When you’re as rich as Clive Palmer, playing by the rules is for schmucks

Clive Palmer should be the perfect fit to play the part of a robber baron capitalist hate figure.

But boggle eyed, filthy rich and barking mad as he might be, Palmer still comes across as having a lot more sense than most of the other politicians, journalists, bureaucrats and spin doctors in Canberra put together.

He might send well-heeled and well-spoken ABC presenters into fits of gulping outrage, but Palmer’s particular brand of crusading irreverence for the political establishment has hit a nerve.

Where Labor ties itself in knots trying to appeal to its working class base without upsetting the editors of the Australian, Palmer mocks the hapless Murdoch gibber-monkeys and defends falling asleep in parliament as a sensible response to hearing Tony Abbott speak.

While the Greens furiously try to shed their image as a “protest party” and prove how grown up and integrated into the political mainstream they are, Palmer goes on the telly and matter-of-factly calls for a “resistance movement” to bring down the budget. No prizes for guessing which approach best fits with the mind-set of those who have had it up to the eyeballs with self-serving politicians.

Of course, “Palmer the people’s hero” is a sham. He can cut through, not because he really is a rabble rousing outsider, but because he can afford not to play by the rules of the club that is the Australian political class.

When you are rich enough to buy the whole club several times over, you are freed from the obligation of doffing your cap and jumping through the hoops that are the normal requirements of membership.

Palmer’s attitude to the government, the parliament and the political machine in Canberra is like that of an oafish CEO to his underlings. As far as he’s concerned, he can treat them however he wants because, when it comes down to it, he writes their pay cheques.

Seeing Liberal ministers treated like the fools they are might be highly satisfying for the rest of us, but it doesn’t make Palmer one of the good guys.

The extent to which workers, pensioners and others see this mining magnate as a potential saviour is just a measure of how profoundly they have been failed by Labor and the Greens. Palmer’s rise is an ultimately very dangerous product of the inability of the left to fill the vacuum created by mass disillusionment with the mainstream parties.

But there is a lesson in his appeal that is worth noting. Only mugs play by the rules when the game is rigged.

If the left wants to cut through, it could do worse than emulate, minus the rank hypocrisy, some of his irreverent hostility to the sordid world of insider politics.