It is an hour and a half before my lunch appointment with Clive Palmer and, for the third time in as many days, his assistant has called to change the venue. “Mr Palmer has to make a speech in parliament shortly after 2pm so I’ve booked a table in the members’ guests’ dining room,” she says apologetically.
It’s been a hectic week for one of Australia’s newest politicians. As well as juggling the responsibilities of the party he founded and named after himself, Palmer United Party (PUP), the 60-year-old mining tycoon has been fighting a legal battle with his Chinese business partners over royalties and has been engaged in a public slanging match with Rupert Murdoch’s powerful media empire.
The hostilities with News Corp are over coverage of two of Palmer’s quirkier investments – the recently opened Palmersaurus dinosaur theme park in his home state of Queensland, and his plan to build Titanic II, a life-size replica of the doomed liner that would run transatlantic cruises for tourists. “Clive Palmer’s ambitious Titanic II is about as likely to sail its maiden voyage on time as its namesake is to ever sail again,” opined the Murdoch-owned Courier-Mail. Palmer’s response to the journalist was curt. “I don’t talk to the Courier-Mail. I don’t like them. See you, bye.”
After a quick dash across Canberra, Australia’s capital, I’m ushered through the cavernous halls of Parliament House – boomerang-shaped and said to be the world’s most expensive building when completed in 1988 – to a near-deserted dining room. There are fantastic views over the city but the atmosphere is sterile, more hospital café than upmarket restaurant.
Palmer, a huge man with a mop of white hair, greets me with a wide smile and, when he hears I’m from Belfast, small talk about his own heritage (his great-grandmother comes from Ireland). He is also keen to put my mind at rest about the future of Titanic II. “Everywhere it goes, people will want to see it,” he assures me. “When it arrives at ports, we’ll charge $100 for a tour and a photo.”
The idea of building a commercial replica of a vessel with such a sensitive history is pure Palmer. He has a predilection for apparently hare-brained schemes and is fond of making eyebrow-raising public pronouncements. In a recent TV interview, he called Murdoch’s former wife Wendi Deng “a spy”, and caused further controversy by suggesting the government was designing its paid parental leave scheme “just so that the prime minister’s chief of staff can receive a massive benefit when she gets pregnant”.
Though dismissed by some as a wealthy buffoon, Palmer has in little more than a year shaken up the Australian political landscape and won a seat in the house of representatives. And, from July 1, four PUP-affiliated senators will effectively hold the balance of power in the parliament’s powerful upper house, where the right of-centre Liberal-National coalition, led by prime minister Tony Abbott, will need PUP votes to pass any legislation opposed by the Greens and Labor. Palmer is also threatening to block key measures in Abbott’s first budget, including sweeping reforms to higher education and the introduction of a charge to visit GPs.
Palmer says Abbott is an intelligent man but lacks the communication skills to develop into an effective international leader. “It is unprecedented that he has lost popularity within six months [of being elected].” By contrast, “our party was registered just five weeks before the federal election, and I’ve got the biggest swing in Australian history to win my seat. I think it is pretty good.”
Palmer’s populism is, in part, based on taking pot shots at the political establishment that he has spent so much money to join (A$10m to A$12m during the last election, according to Palmer). “Parliament”, he says, “is like having lots of people on one side that know nothing. They are opposed by a lot of other people on the other side who also know nothing. They are all advised by a lot of people, who know absolutely nothing – it’s a fine art, parliament,” he says with a grin as he scans the room for any MPs within earshot.
Why, I ask, was he so keen to get involved? Palmer was a big donor to the Liberals until 2012 and a row over what he saw as the negative influence of lobbyists. This followed a public bust-up with the Liberal-controlled Queensland government, which sanctioned a mining rival’s project ahead of his own proposal. Some have ascribed revenge as the magnate’s motive for starting his own party. But when I ask about his critics’ claims that he entered politics to advance his own business interests, Palmer looks momentarily hurt before saying that is “a cheap shot ... I’ve never benefited from any decision made by the government of Australia. I’ve gone out and bought things on the open market,” he adds.
