Australian billionaire and politician Clive Palmer has apologized to China after calling them “mongrels” and “bastards” on national television. The eccentric businessman-turned-member of parliament was on the ABC show Q & A last week when he made the comments, bringing a rather shocked response from the audience and outrage from leaders in Canberra. Australia is in crucial trade talks with China and the two countries are economically linked in the region. The success of both of their economies depends on a good relationship, which Palmer may have put in jeopardy. While the leader of the small Palmer United Party (PUP) has issued a written apology to the Chinese ambassador to Australia Ma Zhaoxu, others of his party have not been conciliatory which has enabled the irritation to continue.
Q & A is a television programming hosting politicians, artists, and activists for a good old-fashioned question and answer time, providing the public with direct access to politicians like they rarely enjoy elsewhere. In the case of Palmer, that kind of access may have been a little too much. The businessman was entertaining and forceful for most of the show, going head-to-head with Labor Senator Penny Wong and Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss, which earned him some applause from the audience. But near the end of the program, Palmer marred what could otherwise have been a good showing when asked about allegations that he paid for his campaign with millions of dollars from a Chinese company. At that point, he got upset and bombastic, launching into an ill-fated tirade. Besides the negative epithets he used, he also claimed that “they shoot their own people, they haven’t got a justice system and they want to take over this country.” He then assured the somewhat aghast crowd that “we’re not going to let them.”
This sentiment was supported by fellow party member Jacquie Lambie, a fire-brand senator from Tasmania whose reputation for outrageous comments is almost as large as Palmer’s own. She claimed that “the communist Chinese military capacity and level of threat to the Western world democracies is at an unprecedented and historical high.” Her warnings about a possible Chinese invasion, however, were immediately labeled as spurious and remarkable. On the whole, however, they seem to echo the official sentiment of the PUP party, if not possibly its official policy perspective. As part of a key player in the balance of power of the Australian parliament, this kind of stance is worthy of note, especially with the delicate situation of trade negotiations currently in progress.
Eight days after making the mongrels comment, Clive Palmer issued his apology to the nation of China and its people for the insult. He reached the conclusion that he had offended beyond what he had meant and that it was worthy of conciliation. Up until that point, however, he had been intransigent, his defense had been that he was referring only to one certain Chinese company, not the entire Chinese people. But repeated calls for apologies and criticisms of his explanations indicated that the offense he had given was wider than just one company. Ambassador Ma said in acknowledgement of the apology that the “Chinese people are never to be insulted,” indicating that no matter what the intent, the effect was entirely negative.
Calamity for Australia’s trade negotiations was feared, but seems to have been averted at this time. China represents 20 percent of Australia’s trade and any damage to that balance would be potentially disastrous. The prime minister and the foreign minister both expressed their concerns over the comments and were vocal in calling for an apology. Prime Minister Tony Abbott labelled both Palmer’s and Lambie’s comments as “populist outbreaks on the right of politics” and “counterproductive in our national life.” Foreign Minister Julie Bishop expressed her appreciation of Palmer’s apology after it was issued, noting that Senator Lambie had yet to make such a retraction, though it was to be hoped that she would after due reflection.
Palmer is something of a political wildcard for Australia, rising to power on the back of populist rhetoric and his abundant cash-flow. Much of his fortune came from his dealings with Chinese companies, giving him experience in dealing with that country in business. The strategy of attacking China seems counter both to Australia’s interests and his own interests in business. Nevertheless, it plays on a fear of immigrants present among some Australians, mostly on the conservative side of politics. Thus, Palmer’s populism takes a forefront in his political oratory, sometimes to the extent of ridiculousness as in the case of his Q & A appearance. While his outrageous comments on “mongrels” seem to have had little to no effect on negotiations with China, Clive Palmer’s apology was necessary to ensure good will between the two parties and is hopefully a turn towards more measured discussion, if not from PUP, then at least from Palmer himself.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury