Political personalities: Palmer and Merkel in their natural habitat

Who is Clive Palmer? What is the meaning of him? … He is a foolish passionate man, who has that endowment of the very rich, an erasure of the line between fantasy and reality, come along at a time when Australian political institutions had become sufficiently disarticulated to let him in with ease. Most people, especially those in the media, have become convinced that he is a man of no fixed character or beliefs, who rose to power through a rational political process. The reverse is the case. Palmer is a man with a coherent set of beliefs who is nevertheless a random product of an electoral process acquired in the fit of absent-mindedness.

— Guy Rundle, QE56 2014, p. 64

I have read two sensational political profiles in the last week of two dramatically different politicians: Guy Rundle’s Quarterly Essay on Clive Palmer and George Packer on Angela Merkel for the New Yorker. A great essay encourages readers to revisit and revise their opinions, and I am reconsidering my impressions not only of these two political personalities, but also the political systems that shaped them.

Palmer, the man about which Australian democracy circa 2014-5 improbably turns, is dismissed by many as a fickle showman, a buffoon with more money than sense. Rundle is clear-eyed to the man’s weaknesses and vanities, but finds a sincere constancy in his value system. Palmer’s compromises and apparent flip-flops are politics as it is supposed to be played, ground given where necessary but always in accordance with a coherent political ideology. The prevailing narratives about Big Clive are driven, Rundle argues, largely by the horror felt by a political elite that sees a more cut-and-thrust politics suddenly injected into the stable bipartisan order of professional politicians. More than a rendering of Clive Palmer, this essay is a critique of a broken electoral system defended by a self-serving political caste, “sealed off from the general public, with the process of becoming a politician deliberately mystified to keep the amateurs out”. But now Clive has flung open the door, “and god knows who will rush in”.

Angela Merkel is perhaps as different from Clive Palmer as it is possible to be. She is quiet, highly analytical, profoundly methodical and slow to commit to any course of action. It is appropriate, then, that Packer’s political profile of Merkel evokes a democracy facing the opposite crisis: rather than a sudden shakeup of party politics, the Germany described is utterly apolitical. “Merkel took the politics out of politics,” Packer quotes Georg Diez as saying, and he suggests that’s precisely what the country – paralysed by past guilt and afraid of big ideas – is looking for. The Merkel described here strives to be everything to every voter, and is motivated primarily by an instinct for power and a single central value: freedom.

It is unfortunate, but no fatal flaw, that neither Rundle nor Packer spoke with politician they profile. The essays are more like anthropological studies, eschewing the polished image presented in an interview for an analysis of the social and natural environment in which these personalities have developed. In Rundle’s case, the background is necessarily filled out in vivid detail so as not to be overshadowed by the showman in the foreground, this “man so utterly a creation of the Gold Coast that you can small the coconut oil and sand on him”. The Coast itself is a character in his critical history of Australian democracy, instrumental in the shaping of Palmer’s politics. Packer’s study of East Germany is muted and oppressive, simple but evocative, like the black and white portraits of Merkel’s evolution as a public figure that open the disquieting piece. Both essays are wonderful studies of the modern democratic politician in his or her natural habitat.


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