Instead, he says, PUP comes from a desire to give something back to his country. “My family has had a strong commitment to Australia,” he explains. “I lost my grand-uncle in world war one, I had family serve during world war two and nephews who served in Vietnam and Timor. Those people have done more than I’ve done.”
Even so, he says, “We [PUP] are achieving a lot. When we set up the party we had a policy that, if you were a paid-up registered lobbyist, then you couldn’t be a party official. And, of course, the Liberals have adopted that policy.”
A waiter swoops on our table, like one of the magpies aggressively patrolling the parliament’s leafy grounds. Palmer, who is often lampooned by cartoonists for his size, asks for two starters, pumpkin ravioli followed by pea soup, instead of a main course. “I’m losing a bit of weight but that is all right. I’m only doing it for me, not for the media,” he explains with a guilty look at his stomach.
He puts his success down to public scepticism of mainstream politicians who, unlike him, don’t say what they really think. “A lot of the politicians here in parliament are worried about being re-elected, so they are worried about their appearance rather than the substance of issues. I’ve no great concern about not being re-elected so I’m principally concerned with actually doing what is the best thing to do.”
Yet the main question posed by Palmer’s rise to prominence is what do he and his party actually stand for? His slimmed-down lunch could be a metaphor for his party’s policies. PUP’s manifesto lists just five key issues: reducing the role played by lobbyists in politics; returning power and wealth to regions; repealing the carbon tax; promoting domestic manufacturing; and overhauling the country’s hugely costly asylum system.
“I think you have to be a pragmatist in politics,” he says. “Ideologically-driven politics is bad. We are going to do what is the best thing on each issue. John F Kennedy was a pragmatist. He wasn’t too left or right, really he just focused on solutions.”
So where does he stand on the issue of the Australian economy, which, after 22 years of economic growth, faces a big challenge with the end of the mining investment boom? “The truth about the Australian economy is that there are only about a dozen countries with a triple AAA credit rating and Australia is one of them. So it can’t be that bad for Australia, can it?” he replies.
Palmer accuses Abbott of manufacturing an economic crisis to justify delivering the country’s toughest and most unpopular budget in two decades. “Should Australia be following the austerity policies set by the likes of Equatorial Guinea and Uzbekistan – or the model set by Washington, which stimulated its economy?” he says. “This government risks making its dire economic warnings a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Though Abbott has dismissed PUP as “a personality cult for one person”, Palmer’s unpredictability and pivotal position in the senate are big worries for the government.
Having initially threatened to block a repeal of the carbon tax, PUP then proposed to block an alternative carbon emissions reduction policy advocated by the government. Palmer – who plans to mine billions of dollars of coal, the world’s dirtiest fuel, in his native Queensland – describes the policy as a “waste of money”. But then, this week, he announced that he would support a bill to abolish a carbon tax after all. With a bewildering Palmerian flourish, he made the announcement standing beside the former US vice-president Al Gore, a prominent environmental campaigner.
Yet Palmer seems sceptical about man’s role in causing climate change: “Well, the reality of climate change is there was an ice age. Historically, the climate on the earth has always changed. Ninety-seven per cent of carbon emissions are from natural sources rather than human activity.
“What we are targeting at the moment is the 2 to 3 per cent that is caused by human activity. What we need to target is the whole thing.”
Unsurprisingly, he is a target for Green activists, who have opposed his plan to build a coal mine in the Galilee Basin in northern Queensland. Palmer is unrepentant. “The cheapest way to generate electricity is by burning coal and Chinese are not going to change their capital investment programmes, so they are going to have coal,” he says, going on to claim that Queensland coal emits less CO2 when burnt when compared to the emissions from alternative lower grade supplies from Indonesia. “You can’t sell that to the media or the Greens but that is how I look at it,” he says, before remarking that his roasted pumpkin, ricotta and chive ravioli has a tasty sauce. I pick at my plump marinated king prawns.
