[Warning: Australian politics] I read in the newspapers yesterday that Clive Palmer, mining magnate and funder of the Palmer United Party, is going to sue two former party members for campaign financing he provided to help them get elected. Given how mercurial and weird Palmer is, the news is probably already out of date and he has changed his mind already, and I certainly hope so, because this is a legal case that absolutely should not happen. He is going to try and get back $9 million he spent on getting the two members, Glenn Lazarus and Jackie Lambie, elected on the basis that since he paid for them to get into parliament in his party, they should have stayed in his party.
I know nothing about the law but I am going to make a prediction for this court case on the basis of my understanding of Australian culture and the history of the courts in Australia: this case is guaranteed to fail. Almost no court or jury will find in his favour given the obvious chilling implications for democracy, and the defendants will be able to appeal any loss right up to the High Court. There is absolutely zero chance, in my opinion, that the High Court will find in Palmer’s favour. Even the most conservative imaginable possible array of High Court judges will throw it out in a heartbeat – or rather, in the length of time it takes them to write a dismissive and compelling judgment that will make Clive Palmer very very embarrassed.
At least it would embarrass him if he had any shame, but in case the infamous twerking video didn’t convince you this court case should be the final proof that Palmer has no shame. That he would even conceive of such a case shows how out of touch he is with Australian civic values, how little respect he has for the political process, and how he really views his party – not as a vehicle for political change but as a personal possession (to be clear, I never doubted this – but smarter tycoons might at least try to pretend it weren’t true!) Imagine if the Liberals or Labor could sue a party member every time they jumped ship or split to recover election costs – the effect on party discipline would be very impressive, but the effect on political debate would be terrible. But worse still, imagine if donors could demand repayment of their money if a member jumped ship? And if a donor can demand repayment of election expenses when a member leaves the party, can they not also demand repayment if their legislative goals are not achieved? Currently big corporate and organizational donors give money to a political party on the assumption that it will represent their interests, but not on the assumption that they can get specific legislative goals (though they often do, of course, get these). But if Palmer were to win this case they could conceivably write more specific contracts for their donations, backed up by the implied threat of civil action if they don’t get what they want. I think legal argument is the one place where slippery slope arguments make sense, since a decision sets a precedent for subsequent decisions; in this case, Palmer’s legal efforts could open the door to at least the kind of implied threats that could seriously damage political independence. And some of those donors are big givers – the unions give the ALP millions, and some corporate donations to the Liberals are in the hundreds of thousands. Everyone knows that these donors will withdraw their money in future if the party doesn’t represent them; but the possibility that they could sue for past money would surely terrify the two major parties and make them much, much more careful about toeing the donors’ line.
Plus of course donors wouldn’t have to sue over a specific lost legislative goal – they just wait for a process event (such as a member leaving or being found guilty of a crime of some kind) and sue out of spite. The mere threat to sue in such a case could convince a party to change a policy. It would be disastrous.
These considerations are why I think the High Court would take the case and then decide in favour of the defendants. Whatever one might think of the individual politics of High Court members, none of them are stupid and they are very careful and considerate custodians of the constitution. They just won’t let this happen!
I wonder if it is time Australia considered a law preventing the kind of direct ownership of parties that Palmer has used here. The party is clearly a vehicle for his own personal interests, and given that he is a mining magnate with some big business problems the conflict of interest is obvious. Fortunately for the Australian public he is too stupid to get anything right, but if some Lex Luthor type figure were to come along with the same plan it could be very dangerous. I’m not sure how it could be done in a fair and balanced way, but perhaps consideration needs to be given to a law that prevents individuals from directly setting up a party with their own money. If Palmer wants to influence the political process he should do it the same way every other corporate body does – by networking with politicians, donating money to their party without conditions, and making their case for change through long, careful deliberation through existing social organizations. Buying your own party is crass, and destructive to the political process. I hope the Australian legislature can find a way to stop it in future.
Footnote for non-Australians: Clive Palmer is a mining magnate and “billionaire” who essentially set up his own political party at the last federal election, poured his own money into it and managed to get 6 senators elected. The party is called the “Palmer United Party” but the “United” part is pretty much a footnote of history now since all members bar one have left. Unfortunately these 6 senators basically controlled the balance of power in the senate, which has descended into chaos since the party became disunited. Palmer is sunk in legal problems with business partners and also may be suffering some business challenges (now is not a good time to be an iron ore exporter in Australia) and many people think this party was his attempt to protect his business interests from some bad decisions, and/or to try and force changes through that would benefit his company. For example he refused to pass laws repealing the carbon “tax” until the government agreed to refund money paid since its inception, which would have been a multi-million dollar windfall for his business. It’s hard to see what his real motives were because he is so chaotic and weird, but certainly his party has not been a good thing for Australian legislative processes.
fn1: Well, a Chinese mining company claims it was their money, but that’s currently being negotiated in the courts
fn2: Kind of. It was chaotic before the disunity because Palmer doesn’t know what he wants and changes his mind by the day.