Who is Clive Palmer, and what does his ascent say about Australia’s creaking political system? In Clivosaurus, Guy Rundle observes Palmer close up, examining his rise to prominence, his beliefs, his deals and his politics – not to mention his poetry. Rundle shows that neither the government nor the media have been able to take Palmer’s measure. Convinced they face a self-interested clown, they have failed to recognise both his tactical flexibility and the consistency of his centre-right politics.
Saturday, 3 July 2014, and outside Coolum, along David Low Way on the Sunshine Coast of Queensland, the cars were backed up for a stretch, heading into the Palmer Coolum Resort. It was the weekend before the new Senate would begin sitting, and the gates of the combination golf resort, gated community and dinosaur park had been thrown open by its owner, Clive Palmer, alleged billionaire and newly elected MP for Fairfax. Weeks earlier, every household in the electorate of Fairfax had received, Wonka-style, a Palmer-yellow pamphlet/invitation to the venue, which normally charged a cool hundred bucks per family for entry. It must have been particularly appreciated by those who had been – as reported in the Australian – recently laid off by the resort, as business nosedived. Still, there was free access to the dinosaurs, and an Elvis concert, and, as the brochure advertised, a series of rolling seminars by Palmer United Party (PUP) luminaries, with buffet …
Palmer had purchased the former Hyatt Regency Coolum in 2011, at a time when its chief attraction – and a major source of revenue for the nearby town of Coolum – was hosting the Australian PGA Championship. When Palmer took ownership and announced plans to turn it into a theme park featuring more than a hundred animatronic dinosaurs, the PGA warned him that too many distractions visible from the course would endanger the accreditation. They had in mind something like a plastic T-Rex looming over the first tee. Subsequent pictures of the resort showed a plastic T-Rex looming over the first tee. The PGA accreditation was duly rescinded, depriving Coolum of huge revenues, not recouped by the animatronic additions, in honour of which Clive had wanted to rename the place “Jurassic Park.” Amazingly, there were intellectual property issues, so “Jurassic Park” became “Palmersaurus.”
On the first day of free entry, not only were cars stretching back, but people were hiking on foot (Joe Hockey’s poor people, presumably). There was a festive air, a touch of Woodstock. Inside the long buffet tent beside the Coolum Rooms conference centre, food was being ladled out, and one tried not to think of Jonestown. The conference centre was in one direction from the park’s main crossroads with its proud welcoming sign (Asian food this way!), the dinosaur trail stretched the other – dozens of the things, brown, plastic, leathered and, as we now know, probably inaccurate (dinosaurs were most likely semi-feathered). The kids dragged their parents to the trail, but, well, after a while, all dinosaurs are alike. By coronosaurus they were lagging, by iguanadon they wanted to go the other way – by which point the parents had become bloody-minded. “I donnnnn’t wannnnn’t to see any more dinosaurs,” said a small girl. “We’re seeing the dinosaurs,” said her dad, pulling her along. The weekend was rich in analogy.
Over at the Coolum Rooms, other big beasts were gathering. The PUP’s Queensland senator, Glenn Lazarus, the “brick with eyes,” rolled in with a posse of good ol’ boys, enormous men in male bling, tapping on BlackBerries as they walked. Palmer’s other media guy, Andrew Crook – improbably but inevitably trading as Crook Media – buzzed around, harassed and bothered. Then a golf cart pulled up, and Crook imposed himself in front of the two camera crews as His Cliveness struggled out. It took about three moves, and images of religious cults yielded to Caddyshack.
The “seminars” were rolling short speeches and Q&As, with Clive speaking three times a day over both days, and Lazarus, Queensland MP Alex Douglas and West Australian senator Zhenya “Dio” Wang making up the undercard. Jacqui Lambie was around but not speaking; so was Queensland Liberal National Party (LNP) defector Carl Judge, who had the demeanour of a hostage being treated well. Folks drifted in and out, in their tens and twenties for the minor players, but surging to fill the 400-seat hall – really, like an enormous garage converted to a spare room – when Clive appeared. Milling outside, most were happy to say they hadn’t voted for him, had come for the dinosaurs, the vintage cars (in a vast humidicrib building), but were interested in what he had to say. It was a Sunshine Coast mix: tradies and their families, sea-changers with not that much to do, a few people from old Coast families, and the long-ago hippies and alternative types you get on such coasts, in folksy ’70s gear and with the occasional mandala tattoo.
On stage, Clive had a routine for them. He spoke of youthful dreams and hopes for a better Australia, of the inspiration of John F. Kennedy, and of his belief in the power of love. He told of going into politics because the Campbell Newman government, which he had supported into power, had turned against ordinary Queenslanders so badly that he felt he had to do something. “I went home and said to my wife, ‘Jeez, things are so bad I might have to run for the Senate,’ and she said, ‘Well, don’t do that, you might win – run for the House instead’ – so here I am.” That got a mild laugh, and then he told a story we would hear many times, about four old ladies who pooled what was left of their pension cheques every fortnight and took a trip to the cinema – “and if the Medicare co-payment was imposed, they wouldn’t be able to do that anymore.” There was no budget emergency, he said, Australia had the third-lowest public debt in the OECD. What we needed was to build the country. And we would do it, with love.
