Lives of the magnates
Inside the worlds of Clive Palmer, Gina Rinehart, Andrew Forrest and Nathan Tinkler
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If narcissism is common among politicians, so, perhaps, is a fascination with extinction – and Clive Palmer, the man with a squirrel grip on the balance of power in federal parliament, doesn’t hide either trait. Swing into the Palmer Coolum Resort, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, and you spy a life-size model Tyrannosaurus rex looming over the golf course. Then, attached to a minibus’ luggage trailer, there’s a giant campaign photo of Palmer, his waist airbrushed, his two thumbs up. At check-in, above the reception desk, are the plans for his Titanic replica, Titanic II, and a photo of him with arms outstretched under a mock-up of the ship’s bow. Pictures of Palmer with various dignitaries, or just at leisure, adorn the walls and hallways.
It’s not just the blend of politics and kitsch but also the tropical, slightly run-down feel that makes you think a small Filipino province has just seceded. There’s a bemused, stoned air among the Hawaiian-shirted staff. Those in command, wearing suits, steer themselves around in golf buggies, knees to chins.
Today, a squadron of buggies is parked behind reception. People are congregating on an incline of grass, while a photographer waits atop a cherry picker.
Through the gathering strides the TV personality and conservationist Terri Irwin with her children, 15-year-old Bindi and ten-year-old Bob, who is in his safari suit. Clive Palmer is approaching from the other direction; his blue shirt, under a jacket, is dappled heavily with sweat. He greets Irwin, explaining, “We’ve got 40 ex-world leaders here.” It’s early December, and he’s hosting the Club de Madrid, a group of former heads of state and government who seek to promote international democracy. It’s their annual conference, and the theme is employment. He tells Irwin, “The club boasts members such as Gorbachev, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi.” Although none of them are actually here.
Palmer arranges a buggy for young Bob to tour around “Palmersaurus”, his soon-to-be-opened dinosaur theme park. Bindi clasps her hands together and, genuflecting, thanks the tycoon for his generosity.
Meanwhile, about 20 ex-leaders, including the former presidents of the Seychelles, Kyrgyzstan, Peru, Latvia, Sri Lanka and Ecuador, form an orderly line on the lawn. They stand together, smiling into the sun. Then another picture is taken, with Palmer, or Professor Palmer as he likes to call himself, regardless of the title’s strict accuracy, at the centre. Palmer also likes to call himself the joint secretary-general of the World Leadership Alliance, a Club de Madrid spin-off position, which he reportedly secured following a donation of half a million euros. Behind the ex-leaders, obscured somewhat by a hedge, is the T. rex, its head geared to mechanically bob up and down.
Back in their hotel rooms, more than one conference delegate likely Googles his host: who is this Clive Palmer? But you can also just turn on your room’s television for a sense of his cultural and business enthusiasms. One channel has James Cameron’s film Titanic on a loop, while another plays historic footage of the ship’s staterooms. Yet another channel is devoted to Palmer’s nickel business: “Nickel has many remarkable qualities.” Finally, there’s a selection of interviews Palmer has given, such as this one with 60 Minutes’ hard-hitting Charles Wooley:
CW: The private jets and the fleet of helicopters might seem extravagant, but don’t worry, Clive can easily afford it …
CP: We gave [the Australian Tax Office] a cheque last year for $70 million. We gave another one last week for $49 million. Actually, that was my personal tax, and it didn’t have enough zeroes on the form. I couldn’t fill it out!
CW: Can I say, on behalf of a grateful nation, thank you, Clive.
CP: It’s a pleasure, Charles. It’s a pleasure. It is, too!
Next, Wooley takes a ride in one of Palmer’s helicopters above the Pilbara, before visiting his magnetite iron ore mine:
CW: Well, it’s pretty cool hanging out with the richest man in Australia, Clive … We’re standing on the world’s largest mineral ore body?
CP: That’s right. We see this as the future for Australia.
