent swings against the major parties have been large (a quarter in September and 46 percent in the West Australian Senate in April) But it is not surprising given not only the left’s deep dread of Tony Abbott but everyone’s despair of multiple Labor leadership catastrophes.  Last election the Greens and independents forced former Prime Minister Julia Gillard to form a minority government.

Previously few listened or were prepared to back a politician who suggested Wendi Deng was a Chinese spy and gave “the internet” as his source, whose modern day Falstaffian act has been without gravitas until, possibly, now (if you ignore a recent nap in parliament). HIs considered speech of May 19 and that article in the Australian Guardian has gone some way to changing this.

“Gone is the zany clown whose priority was publicity. Welcome instead to the serious politician, armed with graphs from the International Monetary Fund…It was all designed to stake out a claim to fiscal credibility, while wearing a welfare heart on his sleeve,” wrote academic Paul Williams of Griffith University in academic news website The Conversation,. Williams also noted much of Mr Palmer’s other policy still seems fuzzy.

In this he is a little like Abbott in Opposition: very vocal on what he is against but less impressive when discussing his own plan for the nation. HIs education stance is emblematic of this. First he campaigned prior to the election on scrapping university fees, then suggested he agreed with the coalition’s move to deregulate university fees and then decided all debts should be abolished for Australian though not international students. Now possibly there should be scholarships for the brighter ones.

“The government should set people free so they can help the country and not need to work in boring jobs because of their debt.” Given payment begins only once students earn over A$50,000 annually it is possibly questionable whether Australia’s “best thinkers” are indeed “buried in debt.” Raising the already very expensive fees of international students further, when education is the nation’s fourth largest export, may not be the way forward, as Australia’s Business Spectator has pointed out.

His reasoning for the rapid 360 turn? “He (Education Minister Christopher Pyne) almost convinced me on some things but now I realize what he was on about I don’t agree with him.”

Some his criticisms would have been facile were they not so hilarious coming from a politician whose nuanced media strategy includes dancing worse than Boris Yeltsin when there’s a TV camera about (Yeltsin, thankfully, existed in the post-Soviet but pre-twerk era).

West Australian Premier Colin Barnett tore into Palmer on radio recently, saying he was “not the easiest person to deal with”, accusing him being duplicitous and exploitative both in his dealings within W.A and with Chinese mining companies, specifically CITIC Pacific. “The Chinese hate Clive Palmer,” he said. “I wish Tony Abbott well.”

Given the Palmer United Party has decided not to negotiate with the coalition, Abbott may soon wish he could deal with Palmer.