COLOURFUL TIMES AHEAD: Leader of the Palmer United Party, Clive Palmer, has come a long way with his new party.
COLOURFUL TIMES AHEAD: Leader of the Palmer United Party, Clive Palmer, has come a long way with his new party. PAUL MILLER

Warning: Clive’s only just getting started

THE political rise and rise of Clive Palmer has a long way to play out.

Tony Abbott is no doubt rejoicing that from July the Senate will lean more to the right. He should be okay to get the carbon and mining taxes repealed.

But the power of the Palmer United Party looms as something of a nightmare.

Palmer will play things toughly and shrewdly. He has three senators (subject to a recount in Western Australia), half the number of crossbenchers the government needs to pass legislation.

Last week he announced an alliance with a fourth, Ricky Muir, from the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party. A "memorandum of understanding" has been signed; PUP and Muir will work and vote together.

That leaves two other newbies who will be sharing the balance of power (when the Greens side with Labor): Bob Day of Family First and David Leyonhjelm of the Liberal Democratic Party, plus existing senators Nick Xenophon and John Madigan.

That means PUP will be able to stop the government passing bills it opposes and its support will be necessary (but not sufficient) to get bills through.

If PUP loses the WA seat on a recount, it would no longer be in such a pivotal position, with only two of the magic number of six. But Palmer's arrangement with Muir has given him insurance against that contingency.

The government will be looking with some alarm at that deal. It hoped to be able to negotiate with the "micros" individually.

Palmer is alert to that tactic. He noted on the ABC's Lateline on Wednesday that Senate leader Eric Abetz had said he wanted to deal with senators one by one.

"That won't be happening with us or with our friends. He'll have to deal with us as a group, otherwise he won't be dealing at all," he said.

At the moment Palmer is ahead by a handful of votes in the seat of Fairfax but there is a recount under way, so it's not clear whether he personally will be in parliament.

That recount, incidentally, is another example of Palmerism at work. Electoral officials have never seen the like of it.

More than 20,000 votes have been challenged for one reason or another by PUP or the LNP.

Palmer's achievement in starting a party from nothing and in the same year garnering enough votes to grab partial Senate balance of power indicates what he can do.

Why, with so much scope for influence, would he not be focused on how he would use it - and on how to get more?

Even if he didn't hold Fairfax on the recount, he is likely to remain engaged.

PUP is still a micro party but it is possible that it is on its way to becoming a minor party, like the Australian Democrats were.

Palmer plans to run candidates in state elections. How he does at the next federal election will depend on many factors, not least the way in which he uses his influence.

It is very unlikely that PUP will become a long-term part of the political system. But a small party that is centrally placed can have a substantial influence for some time, as the histories of those as diverse as the DLP (in its heyday) and the Democrats have shown.

What will be interesting about PUP as this parliamentary term goes will not be just its role on the carbon and mining taxes but how it behaves on a range of issues.

It could have been all very different. Palmer originally canvassed seeking Liberal National Party preselection to fight Wayne Swan in Lilley. Abbott didn't want that to happen.

Michelle Grattan is Professorial Fellow at the University of Canberra. One of Australia's most respected and awarded political journalists, she has been a member of the Canberra parliamentary press gallery for more than 40 years. A former editor of The Canberra Times, she has also written for the Australian Financial Review, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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