That a mining magnate like Palmer should wish to harness Australia’s future to his own wouldn’t matter so much were he not now in a position to engineer it. In mid 2010, Palmer and fellow mining entrepreneurs lent their heft to a $20 million advertising campaign to scuttle the Rudd government’s bid to tax mining super profits on behalf of all Australians – to whom technically, after all, the country’s minerals belonged. So emphatic was the billionaires’ victory that they upended Rudd’s prime ministership in the process. Nearly two years later, the then treasurer, Wayne Swan, accused the mining magnates of having become so powerful they presented a threat to Australian democracy. “What characterises the vested interests that I’m concerned about is how they misrepresent their self-interest as the national interest,” he wrote in an essay for this magazine. Swan named three names in the article: Gina Rinehart, Andrew Forrest and Clive Palmer.
Swan was set upon for promoting class warfare – a charge that rests on a peculiar definition of both “class” and “warfare”. If anything, Palmer and company are more influential today. Rinehart’s pet politician, Barnaby Joyce, is now on the front bench. Forrest has been charged by Prime Minister Tony Abbott to wean indigenous people off welfare. In the 2013 federal election, Clive Palmer won the seat of Fairfax in the House of Representatives, and come 1 July, his Palmer United Party senators will be part of the group that holds the balance of power in the upper house.
In recognition of these figures’ collective might, the past 18 months have seen a rush of biographies of Rinehart, Forrest and Palmer but also – because they can’t all be winners – Nathan Tinkler. I took these books with me to the Sunshine Coast in the hope of gleaning further insights into their subjects – further, that is, to those I was already getting at the Club de Madrid’s conference.
Some envious unthinking people have been conned
To think prosperity is created by waving a magic wand
Through such unfortunate ignorance, too much abuse is hurled
Against miners, workers and related industries who strive to build the world
It’s sad to think of Gina Rinehart, like the shepherds of yore, spilling her woes in melancholy couplets, but at least she has a hobby other than litigation.
Rinehart does not enjoy the boy-next-door-made-good popularity of, say, Palmer or “Twiggy” Forrest. This might have something to do with gender – and as she wars with her children it’s easy to paint her with the Medea brush – but judging from the testimonials in Adele Ferguson’s Gina Rinehart: The untold story of the richest woman in the world it might also be related to a rather jarring personality. “She could be great fun … but more often than not, everything turned nasty or narky, generally over who would pay the bill,” comments one former friend in this page-turner with a touch of Jackie Collins, or perhaps Colleen McCullough. It’s full of sex, power, money and dynastic infighting.
Rinehart was born in 1954. Two years earlier, so the story goes, her father, Lang Hancock, flew over and recognised a treasure trove of iron ore in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. She grew up in the “eerie silence of the Pilbara”, and disliked leaving it to attend school in Perth. Her classmates found her aloof or absent. Her father, whom she idolised, often took her away on international business trips and let her sit in the room while he negotiated various mining agreements. She claimed to be the “spitting image of my father in the way I think”, and among his thoughts were the secession of WA, the use of nuclear bombs in mining and – although Lang is believed to have fathered at least one indigenous child – the sterilisation of “half caste” Aboriginal people. Miss Hancock attended Sydney University in the early 1970s but, unsurprisingly, she found it too left-wing, and dropped out to become the sorcerer’s apprentice.
At 19, she married Greg Milton, a shop assistant employed by her father, made him change his name to something she deemed classier, and bore two children, John and Bianca. After their divorce, she apparently forbade all mention of him. In the early 1980s, through a family friend, the then Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Gina met her second husband, Frank Rinehart. The American, a disbarred lawyer 37 years her senior, had moved to Australia after a tax fraud conviction. They had two cherished daughters, Hope and Ginia.
Her son John gives this glimpse of a family drive to Broome. He was 12 years old and, after a few days of riding in the boot of a Range Rover, began to misbehave:
My mother pulled over and stopped Frank, who was driving another Range Rover with the girls. She asked him to discipline me. So he opened the rear window to the Range Rover, cocked his fist, and punched me in the head. I had neither the room nor the time to do anything. Blood flowed.
Another of her son’s recollections is a limousine ride with his half-sister pulling his leg hairs:
It wasn’t going to kill me but was quite painful. My mother refused to allow me to shift Hope’s hand or scold her. She would be allowed her game of torture to amuse herself with on the way to the airport. Again and again, it was drilled into them they were superior, almost as if we [John and Bianca] were adopted children whose future was to work in the grease traps.
Meanwhile, Gina’s relationship with her father had deteriorated – he apparently loathed her much older husband. In 1985, Lang Hancock evened the score by marrying someone young enough to be his daughter. Gina had hired Filipino-born Rose Lacson to be her father’s housekeeper: “One night I told Mr Hancock he looked tired and asked if he wanted a massage,” Ms Lacson reported. “I sat on his bum and he got aroused.” Their wedding cake was decorated with a model train unloading real lumps of iron ore.
Father and daughter reconciled in late 1991, when Hancock, near death, invited his daughter back into his company, Hancock Prospecting. “There are many versions of what went on in the final months of Lang’s life,” reports Ferguson. Among them is an allegation that a week before he died, in March 1992, the ailing tycoon’s hand was held to sign a codicil that effectively bankrupted his estate and left Rose – and other relatives who’d been promised an inheritance – with a fraction or none of his wealth.
After his death, his daughter spent years agitating for an inquest, accusing Rose of having killed him. The case, in Ferguson’s words, became “a riveting gothic drama with allegations of murder, black magic, bribery, perjury, corruption of a witness, fabricating evidence, adultery, greed, vindictiveness and enmity”. Gina’s associates paid six-figure sums to witnesses willing to testify against Rose. The WA attorney-general later called the inquest “the greatest abuse of taxpayers’ money for private purposes ever seen”.
But then Gina’s appetite for litigation seems to be insatiable. Ferguson documents her fights with her father over her mother’s estate, with her stepmother over her father’s estate, and with her children over their grandparent’s estate. There are also legal skirmishes with her late husband’s lover, her father’s former business partner, her father’s ex-partner’s children, a few multinationals and, recently, Ferguson herself. All this while rehabilitating the chaotic company her father left behind into a fortune now worth about $20 billion.
More recently, Rinehart has used her spare change to further her conservative views, buying up shares in Fairfax and Network Ten. She rejects climate-change science, which is a curiously common position for mining magnates who draw on science – geology, chemistry, metallurgy – at every other step of their business lives.
“Gina’s influence over the media is in its early stages,” Ferguson explains, “but her influence over politics and politicians is well advanced … she is increasingly turning to more behind-the-scene methods to wield influence in politics – most of which the public or media will never see.”
To secure the federal government’s approval of her Galilee Basin “super coal mine” in western Queensland, Rinehart splashed out on a phalanx of lobbyists, strategic political donations and a trip to a high-society Indian wedding. Nine Coalition MPs were recent recipients of free travel, hospitality and accommodation.
This largesse appears to have paid off. Australia plans to double its coal exports by 2025, and the Abbott government has recently given the green light to Rinehart’s project (co-owned by Indian conglomerate GVK). This super-mine, in concert with her other Galilee assets, has the capacity to produce 84 million tonnes of coal annually. Once burnt, the coal will yield carbon emissions equivalent to global aviation rising by one quarter. A railway line will connect the mine to a newly approved port at Abbot Point, in north Queensland. The port’s construction will involve dredging in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef and dumping 3 million cubic metres of dredge spoil in another area. The completed port will lead to a ninefold increase in coal ship traffic through these waters. Last June, a letter signed by 150 eminent Australian and international scientists called on the federal government to ban further developments, such as this one, for the World Heritage–listed reef’s survival. It was ignored.
There’s something almost melancholic at the core of Andrew Burrell’s Twiggy: The high-stakes life of Andrew Forrest, as the author tries to reconcile his admiration for Forrest’s brio with his discomfort at the man’s ruthlessness. Forrest refused to speak with Burrell, who writes in his author’s note, “Forrest’s cooperation would have led to a different book, but not necessarily a better or more reliable one.” Burrell tracked down and interviewed many people who “provided sharper insights into his past than Forrest might have been prepared to do himself”. Burrell adds that he felt a duty to be fair and present Forrest’s side of the story “wherever possible”, which he lives up to.
