Clive Palmer can “twerk”, just like Miley Cyrus. He is promising “a revolution” – and also world peace. He wants to end Aboriginal disadvantage, and build the world’s biggest dinosaur park. Is there no limit to the ambitions of Australia’s most colourful would-be prime minister?
Apparently not. “But it’s not all about me,” insists Mr Palmer, speaking at his five-star Palmer Coolum Resort on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, where the lobby is lined with framed photographs of him with world leaders, where guests can dine on lobster thermidor at the Palmer Grill, and no fewer than four in-room television channels are devoted to the mining tycoon and his exploits.
As Australians ponder whom to vote for at a federal election on 7 September, the flamboyant businessman – and his newly hatched Palmer United Party – is a wildcard. Some voters like his style. “He may have some weird and wonderful ideas, but at least they’re fresh,” said Gill Kube, a Birmingham-born Queenslander who attended his campaign launch in Coolum last Sunday.
She added: “I’m fed up with the two main parties [Kevin Rudd’s governing Labor Party and Tony Abbott’s conservative Liberals]. Clive has got a vision which is out of the mainstream, so I’m going to give him a go.”
That vision is both grandiose and imprecise. It involves “turbo-charging the economy” by fiddling with company tax; pumping tens of millions of dollars into health and education; increasing pensions; and abolishing the “carbon tax” on big polluters. And how would Mr Palmer pay for all that? “Who gives a stuff about the cost?” he asks with a shrug. “Some things are more important than money.”
Queensland’s richest man is equally vague about his own wealth. Forbes estimates it at “only” A$895m (£517m), Australia’s BRW magazine at just over $2bn (£643m). “You can only sleep in one bed, eat one meal and – if you’re a smart guy – only have one woman,” he told The Independent in an interview at his resort, where an eight-metre-tall replica of a Tyrannosaurus rex stands guard over the golf course. “That’s about what I’m worth: one bed, one woman and one meal. I’m just a normal Aussie. Give me a pie and a sausage roll and I’m happy.”
There is about as much chance of Mr Palmer running the country as of dinosaurs (real ones) once more roaming the Earth – but the publicity-loving 59-year-old is giving it his best shot, and hang the expense. His party is fielding candidates in every one of the 150 House of Representatives constituencies, as well as vying for seats in the Senate. He himself hopes to become the MP for Fairfax, on the Sunshine Coast – and, in an ideal world, prime minister.
Many of his candidates are relatives or employees. All are big Clive fans. At the campaign launch, Matt Adamson, a former Rugby League player who is running for the Senate, recalled the speech delivered by Martin Luther King in Washington DC 50 years ago. “You know what,” Mr Adamson told the crowd, “Clive has a dream too.”
The event drew hundreds of party members, many of them wearing oversized badges featuring a beaming Mr Palmer giving a double thumbs-up and the words “Our Next Prime Minister”. (The same image is on billboards around Coolum.) Members of his “shadow cabinet” strode to the stage one by one, as a four-piece Irish band played “Waltzing Matilda”, “Land Down Under” and “Come On, Aussie, Come On”, a cricket anthem.
The lengthy warm-up consisted of documentary clips about the maverick tycoon, spliced with TV interviews and footage about his current pet project – building and sailing a replica of the Titanic. Finally, the man himself, resplendent in a dark suit and red tie, ascended the stage, to the stirring accompaniment of “Eye of the Tiger”. Cue deafening cheers.
There was much to cheer about. “Professor Palmer” – as he likes to style himself, despite being admonished by Queensland’s Bond University, which gave him the honorary title – will deliver a 15 per cent income tax cut. There’ll be tax breaks for home-buyers, and for people working in a second job. “We are talking about a revolution,” he declared. “We need to put the idea of a class war behind us and unite the nation.”
There’s no question about the business skills of a man who owns coal reserves in Queensland, an iron ore mine in Western Australia and a vast property portfolio. As a politician, he is untried and untested, although he used to be the Liberal Party’s biggest donor. Having fallen out with the party, he loses no opportunity to slate it. “Tony Abbott wants to shrink the economy to the size of a pea,” he claims. He slates Labor, too: “Kevin Rudd pays more attention to his hair than the needs of the Australian people.”
Why bother, though, with the nitty-gritty of campaigning, when you’re so rich you’ve lost track, and you could, instead, be adding to your $25m collection of vintage cars (half a dozen of which adorn the resort’s entrance and lobby), or hopping around in one of your five jets, or buying another soccer team? (His last one lost its licence after he clashed with fans and Football Federation Australia.) Mr Palmer flashes a broad smile. Politics, he tells me, is “all about love”. That’s one of many Clive-isms, along with “I may not get to heaven but I’ll get to Canberra” and “Global warming means fewer icebergs” – the latter of particular relevance to his Titanic II venture.
“I really don’t care about getting elected,” he confides. “I’m not seeking election for money or recognition. I get recognised everywhere I go, and I’ve got enough money to sustain myself. I only care about bringing about change. We have a higher infant mortality rate [in Aboriginal communities] than in Asia, South America and Africa, and I think that’s unacceptable.”
While the assertion, like many of Mr Palmer’s sweeping statements, doesn’t bear scrutiny – the Aboriginal child death rate is twice that of white Australia, but far lower than that of the developing world – the sentiment seems genuine enough. “It’s to do with caring about people less fortunate than yourself,” he explains. His party’s refugee policy, by the way, is eminently sensible: asylum-seekers will be allowed to arrive by plane; they’ll be processed at airports, swiftly, and either resettled or sent home. Titanic II is about love too, and world peace. The ship – to be recreated in all of its namesake’s opulent glory, complete with grand staircase, first-class staterooms, Turkish baths and smoking room – was designed in Finland and is being built in China. In 2016, it will set sail from Southampton, just like the doomed cruise liner, and – fingers crossed – will arrive safely in New York. (The replica will have modern radar and an extra “safety deck”.)
So it’s an endeavour which unites many corners of the globe, says the man who dreamt it up. “It’s got universal appeal, and a perception of romance. It also symbolises the irrepressible spirit of mankind – that we’ll finish the ship and we’ll complete the journey, even if it’s 100 years later.” The mission has won him many headlines. But rarely a day goes by, anyway, without Mr Palmer making news. Last week it was his claim to have identified the world’s richest gas field, off Papua New Guinea. And a public fight with the Liberals over the scandal involving Peter Slipper, the former parliamentary Speaker. And his attempt to bet a TV journalist a million dollars that he’ll win his seat. (The pair settled on $100.)
Then there are the dinosaurs, starting with Jeff, the T Rex, who is named after Queensland’s deputy state premier, Jeff Sweeney, a Liberal. If you press a button, Jeff roars, and waves his front legs, and swishes his tail, and bats his eyelids. Eventually, if all goes according to plan, there will be 160 replica dinosaurs scattered around the Coolum resort.
And the twerking? Not a problem, as Mr Palmer demonstrated when he made a guest appearance on the popular Kyle and Jackie O radio show on 2Day FM. According to one account: “[His] ample body gyrated back and forth. His hips and bum trembled like a blancmange. And the nation gasped.” Indeed.
Big ideas: Clive’s guide to DIY
In February this year, the mining magnate announced plans to build a replica of the RMS Titanic in China at an estimated cost of $500m (£322m). It will endeavour to complete the route from Southampton to New York that the original luxury cruise liner, below, never made after it sank on its maiden voyage in 1912.
Gold Coast United FC
Palmer purchased a large stake in the Australian football club in 2008, demanding it become “an instant A-League heavyweight” to propel it into the Asian Champions League with the aim of increasing his profile in China, according to local media reports. Palmer said he had not approached it with the idea of making money, “more with the idea of losing money”, he said. The Football Federation of Australia (FFA) revoked the club’s A-League licence in 2012 following Palmer’s “flagrant disregard” for A-League rules.
AUS$10m Christmas bonus
Christmas came early for the 800 employees of Queensland Nickel in 2010. After a 30 per cent increase in production worth “hundreds of millions” to the company, Palmer thanked his staff with brand new Mercedes B Class hatchback cars, trips for two to five-star resorts in Fiji and other holidays, collectively worth AUS$10m (£5.76m).
Palmer United Party
In April, Palmer announced he would revive the United Australia Party, which had been dissolved in 1945, to stand candidates in the 2013 federal election. The name of the party was changed after a legal squabble. The cost of this enterprise is unknown.