All the media commentary I have read says Tony Abbott is the one with a problem in the senate, but that is to misread entirely what is going on. The person with the biggest problem in the senate is Clive Palmer.
PUP is a party that offers a cornucopia of policies, but in the real world workable and coherent policies are always scarce.
We have seen similar parties wax and wane in the past. First there were the Australian Democrats, then the Australian Greens. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation was another but really only enjoyed substantial success in Queensland state politics.
Their attraction is always the same. They are parties of protest that for a segment of the voting population have the virtue of being “none of the above”.
Some voters support them because of their policies, but often an equal number, or greater, support them because they are a tool to send a message to the major parties. They are also a way of avoiding having to make a choice between two unpalatable alternatives.
To maximise their appeal as a protest party they have to be opposed to as many things as they can be. When they support particular policies, they lose voters opposed to those policies, because their voters are not interested in compromise.
The Australian Democrats were riding high until they became part of the machinery of government and cooperated with John Howard in the design of the GST. That was the beginning of their end. They went from having 9 senators in 1998 to almost ceasing to exist today.
Likewise the Australian Greens have suffered from being in a de facto coalition with the federal Labor party in the last parliament. In 2010 they won 13.1% of the vote, while in 2013 it was 8.65%.
Clive Palmer is in a different position to the Greens in that he isn’t in a de facto coalition with the government, but he has the same problem – if he appears to be in bed with the government he will suffer the same fate. This gives him an incentive to be erratic.
One also has to bear in mind that he draws just as strongly from disenchanted Labor voters as he does Liberal voters. He can’t afford to veer too much one way or the other as a result.
So, while Palmer presents difficulties for Abbott, the problems he has springing from the sort of constituency that he represents are far larger.
To keep things together he needs to agree to as little as possible, at the same time as he needs to appear to be doing something about the issues that matter to his voters.
PUP voters tend to come from outer urban and regional areas, and to be less economically secure than the mainstream.
If Abbott wants to tame PUP he needs to follow John Howard’s lead. Howard originally tried to tame One Nation by doing a preference deal with them (disastrously trialled in the 1998 Qld state election). His final strategy was to go directly after their voters. These became the Howard battlers.
If Abbott can target these same voters and make them the focus of his government he can gut PUP. He can also pull himself back from his current potentially fatal polling figures.
One issue they respond to is illegal entrants. While Abbott is performing well on this issue, imposing a Medicare copayment, and penalising their under 30 year old offspring by making them wait 6 months for unemployment benefits, has fired them up.
In this respect Palmer may actually do him a favour. These are parts of the budget that Abbott should be happy to see him block. If enough parts of the budget are blocked it could allow the government to go back to the drawing board and pull a budget together that is more electorally appealing, at the same time saying they have heard the people.
So even when Palmer acts in his own self-interest in opposing everything, he potentially puts in train events that will act against him.