The first chapter begins, “When Judy Forrest discovered she was pregnant in 1961, her first reaction was to plan for a miscarriage.” Burrell has her riding bareback and jumping off the roof before eventually delivering John Andrew Henry, scion of the illustrious WA pioneering family. It’s an arresting, if slightly tasteless, story, but one we’re told Forrest knew about as a young child, and the pop-psychological reading is that his business drive might connect to his “subconsciously trying to prove to his mother that he deserved to be born in the first place”.
Forrest grew up on a Pilbara cattle and sheep station called Minderoo in the years when Lang Hancock’s discoveries were redefining the landscape. Unlike Gina Rinehart, Forrest played with and was schooled alongside the Aboriginal children whose forebears had worked, mostly unpaid, for the Forrest family. He learnt early how to use his fists, and at Hale, the exclusive Perth school where he eventually matriculated, “he would always carry a mouthguard in his back pocket just in case the opportunity arose for a fight”. He also knew how to do battle through charm: after finishing a degree majoring in economics and international politics, he served as a stockbroker to Alan Bond, Laurie Connell, Rodney Adler and Robert Holmes à Court, earning the moniker “Silver Tongue”.
In 1991, Forrest married the quiet, religious Nicola Maurice at her family farm. (Mrs Forrest’s parents were leading members in the Australian League of Rights, a notorious far-right organisation that has been accused of anti-Semitism.) Three children and some very public business hits and misses later, Forrest made two key realisations: China was “awakening”, and BHP and Rio Tinto were doing no new exploration in the Pilbara.
In 2003, he seized control of Allied Mining and Processing, a little-known company with iron ore tenements in the Pilbara. He renamed it Fortescue Metals Group. In record time, Fortescue developed a mine – and the WA government, lobbied by twice-convicted former premier Brian Burke, approved a railway to Port Hedland, via a previously heritage-listed 2500-square-kilometre area containing ancient rock engravings, ceremonial sites and rock shelters. The company started shipping to China, and Forrest made a fortune. “I may have become Australia’s richest man, but to me that is an incredibly uninteresting title,” he later said, with a modesty that strains credulity. His seemingly down-to-earth demeanour, however, has led to phenomenal popular appeal and political clout.
Burrell includes much information on Forrest’s infectious enthusiasm, huge energy, kindness and charitable instincts. He has pledged to give away half his fortune during his lifetime, and in 2010 he even stepped in to stop two men having a “vicious brawl” in Perth’s CBD.
However, there’s also a history of bitter fallings-out with a wide range of former colleagues, many of which have ended up in the courts. Astonishingly, Burrell finds that, on various matters, four different judges have questioned Forrest’s truthfulness, ethics and morality. But it’s not until we read of Forrest’s dealings with indigenous communities that things get truly murky.
In 2005, Fortescue’s geologists found “a massive deposit of iron ore in the Hamersley Range, in the southernmost part of Yindjibarndi country”, close to Roebourne. “Fortescue,” Burrell writes, “initially offered the Yindjibarndi a capped cash payment of only $1.5 million a year in exchange for their support for the Solomon mining hub, which will generate a staggering $8 billion worth of iron ore a year if prices remain strong.” To put this in perspective, Gina Rinehart is paid a royalty of 2.5% on Rio Tinto’s revenue from her father’s old leases, and Forrest was prepared to pay Kerry Stokes a 2–5% rate in another deal.
Forrest believes paying large royalties to indigenous groups is “mining welfare”. Instead his company promotes the hiring of indigenous workers, and “every new Aboriginal recruit is handed a fishing rod as a symbol of Forrest’s much-repeated aphorism: give a man a fish …” Yet this paternalism is also highly self-serving. Other mining companies, also in need of labour, support similar employment schemes and pay equitable royalties. As Burrell notes, “safeguards … have become standard in native title agreements between miners and indigenous groups, including the use of trust structures administered by professional managers and the creation of special funds that can be drawn on only by future generations”.
Michael Woodley, the head of the Yindjibarndi’s Aboriginal Corporation, turned the offer down, but it is alleged Fortescue helped form a splinter group, paying enough community members to come to each meeting for the group to be incorporated and approve the mine. (Fortescue denies it catalysed the group’s formation.) Further, an anthropologist reporting on the area’s indigenous heritage claimed Fortescue had attempted “to pressure [him] into altering the report”. When the anthropologist wouldn’t amend his recommendation for a buffer zone around 35,000-year-old burial sites, Fortescue found another anthropologist who would.
