How do you solve a problem like Clive Palmer?
On Wednesday evening, as Palmer waltzed off the stage in the Great Hall, refusing to take questions, there was only one word to describe the feeling: dirty. And you can take that on several levels.
All day, muchos anticipation had been building in the Press Gallery about Palmer’s big reveal. That evening, he was going to finally – once and for all – announce his position on the carbon tax repeal.
Never mind that he had gone to the election on a platform of abolishing the tax. And that as recently as two weeks ago, had issued a media release talking about how he would support a repeal.
But the anticipation grew nevertheless. During the day, Palmer told the ABC that he would have an “exciting” announcement on “what we think is a solution for Australia and the world”. Then came the news that he had improbably booked the Great Hall, with his spokesman suggesting that there might even be another element to the press conference.
There was the (not unserious) thought that Palmer may have shipped in some of his dinos for the occasion (why else the space in the Hall?). Then, just before 4pm, the news broke that Nobel climate man Al Gore would be by Palmer’s side at 5.35pm.
Cue the freak out.
The speculation ran wilder than a frat party on a keg full of tequila, but when Palmer and Gore rocked up to the Great Hall, the press conference was over almost before it had begun.
Queensland senator elect Glenn Lazarus introduced the pair in a totally unnecessary warm up act and then Palmer took to the mic. He sped through his statement, outlining the Palmer United position like he was ticking off lower-level agenda items at a meeting that had run overtime.
Palmer United’s support for the carbon tax repeal was no surprise. But the party’s position on the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, Climate Change Authority, Renewable Energy Target and an emissions trading scheme were less expected. So lots of questions there. Particularly about how a “zero rated” (huh?) carbon price would work.
But it was straight on to Gore, who congratulated Clive, said he would be disappointed if the carbon price was removed and noted that Australia was finally beginning to confront the “climate crisis in a meaningful way”.
None of which actually made sense in the dictionary sense of the word. And yet the startled-lookin’ Gore had barely drawn breath before Palmer announced they had to go to an “urgent dinner”. People could talk to his spokesman “about questions”.
Journalists – including this one – were shocked and outraged. How could he? How dare he? And yet he just had. And it was classic Palmer.
We should have seen the guy coming from 10 kilometres away.
This is the man who can go from having numerous media conferences a day to hanging up on reporters. The MP who turns up to Parliament in a Rolls Royce to “save taxpayers' money” only to arrive the next day in a COMCAR. Who has gone from being a climate sceptic to a climate believer in the space of one meeting with a former US Vice President.
Indeed, he is unabashed (one would almost say proud) about switching tacks. Palmer has spent much of the post-budget period refusing to talk to the Prime Minister until he got more staff. Yesterday, after his first face-to-facer with Tony Abbott in two years, he simply shrugged and said, “I may have made a mistake by doing that [demanding more staff]”.
Palmer won’t change. So the question is, how does the media sensibly handle this?
It is not possible to dismiss him and his merry band of senators. Canberra did this before with Pauline Hanson to its peril. And she did not hold the balance of power in the Senate.
There has been significant thought recently about why Palmer is in Canberra. Some say he is here to destroy Abbott. Another school of thought is that for someone building a Titanic and getting about in gull-winged wheels, being a politician is just another giant toy.
But Palmer also likes to play with the press. Reporters who knew him up in Queensland rolled their eyes at the delight (about Palmer's unconventional commentary) and indignation (about his unreliability) of Canberra journalists when the PUP leader came to town last year.
They’d seen it all before. As one colleague described it to me, Palmer is like a cat with a ball of string with the media. Indeed, the most outrageous thing about Wednesday’s “press conference” is that Palmer will do something like it again.
The tricky trick for those reporting on the member for Fairfax is to keep scrutinising what he’s up to without being strung along in the process.
Judith Ireland is a Fairfax Media journalist.