Clive Palmer: last sentry

Clive Palmer holds a fascination for Australian politicians and the media alike.  Prime Minister Julia Gillard invoked his name in her revenge attack on Campbell Newman’s Queensland LNP Government. Gillard made a long speech to the Queensland ALP conference yesterday but it was the reference to Clive Palmer (curiously left out of the official transcript) that gave the Brisbane Times its lead. “Even Clive Palmer is having doubts,” Gillard said. “You know the ship is going down pretty fast when the bloke who wants to resurrect the Titanic is seen leaving it.”

Gillard is referring to LNP life member Palmer dishing out on LNP leader Campbell Newman. Palmer has been on the attack since last week’s Queensland budget where the new government raised coal royalties. The near billionaire Palmer is directly affected through his China First coal project in the Galilee Basin which was cancelled in May though he cloaked his criticism in wider concerns. According to News Ltd, Palmer said “strikes, protest marches and royalty hikes were not good for the image of the state and would drive away investment.”
It is amusing to see Labor use Palmer as a tool of their propaganda after painting him so often as the bogey man. Wayne Swan was in Palmer’s sights for much of that past 12 months, but the businessman has added the State Government to his grumbles. He is fighting both levels of government over his proposal to pump wastewater from his Yabulu nickel plant into the Great Barrier Reef protection zone.
The Queensland Government decision to award Gina Rinehart and an Indian consortium a rail corridor to the Galilee also rankles. Palmer and his Chinese partners have put their joint venture on hold due to the falling price of coal. Most of Palmer’s wealth is in iron ore not coal. His company Minerology painstakingly secured 160 billion tonnes of iron ore deposits south of Dampier in the Pilbara Ranges in Western Australia over 15 years.

Forbes estimates Palmer’s worth at $795m making him the 29th richest person in Australia. Palmer said his father George, a successful silent movie star of the 1920s and a radio pioneer, had the greatest influence on him. “Dad worked with the then Prime Minister Billy Lyons when he was in power, advising him on media stuff. He was probably the first of the spin doctors,” Palmer told the Gold Coast News. “He also set up train and buslines for transportation. He broke that monopoly that the state railways had. He was quite an amazing guy.”

On leaving uni, George’s son got a job in real estate in the Gold Coast. He quickly became their top marketing consultant, before setting up his own company, GSS Property Sales. With the Coast in a construction boom, Palmer thrived and was worth $40m before the age of 30. In 1986 he set up companies to buy iron ore deposits and trade oil. He became a close confident of Joh Bjelke Petersen and an admirer of the way the Premier turned Queensland into a coal exporter. Palmer was considered the architect of Joh’s final election victory in 1986.

Palmer met Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and set up joint ventures with Russian companies. Palmer also greased the wheel with Chinese interests and had to be patient to make the deals work over many years. The lesson was to treat everyone with respect. Palmer said Chinese collective decision-making process often allowed middle management more power than the managing director. Palmer’s skill was his sense of timing. As Griffith Uni’s Jason West said, thermal coal prices spiked to unprecedented levels allowing Palmer, Hancock and Forrest to experience profit margins beyond expectations. “Instead of earning margins of $2 to $10 a tonne as they had for decades, coal miners were now earning margins of $50 to $100 a tonne which in turn increased asset values to levels rivalling well-established and brand name top 50 firms,” West said.

West said Palmer had one income-earning asset and a whole bunch of tenements offering only promises of future wealth. They include the massive $8 billion Sino Iron Project at Cape Preston, 100 km south west of Karratha, WA expected to deliver before the end of the year. Owned by Hong Kong-based CITIC Pacific, it is on Palmer’s tenements and will be the largest magnetite iron ore mining and processing operation in Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald estimates Palmer will rake in half a billion a year in royalties on Sino Iron.

Much of his poor public profile is due to his buffoonish tendency to become a walking headline. Palmer is not shy about self-promotion and calling himself Professor Palmer, courtesy of an honorarium from Bond University. Bizarrely, he has been officially listed as a “national living treasure” though the National Trust of Australia offers no reason for this accolade other than the incorrect statement “Palmer is a self–made billionaire”.

There remains the unfinished business of political ambition. In a Lateline interview last week, he attacked Campbell Newman for his lack of experience in business. “I’m the most successful Queenslander in the commercial world that’s ever lived, yet I’m not supposed to have any say and any knowledge about that,” Palmer said.  But while he has flirted with Katter, he still wants change from inside his party. “I love the LNP and I’ve been a supporter of it for 43 years,” he said. “I remain the last sentry at the gate to protect democracy in this country.” The question remains whether the sentry is there to guard the gate or attack the castle.
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