One imagines the Yindjibarndi would have been less than thrilled to hear that Forrest would head the Abbott government’s review into Aboriginal employment and training programs. A political career has long beckoned, writes Burrell: “He is close to Tony Abbott [as he had been to both John Howard and Kevin Rudd] and the two men have chatted informally about Forrest’s interest in joining the Liberal Party and entering federal parliament.” Others think he’d prefer to emulate his great-great-uncle, Sir John Forrest, and become the premier of WA.
Paddy Manning’s Boganaire: The rise and fall of Nathan Tinkler is a rollicking tale, which works on our sense of schadenfreude. Why not work out all the ways you wouldn’t lose a half billion?
Born in Port Macquarie, New South Wales, in 1976, Tinkler was a small boy when his father’s business collapsed and the family moved into a caravan at a relative’s place. “When you’re a kid something as momentous as that probably lights a fire,” he later suggested. Not much of a student, he began an electrical apprenticeship at BHP’s Bayswater open-cut coal mine, “a dirty, mongrelly job” that he “fucking loved”, and where apparently he’d read the “share pages during his smoko”. Tinkler married a childcare worker, Rebecca, bought a house, and began a habit – one he found hard to shake even when listed as a billionaire – of not paying his debts. He and Mrs Tinkler would drive new cars while crying poor or abusing their debtors. “You’re not taking my fucking couch, or if you are you’re taking me with it!” Mrs Tinkler reportedly screamed at repossessions agents. And this text message to a former employee gives a piquant sense of her husband’s style: “Ur just another cunt … I check the papers for your funeral notice you fuckn deadbeat.”
Anyway, back at the Bengalla open-cut mine, where Tinkler had been hired, his work ethic became such a problem that he was moved into a position where “management could keep a closer eye on him”. Shortly afterwards he was either fired or given a redundancy package. Within a few years, the ambitious Tinkler had started a labour hire business. His real goal, though, was to own a mine, and he began poring over cost structures and financial models. Reading the wind, Tinkler travelled to China and India, where he found “the only thing that is lower than the conditions are the people”. The time was right to sell his company and go looking for an asset. A tenement cropped up outside the central Queensland town of Middlemount, and he bought it in 2006 for $30 million with a $1 million deposit. Hold your breath: little more than 18 months later, Tinkler sold his share for $442 million in cash.
Next, Tinkler went shopping. Hundreds of millions were blown on racehorses, luxury properties and cars; add in some bad mining stock speculations, and within another 18 months he’d nearly lost the lot. It gives you whiplash just thinking about it.
Then Tinkler did it all again. In 2010, he rescued himself with a bet on a coal deposit in Maules Creek, in the Leard State Forest of north-west NSW. A mostly borrowed $24 million deposit turned into $427 million. The following year, the share price of his investment company Aston Resources rose and he was a billionaire. Then he bought a plane with a gold-plated interior, an A-League soccer team and a rugby league team. Pages later, he loses it all again. By the end of 2012, a fire sale of the Tinklers’ assets has begun, and the couple have more or less fled overseas. Meanwhile the Leard State Forest, home to 34 threatened species, and identified by the NSW government as a Tier 1 Biodiversity area, meaning it “cannot sustain any further loss”, has received state and federal approval to be cleared. But then, writes Manning, Nathan Tinkler “was dismissive of climate change – he wasn’t going to be around in 100 years’ time, so why worry?”
In Clive: The story of Clive Palmer, Sean Parnell assures us that “This book was never going to be a hagiography, but nor would it be a hatchet job.” It does veer rather closer to one than the other, though. According to Palmer’s nephew and employee Clive Mensink, his uncle is a “visionary … he needs to be listened to”. Father Peter Quin, the priest of St Ignatius Catholic Parish claims, “He’s a great Christian, an extraordinarily generous man.” Palmer has donated liberally to the parish school. His tendency to “lash out” is brushed away by a friend as frustration at being “light years ahead of the thinking processes of a lot of the people around the table”. And analysing Mr Palmer’s early efforts as a poet – “Man of Love / is my name / Man of Love / will remain” – Parnell concludes, “the poems point to someone with a deep sense of feeling, someone with both a social and political conscience”.
Palmer was born in 1954, the same year as Rinehart, to an adoring mother and a colourful father, who, as Parnell outlines in some detail, was variously a film producer, travel maverick, salesman, TV and radio hobbyist, and author of Ruptured 40 Years: How to live with your hernia.
Palmer enrolled in an arts degree at the University of Queensland, where he became involved in conservative politics, including passionate anti-abortion activism. In 1974, he sought Liberal Party preselection for the state seat of Albert but was unsuccessful. Accounts differ, but after allegations of “electoral irregularities” in his bid to become president of the Young Liberals, he either left or was expelled from the organisation.
Palmer soon dropped out of his studies and worked as an interviewing officer at the Public Defender’s Office in Brisbane until, he claims, he uncovered police corruption. After receiving a threatening phone call, he fled the state along with his wife-to-be, Susan Parker. They bought an old paddleboat and sailed along the Murray River until the coast was clear. Returning to Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland, one might say Palmer then took advantage of the gung-ho political climate and astutely turned his hand to real estate.
Palmer’s “unusual sales techniques” included “running down to the diagonal end of an acreage block to lean against the old farm fence and yell back at the potential customers” so as to make the block appear larger. He duly made a small fortune, married Sue, and in 1984 tried for federal preselection as a National Party candidate. He lost to Peter Slipper (who later switched to the Liberal Party before ending up as an independent). The consolation prize seems to have been becoming a National Party spokesman. Parnell reports that a portrait of Russ Hinze, the “Minister for Everything” and a man emblematic of the Bjelke-Petersen era, used to hang in one of Palmer’s offices. (Hinze once overturned a local council’s planning order to approve a Palmer development.) Today, a photo of Palmer with Bjelke-Petersen is prominent in the Palmer Resort’s foyer.
In his poetry collection from around that time, Dreams, Hopes and Reflections, Palmer claimed, “My life has been as any man’s, a search for my own identity.” Perhaps Palmer has worked out who he is, but it’s unclear if anyone else has, including his biographer. Parnell never gets to the heart of his subject’s incredible contradictions. Palmer is a vehement anti-communist who has made his fortune doing business with China. He’s a climate change sceptic who started a company trying to commercialise scientific research and developments – “we have a lot of faith in these scientists”. He claims in his poetic memoir to find inspiration in Martin Luther King, Jr. but became a Nationals spokesman at a time when it kept a soft stance on apartheid in South Africa. “Freedom of Speech” has been emblazoned on his golf course, and on the uniforms of the A-League soccer team he used to own, but he’s been quick to threaten to sue people for defamation. (His Who’s Who entry once listed litigation as a hobby.)
In conversation, he supports “our Aboriginal brothers and sisters” while one of his companies has been accused of breaking indigenous heritage laws (according to a heritage assessment report critical of the actions taken by Palmer’s Waratah Coal in central Queensland). He talks of his personal irrelevance – it’s his ideas that are important, he says – but accuses the CIA of not only under-reporting his wealth, via Forbes magazine, but also of supporting anti-coal protests in Queensland so as to destabilise his relationship with the Chinese.
Another peculiarity is Palmer’s adjunct professorship at Bond University’s School of Sustainable Development. His Townsville nickel refinery has sought to dump ponds of contaminated liquid into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Like Rinehart, Palmer has a Galilee Basin “super-mine” and has won approval to duplicate her railway through 450 kilometres of agricultural land, to another port terminal at Abbot Point on the Great Barrier Reef. The China First mine will destroy much of the 8000-hectare Bimblebox Nature Refuge, a remnant woodland home to many endangered species. It will eventually process up to 40 million tonnes of coal a year. All this, and he might yet become the most powerful man in Australian politics.
