The single most extraordinary fact about Clive Palmer and his conflated business and political interests is that he took $10 million from his Chinese government–owned joint venture partner to fund his political party, which now holds considerable influence in the Senate.
Nothing like this has ever happened before in Australian political history, but the sheer gobsmacking significance of it will be lost on readers of Guy Rundle’s Clivosaurus, where it is mentioned only in passing. Palmer’s use of Citic Pacific’s money for electoral purposes is noted just three times in the essay, and each reference is one sentence long. Rundle doesn’t even state the amount of money involved.
This pivotal issue is the centre of a Supreme Court action brought by Citic, an investigation by the West Australian police, and has seen Palmer storm out of several TV interviews, yet not only does Rundle blithely bypass it, he also shirks rigorous analysis of Palmer’s business interests and finances.
Rundle is a former editor of left-wing magazine Arena and is now described as a roving correspondent for Crikey. A big part of the problem with this essay is that he isn’t the right person to have written it. When it comes to Palmer, he lacks the depth of Hedley Thomas and Sean Parnell, who have covered the businessman-turned-politician in immense detail in the Australian and in an 80,000-word book respectively.
Rundle draws extensively on Parnell’s book, Clive: The story of Clive Palmer, a fact disclosed about halfway through and in the acknowledgments, and this means there’s little new material on Palmer’s early life or his present business interests.
Rundle’s treatment of Thomas is one of many disappointing aspects of this essay. Thomas, a formidable investigative journalist with five Walkley Awards to his credit, is introduced in such a perfunctory way that readers will see him as a Murdoch hack who does the bidding of his master. Rundle’s linking of the coverage by the Australian, and Thomas especially, with Palmer’s bizarre claim about Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife Wendi Deng being a Chinese government spy is fundamentally flawed and unfair to Thomas.
To set the record straight, Thomas’s first big piece about Palmer and his political ambitions was published on 15 June 2013. The article, which carried the headline “Should this man run our nation?”, followed Palmer’s boast that he would become prime minister.
As the election drew closer, Thomas wrote a steady stream of stories about Palmer, culminating in a front-page article that exposed a series of claims that Palmer had made about being a professor, a G20 adviser, a mining magnate and a billionaire. Palmer made the comment about Deng being a Chinese spy on the day of publication, 5 September, so Thomas’s burrowing into Palmer’s life was well underway when Palmer made these remarks.
This critique of News Corporation and the Australian in particular wouldn’t be so ludicrous if Rundle didn’t then lambast the media at large for ignoring Palmer. While he says News was “going him … for going up against Rupert,” in the very next breath he says the remainder of the press ignored him “throughout the election campaign and its aftermath.” Well, this situation surely underscores the public interest merit of News devoting considerable resources to probing into Palmer’s affairs?
Rundle also argues, unconvincingly, that the Australian’s focus on Palmer was unfair because commensurate attention was not given to other “politically engaged” rich men, such as James Packer, Frank Lowy and Rupert Murdoch. But Rundle doesn’t concede the obvious point that none has a political party with seats in parliament and a potential stranglehold on the Senate.
Paul Cleary is a senior writer with the Australian and the author of four books, including Too Much Luck and Mine-Field.
A longer version of this piece was first published in the Weekend Australian on 6 December 2014.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 57, Dear Life.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY