The sordid history of Clive Palmer

Issue 

Clive: The Story of Clive Palmer
Sean Parnell
HarperCollins, 2013
328 pages, $39.99 (hb)

When the local council denied planning permission for the Queensland National Party’s media director, Clive Palmer, to build a 66-story townhouse development on peaceful rural land in Caloundra on the Sunshine Coast in 1984, Palmer’s party and state government mate, Russ Hinze, helped the rich guy out by overturning the council decision.

Shortly after, Palmer made the second-largest donation ever to the Nationals, writes Sean Parnell in Clive: The Story of Clive Palmer, “directing $15,000 from his company that had purchased the property”. Palmer well knew the utility of politics for personal business.

The lure of money governed the business family that Palmer was born into in 1954. Anti-communist, conservative Catholics, they stamped their son with the same template.

At the University of Queensland in the early 1970s, Palmer took on campus socialists and feminists, most vigorously through the Right To Life Association and its anti-abortion “pregnancy counselling” front.

He became close to the Liberal and Country Parties, and their state government headed by authoritarian, anti-democratic premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Dropping out of university and joining a law firm, Palmer’s potential legal career came to a rapid halt when he complained to a Liberal politician of police verballing of suspects that he had uncovered. An anonymous death threat soon after led to Palmer harbouring a lingering bitterness towards the police-protecting Liberals, while remaining reliably conservative, and greedy.

Palmer became a self-made real estate millionaire during Queensland’s interstate-migration-driven property boom on the Gold Coast, buying cheap and selling dear. This strategy delivered him billions during the mining boom, starting with iron ore deposits in Western Australia followed by the promise of even richer returns from coal in Queensland’s Galilee Basin.

If Palmer, a lavish donor to and life member of the National Party, thought that he owned Campbell Newman's Queensland Liberal National Party government elected last year, then he was disillusioned as he ran into a government speed bump.

His new China-export coal project lost its Labor-ordained “significant project status” when his claim to favoured state support for rail and port infrastructure was out-lobbied by Galilee Basin competitor, Gina Rinehart, and her coal export deal with India.

The taste of sour grapes infused Palmer’s deteriorating relationship with the conservative parties. His opposition to the new state government’s public sector job cuts was a pretext (he had sacked 100 workers at his Queensland nickel refinery) for a swipe at a government that had materially harmed his business interests.

Seen as destabilising or splitting the ruling conservative party, Palmer was jettisoned by the Nationals and went on to form his own, eponymous, conservative party.

Lest anyone think this latest political venture is a merely a continuation of protecting Palmer’s profits and conspicuous consumption (high-end cars and boats and planes, racehorses, soccer clubs, Club Med resorts, replica Titanics and robotic dinosaurs), Palmer presents a front of selfless generosity through philanthropy and gifts to his employees.

The climate change denialist does not, however, bother with any green camouflage about global warming from his coal exports, exposure of the Great Barrier Reef to pollution from his nickel refinery’s tailings dam, or the threat to protected dunes and bush posed by a huge expansion to his luxury resort at Coolum on the Sunshine Coast.

Palmer can only speak ill of environmentalists, but he will hear nothing bad about his former National Party idols and mentors who have been convicted of, or who narrowly dodged, corruption charges for misappropriating taxpayer funds and accepting bribes from developers.

These noble souls (including Bjelke-Petersen and Hinze) are, according to Palmer, persecuted innocents, “brave and courageous” all.

Legal prosecution, however, is a course of first resort for the highly litigious Palmer towards any person or entity that threatens his profits or reputation.

One outcome of Palmer’s legalistic aggression is that voices critical of Palmer are, for fear of being sued and bankrupted, under-represented in Parnell’s book.

The result is an overly benign portrait of Palmer, the celebrity mining magnate-politician, in a book that is fascinated by the “colourful Queenslander's” every new venture, but which is short on analysis of Palmer’s political philosophy, ethical values and social policies.

These, like Palmer, offer nothing to those not love-struck by money and power.