Back at the Club de Madrid’s conference, Palmer is hosting a dinner by one of the resort’s swimming pools. The former leaders are rubbing shoulders with Australian delegates, who almost invariably have a connection to Palmer – be it family, business or the Palmer United Party. Failed candidates such as Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s son John mix with senators-elect like the former rugby league star, the so-called “brick with eyes”, Glenn Lazarus. Another senator-to-be, Ricky Muir, from the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, had flown up the previous weekend for the opening of Motorama, Palmer’s vintage car exhibit (family admission: $100). Muir is on the guest list for this show, too, but had other commitments. One can’t help but think of him, though – and of his YouTube video of kangaroo poo–throwing hijinx – as the foreign guests snap photos of themselves near the resort’s stray roos.
The incoming Club de Madrid president, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, a former president of Latvia, stands up to make some remarks. “I think we can all agree with Churchill that democracy is not an ideal system of government, but it’s the best one that’s been invented. As I understand it, democracy is a work in progress … [but] we do not have good governments in so many countries …”
“What is a good government?” Ricardo Lagos, the president of Chile from 2000 to 2006, asks with a wistful kind of scorn. Famous for being Pinochet’s most visible opponent, he happens to be sitting across the table from me, and I overhear him telling the story of travelling by bus with other Latin American presidents while a crowd formed around them, applauding. “They’re clapping because they don’t know what we’re doing to their country,” he’d quipped.
Those next to Lagos laugh, but I’m reminded of my recent reading – the biographies form a not dissimilar omnibus. There are the magnates and there are the governments willing to satisfy their every need: the forests, the reef, ancient Aboriginal sites – whatever they desire.
Clive Palmer rises to wrap it up. “Wherever we come from, wherever we’re going to, we all inhabit this planet together, we all have a shared future,” he says, before nimbly switching gears. “So, tonight I’m going to ask you to all come forward, rush me, because all the desserts are behind me, and after that, we’re down to see the dinosaurs. Thank you.”
It’s bread and circuses, literally. After dessert, former president Lagos raises his glass to me, winking. I take this as a sign he’d like to join me for a stroll through the dinosaur exhibit. It’s a dark, star-strewn night. Cicadas and frogs from a nearby swamp play their own primordial tune, accompanied by the groaning, mewling sounds of the mechanical dinosaurs. They gnash their sharp teeth, pink tongues lolling. Scaly necks and tails flick and buck out of the resort’s foliage.
The irony of parading the ex-leaders among this parody of extinction is not lost on Lagos, who refuses to have his photograph taken in front of any dinosaurs. As his bodyguard trails a few feet behind, I ask Lagos if he is worried about the influence of the super-rich on democracy. He says citizens will eventually have the last say over vested interests, but it’s hard to hear his entire answer over the electronic howling and bellowing.
“The question is,” says Lagos, “when will Mr Palmer become a dinosaur?”
At this stage, no asteroid appears bound for the new member for Fairfax. Clive Palmer has scheduled a media conference for the next afternoon. He approaches in a low-roofed, chauffeur-driven buggy, wearing jeans and a multi-coloured striped shirt. The stripes curve and the buttons strain as he heaves himself from the buggy. With his arms extended by his girth, he walks stiffly towards the conference, like a robot. No other journalists have turned up, and I’m granted an interview.
We sit opposite each other on plastic chairs, and I ask him what he sees as the main challenges to democracy in Australia.
“Well, actually, it’s the struggling economy,” he begins. “We [the Palmer United Party] have a policy where we want to grow the economy, create more wealth, which creates more revenue and lifts our standard of living. So, that’s what we should be doing.”
Before our interview, I’d attended a Club de Madrid session on green jobs. Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (who late last year was accused by Tony Abbott of “talking though her hat” when she linked bushfire risk to climate change), appeared with the video message: “We must look to a low-carbon future … this must be the leadership legacy you leave to future generations.” Felipe Calderón, the former Mexican president, was also on hand to warn that our inability to cut carbon emissions was “provoking a series of catastrophes around the world, and in Australia fires and floods”.
Palmer had not made it to the session. I mention that I had, and ask him if our resource richness places us in a quandary when it comes to climate change.
Palmer’s eyes narrow. “Firstly,” he tells me, “a greater principle than climate change is democracy, where different points of view can be discussed freely, and people can have different points of opinion, right? I was of the view that the carbon tax was a useless tax because it only applied to Australians. Well, we know the air moves around the world, air can move across borders …”
“You’ve been characterised before as a climate change denier—” I start, seeking clarification.