Clive Palmer was born in Melbourne in 1954 but the family moved to the Gold Coast when he was a child, in part, he says, because the pollution in their working-class suburb of the city was aggravating his chronic asthma. In the early 1970s he dropped out of university to become a real estate agent and developer during the Gold Coast property boom. Around this time, he met his first wife Susan. She died of cancer in 2005 and, says Palmer, “Her love still sustains me today.” His one regret is not having spent more time with her. “That is a common male trait. We tend to think we are working for our partners, and we should give them more time and more attention.”
Two years later he married Anna, whose husband – one of Palmer’s best friends – had died of cancer not long after Susan. The couple have two children together, the youngest born last December. Palmer seems unfazed by late fatherhood and jokes about being “assaulted” by the baby’s nappies.
His entry to the ranks of Australia’s swashbuckling mineral magnates began in the mid-1980s, when his company Mineralogy acquired rights to low grade iron ore deposits in the Pilbara region in Western Australia. In 2006, he struck a $5bn development deal for the ore deposit with a Chinese state-owned company, CITIC Pacific.
Mineralogy is a private company, which makes it difficult to assess the scale of Palmer’s fortune. Forbes estimates his wealth at A$631m (£348m) while Australia’s Business Review Weekly recently revised down his wealth from A$2.2bn to just over A$1bn, due to falls in the price of resources. When I ask if he is a billionaire or a millionaire, Palmer, who travels by private jet and Rolls-Royce, is uncharacteristically coy. “Just call me a human being,” he says. “After you have about $5m to $10m, your lifestyle doesn’t really change that much.”
Nevertheless, the CITIC Pacific deal did transform Palmer’s business, though lately his relationship with his Chinese partners has soured over the level of their royalty payments. CITIC Pacific’s president has warned Palmer that his behaviour could deter Chinese investors from dealing with his companies. Palmer says, “What is new for them, I guess, is that in Australia we have a rule of law, and contracts are done by rule of law. We have a fair system of the courts deciding who is right and who is wrong,” he says. “In a totalitarian state you don’t have a rule of law, and, if you are a state-owned company, you just decide what you want to do. So the principle at stake here is the rule of law and the independence of the country.”
As the conversation gets animated, the waiter puts my ocean trout in front of Palmer and his pea soup in front of me. Before I have time to mention the mistake, he has begun slicing off the fish’s skin, apparently forgetting what he ordered.
I point out the waiter’s mistake and Palmer apologises as we swap plates. The fish is nicely cooked, even if it does look a little worse for wear by the time it gets to me. Across the table Palmer bemoans the blandness of his newly arrived soup.
Blandness is not a characteristic often associated with a man whose Twitter account describes him as a “national living treasure”. He has a reputation for handsomely rewarding loyal employees, in 2010, for example, giving away 55 Mercedes cars as Christmas bonuses for the best performers at his nickel factory.
He also has a history of falling out with people. Last year he threatened to sue one of Rupert Murdoch’s titles for defamation over articles alleging Palmer exaggerated his wealth and qualifications. “Rupert doesn’t like me,” says Palmer. He adds a little more cryptically: “He is someone who has sworn an oath of allegiance to the US, and he is controlling all of our media [in Australia]. I suppose that is an issue for some people.”
With that, a bill for A$223.50 is delivered to our table. “That seems a bit steep,” says Palmer, who has an eye for buying assets when they are cheap. And, sure enough, it turns out the bill belongs to an adjacent table of seven lunching parliamentarians. Whether the man behind Palmer United has as good a grasp on the voting numbers in the Senate and can mould his party into a long-term force in Australian politics, we are about to find out.
Jamie Smyth is the FT’s Australia correspondent
Illustration by James Ferguson
Members’ Guests’ Dining Room
Parliament House, Capitol Hill, Canberra ACT 2600
Pumpkin ravioli A$19.50
King prawns A$19.40
Pea soup No charge
Ocean trout A$32.00
Glass of Sauvignon A$9.50
Total (incl service) A$88.50 (£49)
Letter in response to this column: