June 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Man united

By John Birmingham
Clive Palmer and his Palmer United Party

Clive Palmer is not that rich. Not really. He’s not even a billionaire according to Forbes, which, last time it checked, thought he was only good for a lousy $795 million. BRW is more generous, spotting him a lazy $2.2 billion. His assets include, but are not limited to, millions of tonnes of mid- and low-grade coal in the Galilee Basin. Its coal that could be worth up to $80 billion over the next two decades, according to Palmer, or just a mother lode of anguish, if his plans to tear up 4000 hectares of local nature reserve get jammed up in environmental protests.

Galilee has turned into an even bigger headache for Palmer than he has proven himself to be for politicians from Treasurer Wayne Swan to Queensland Premier Campbell Newman. Palmer is generous to a fault when you please him. He has dropped goody bags of free holidays and luxury cars on his employees. Six hundred and more hungry urchins and their families did he host to lunch this Christmas past. But Palmer’s vengeance against all who displease him is swift and terrible to behold.

Premier Newman displeases him greatly. Palmer has effectively become the leader of the Opposition – or perhaps La Résistance – in Queensland because the ALP’s surviving parliamentarians – all seven of them after Anna Bligh’s electoral wipe-out – are considerably less fearsome to confront than the giant animatronic dinosaur standing guard over the putting greens at Palmer’s eponymous Sunshine Coast resort. Having paid good money to see Newman elected, he is now bent on spending even more to see not just Newman but his entire party extinguished, dinosaur-style, as if by meteorite.

Palmer’s fabulous hobbies – collecting robotic dinosaurs, building the Titanic II, conspiracy-spotting, owning sports clubs, lawsuits – generate headlines faster than his coalmines pump out greenhouse gases. Without doubt he very much deserves his Living National Treasure status. In an era when so much discourse is reduced to warm, wet, pre-chewed pap by communications specialists, Clive Palmer bestrides the public realm as a colossus – a crazy-brave, lovable colossus with his own Jurassic Park, unsinkable Titanic and brand-new political party. (Although, like the ancient megafauna and the ocean liner, the Palmer United Party, or PUP – née United Australia Party – began as an historical reclamation project, assembled from the recovered DNA of Bob Menzies’ original and long-dead conservative alliance.)

He is what Australia has instead of Google: a huge, ungovernable corporate power, more force of nature than bland commercial entity, driven from one enthusiasm to the next, enduring triumphs and relishing failures in equal measure. For with the triumphs come the naysayers – traducing one of the largest coalmines in the world on environmental grounds? How dare they! – while the failures are just another chance to test his will against a world that seems designed to thwart him.

He once bought an A-League soccer team, Gold Coast United, because it would help him to make friends in China. “China’s part of our community,” he said. “We’ve got to get together, talk, exchange ideas, and certainly sport’s a great medium to do that.” But then he took on Frank Lowy, a doyen of the domestic billionaires club, who last March was so aggrieved by Palmer’s insistence on running the club his way, contrary to the rules of Lowy’s Football Federation Australia, that he banished the club from the competition. For a time Palmer bluffed that he’d start his own league, Kerry Packer–style. Then, moving on, he sank his millions into a basketball team.

Having had a hand in destroying the Labor Party in Queensland – though it didn’t need the help – he might have expected to sit back and enjoy the fruits of a business-friendly administration, controlled by the party to which he’d been awarded life membership in 1992. But no. It was another triumph to endure: he soon fell out with the LNP because it was, he insisted, “cooking the books” to create the impression that the Queensland economy was much, much worse than Bligh had let on, and thus the asset sales the party, his party, had opposed were now, regrettably, unavoidable. The state treasurer, said Palmer, was “detestable”.

The grand plans, the great feuds, the about-faces and passionate intensity are the very life of Palmer. He is an artist in his own way, and his leitmotiv is the Ulyssean urge “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield”. He will always be as vexing to his allies as to his enemies because it is so easy to move from being one to the other. Although deeply invested in politics, he has no politics in the modern, hollow sense of being committed to a party line. So his policy positions are a clanging discordant symphony. He has little mercy for public servants who cost “$100,000 a year more than ordinary workers”. And none at all for political lobbyists, who would be banned. He’d like an open door for refugees who come via the airport rather than by leaky boat, and the abolition of the carbon tax, backdated to its introduction.

Palmer is so far removed from the anodyne self-presentation of the corporate control-freak titan that he is easily misjudged. His promise to rebuild the Titanic has been relentlessly mocked, and yet the project steams ahead with admirers where it counts, in China. He has even trademarked the name “Gigantic” in case Titanic II should ever need a sister ship.

The Galilee Basin coal fields are not yet the treasure trove pronounced in the past. Partners have dropped out. The market has been reluctant to invest. Indeed, without $8 billion being spent on infrastructure to service the fields, “Palmer may as well be mining on a passing asteroid”, according to Jason West, a former banker turned energy-futures researcher at Griffith University. Still Palmer pushes on. Though the public image is easily lampooned, he is not a man to be under-estimated. Or crossed.

John Birmingham

John Birmingham is an author, a columnist and a journalist. His books include He Died With a Felafel in His Hand and Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney.


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