It’s fair to say that the crowd was not fired up with enthusiasm, and it showed in the questions. Many of those who had voted for Clive, and even more of those who hadn’t, were concerned about the deficit, which they assessed in the way they had been encouraged to by the major parties – as a family budget, in the “can’t spend what you don’t have” manner. The price of money and Keynesian demand weren’t what they wanted to hear about. There was also disquiet at Palmer’s plan to deal with boat-borne refugees by running cheap flights from Jakarta for all comers. If this was populism, it was a strange way to do it.
The energy crackled again when Glenn Lazarus got up and began to talk about his family, his footy and how his mum had propelled him into his greatest achievements. There was a pause. “Any questions?” said the MC. Someone asked something about the budget. Lazarus stumbled, “Well, uh, gosh, let me …” “Before you answer that, Glenn,” the MC piped up, “maybe you could tell us about some of the experiences on the field that might help you in parliament?” Lazarus’s enormous form relaxed and he leaned in. “Oh, we’ve had some torrid tussles …” he went on, and the crowd relaxed too.
Then Clive leapt into the cart, and we all followed him to fields beside the food court, where the king of the Gold Coast Elvis impersonators, Dean Vegas – thin ’50s black-leathers Elvis, not white-jumpsuit-thrombosis Elvis – gave us all the hits, and announced in character, “Y’know I ain’ never ha’ much time for politics, but I took one look at Clive and I knew this was someone I could support.” An endorsement from Elvis! (Mr Vegas has run for mayor of the Gold Coast at least three times.)
Seated before the stage on a rise, surrounded by family and retinue, Clive looked pleased. There was a vaguely Roman imperial air, and a suggestion that Mr Vegas would survive the cull, unlike the half-time act, a grinning X Factor contestant in spangles and follow-me-home-and-swap-preferences-with-me boots, who unwowed the crowd. Later that night, Clive stood up with the scratch band in the open-air food court and belted out “The Purple People Eater,” a party piece he’s been doing since he was a kid on the Gold Coast in the 1960s. Everyone had a good time, munching on okay food, listening to the hits and memories.
Even then, an early point in my encounters with Palmer, I didn’t know what to think. On the one hand, we had just had two full days in which anyone could rock up and ask questions of their new MP and one of their state’s senators, and get some straightforward answers. As politics, it was more open and direct than most major party MPs would take a chance on. But it couldn’t be ignored that it was taking place on palatial grounds owned by the MP himself, and there was more than a touch of Dallas about it. Throughout the rolling speeches, I didn’t have the sense Palmer was telling people what they wanted to hear. Quite the contrary: on refugees, the deficit and some of the budget measures – penalising the young unemployed, for example – he appeared noticeably to the left of many in the assembled crowd. Discussions in the foyer after each speech (I sat through the thoughts of Clive four times in two days) seemed to bear this out. “I still think it matters how much money we owe,” one sixty-something Palmer voter, in rural Sunday best, told me, his wife nodding by his side. Others were of the same opinion, wanting to tie the deficit to immigration, and impatient with Palmer’s fly-’em-in idea. “Whatever happens, we’ve got to stop the boats.” Why had the speaker, a Maroochydore sea-changer, not voted down-the-ticket Coalition? “Oh, Somlyay [the former Liberal MP for Fairfax]? We called him the periscope – he only came up once every three years,” she laughed. “I thought I’d give Clive a go.”
“I thought I’d give him a go” was what you heard a lot from this crowd, and it seemed a funny sort of populist movement – something the PUP had been labelled from the start – that didn’t consolidate fluke success by telling the public exactly what it wanted to hear. But then, a glance at the figures suggested it wasn’t much of a populist movement at all, with Palmer scraping in in Fairfax with 26 per cent of the primary vote, no other PUP lower-house figure coming close, and only Lazarus among the Senate lists gaining a respectable primary vote. The Palmer phenomenon appeared to be driven by other forces: the man’s heart-on-sleeve passions, imagined or real, and the tumbling mathematics of a broken electoral system. Who was Clive really, and what did his great political success mean, really? It seemed important to find out. But the next day there was no time. The Australian called the party over, with Hedley Thomas revealing that the money for the PUP campaign had come from funds earmarked as payment by the Chinese company CITIC to Palmer’s Mineralogy company for port services. The op-ed pages, then and for days after, were filled with denunciations. Palmer, for his part, made it clear that the budget would be torn to shreds. A strange and portentous period in our political history had begun.
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