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Is Clive Palmer Australia’s canniest politician?

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Equal parts larrikin and ludicrous, as popular with some as he is ridiculed by others, billionaire MP Clive Palmer’s titanic character continues to capture the attention of despondent voters.

As the prime minister and opposition leader take synchronised dives in the polls, political watchers say Mr Palmer is becoming  increasingly appealing to the electorate.

According to a Readers Digest survey released on Tuesday, Clive Palmer tied with Rolf Harris for the 90th most trusted person in Australia, a dubious honour that says as much about his growing public profile as it does about his credibility.

Picture gallery: Clive Palmer’s toys for boys

Toby Ralph, spin doctor and propagandist with a long involvement in political campaigns, says the mining magnate “unquestionably connects with certain Australians, and is a joke to others.”

AFP/William West
Clive Palmer flanked by Palmer United Party and Motoring Enthusiast Party Senators. Photo: AFP/William West

In less than two years, the Palmer United Party (PUP) has gone from zero to three Senators (plus Motoring Enthusiast Party Ricky Muir, with whom they will form a voting bloc) and one lower house MP (Mr Palmer himself) in Canberra.

“Clive is popular because he isn’t Tony Abbott, Bill Shorten or any of those other scripted professionals that the public love to hate. He’s part billionaire, part buffoon and part big ideas man. He’s the colour in the drab beige of Canberra,” Mr Ralph says.

Professor Clive Bean, a political scientist at the Queensland University of Technology, says voters are taken with his straight talking.

“He has the knack of taking a fairly strong populist stance so that a lot of his policies are actually ones that seem to have a lot of common sense about them, but are also generally beneficial to a wide section of the electorate,” Professor Bean says.

The billionaire with broad appeal

Mr Palmer is an enigma wrapped in a contradiction – a wealthy one percenter with broad electoral appeal. Professor Bean has puzzled over this conundrum, and thinks the answer is honesty.

Clive Palmer turned a few heads driving this sporty little number during the 2013 election campaign. Photo: AAP

“He’s not trying to shy away from the fact that he is wealthy and he is privileged and he’s better off than a lot of people, but he then speaks strongly in ways that seem to resonate with a wide sector of society,” Professor Bean says.

On the other hand, Senator-elect Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm thinks Mr Palmer appeals to voters as an outcast or an underdog, similar to the way in which Pauline Hanson garnered popularity.

“She was criticised by the other parties and also by most of the media, and there a lot of people who say: ‘Well, if he’s being criticised by everybody there must be something about him that I like. If they’re picking on him, I’ll support him,'” Mr Leyonhjelm says.

Carefully unpolished

ACIL Allen Consulting executive director Wayne Burns describes Mr Palmer as the “ordinary person’s non-politician”.

Despite being the owner of jets, robotic dinosaurs and a fleet of luxury cars, he is no less skilled at sounding down to earth.

“If you look at how he communicates, he aims to reduce seemingly complex issues to sound bites, and this is working at the moment,” says Mr Burns, an expert in public affairs.

Mr Palmer approves of this model of a tyrannosaurus rex at his Palmer Coolum Resort dinosaur park. Photo: AAP

He pretends to be a political novice, when in truth he has worked in and around politics for many years and is “up to his waist in the ebbs and flows of Canberra,” Mr Burns says.

By all accounts, this is a well-calculated ruse. The electorate is clearly fed up with smarmy, staid and stuffy politicians who parrot the party line. The lesson from Clive is to ditch the Ruddspeak.

“He doesn’t speak in acronyms. He hasn’t got that whingey whine, the accusatory tone in his voice that unfortunately lots of senior politicians have these days. He can deliver the blunt trauma to the back of the head, while still seeming very nice, very affable.

Underestimate him at your peril

Glenn Druery, the so-called ‘preference whisperer’, thinks the PUP could spread its paw prints even further across our political landscape.

Mr Palmer could potentially seize the balance of power in numerous state parliaments, especially Queensland and Western Australian, in years to come, according to Mr Druery.

“I don’t think he will ever take government, although who knows what could happen in Queensland, who knows.

He’s not going to take government, but if the major parties continue to put themselves in the sh**, and Palmer continues to be viewed as a cuddly alternative, then it’s very likely he’ll win the balance of power in many parliaments around the country within one or two electoral cycles, provided he can finesse preference flows,” Mr Druery predicts.

If he continues to play the game smartly, and cash in on the fact that mainstream politicians are on the nose, we may be talking about Mr Palmer for many years to come.

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