“Well, I’ve never formed a final view on whether climate change is important, personally,” Palmer interrupts, “because I haven’t looked at it enough, but I have formed the view that the carbon tax is no point.”
He duly embarks on a take-down of the science of human-induced global warming, before suggesting we need to look at cutting not man-made emissions but rather natural sources of carbon: “the great bulk of it comes from things like bushfires, your whole range of naturally occurring bushfires”.
Palmer swiftly lists other global and domestic issues, including war, nuclear weapons, cattle dying in the Mulga country of western Queensland, the Aboriginal infant mortality rate, and “socially downtrodden people not getting good health services”. He adds: “If you look at the general environmental movement, we can say they focus a lot on the environment but there are a lot of issues they ignore, like the ones I’ve just given you, which I’m concerned about.
“You’ve got to understand, too, I can be wrong about things,” he concedes very briefly, “and I can be right about things, right? But the most important thing in politics should be that you’re honest about it. There might be people who have views that there’s no carbon problem at all, and they keep it quiet. They say nothing. They nod to the journalist, they go, ‘Arrghhh … how can I answer that?’ You know? It might be a safer way to go, but political debate shouldn’t be about safety. It should be about robust discussion. All the media knows when they interview politicians they’re not going to get any answers, right? We’ve got to try to hold [politicians] accountable, and we can do that by looking at the issues, making the electorate look at the critical issues for them.” He goes on to say, “At my age, I think it’s a bit silly not to say who you really are.”
And who is that again? Because all his non sequiturs and internal contradictions defy analysis – which may be the point. As he talks on and on, he’s like a crazy uncle vapouring away with great, patronising authority … or rather, he’s like a crazy politician whom we’ve actually met before, for isn’t this a variation on the fare that Joh Bjelke-Petersen once served up? His artful buffoonery helped him rule Queensland for 19 years. Palmer learnt at the master’s feet, and these lessons are about to pay dividends.
Palmer is less than a month from winning federal approval for his Galilee railway and reef-side port, which will reconfigure the state of Queensland, add billions to his portfolio, and – let’s just speculate – perhaps make him more amenable to supporting Prime Minister Abbott’s legislative agenda. If this was Abbott’s bet, Palmer’s much-lampooned move into politics could not have been more brilliantly timed. The Palmer United Party’s $10 million election budget already looks like small change.
To those concerned about the potential for conflict between Palmer’s vast pecuniary interests and his newfound political clout, he claims he’s “never made any money by any favours anyone’s ever given me”.
“But it’s an easy, cheap shot. You can say somebody’s black. You can say somebody comes from a minority group, and have a go at them.
“I’m usually ridiculed for [being] fat, a billionaire, but no one has ever ridiculed me about any of my ideas. No one’s ever argued that I’m wrong about a particular issue.”
He slips easily into his folk-hero schtick: “I care about the Australian people, I don’t care about approval from other people,” he says, as though his critics aren’t of true-blue stock. Warming to his vision for the term in office, Palmer begins to sound messianic: “I have no ambition personally, believe it or not. I don’t have an ambition to be prime minister, but as you get older in life, you reflect on other people and say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ So if someone in my position can’t help those people, who can? Why should I allow them to be hurt or downtrodden?”
As well as juggling politics and his myriad business interests, he has a family to run: his second wife, Anna, is days away from giving birth to his fourth child. His personal struggle, therefore, is time. “I’m pretty busy, you know,” he says, and it’s the one moment when the mask drops. Palmer looks almost relieved to confess, “I’m struggling like all Australians to do the best they can. But I love Australia. I haven’t decided to go and live in Switzerland and desert the people that live here.”
“Through history, man’s failed in their judgment more times than they’ve succeeded,” he pronounces. “I think you’ve got to do the best you can, because that’s all you can do, right? If you sit there and say, ‘Well we’re doomed,’ and if we are doomed, and you’ve not done anything about it, then you’re to blame for it, aren’t you? Right?”
Right. It’s hot, and his guests, bedecked in thongs and shorts, are heading for the beach with their boogie boards. In the foyer, Clive and Joh smile upon them from the big framed photo. “Don’t you worry about that!” they both seem to say.