Thoughts of Chairman Clive
DateAugust 4, 2012
The mining magnate doesn't apologise for his wealth or his power but he wants to be remembered for more, writes Deborah Snow.
Listening to some of Clive Palmer's anecdotes over a 2½-hour lunch, it's sometimes hard to suspend disbelief. What to make, for instance, of his claim that he sat on Chairman Mao Zedong's knee, as a child?
Or that during the same nine-month interlude in China, in the early '60s, he also met legendary premier Chou En-lai, and came across the former emperor Pu Yi, tending the decrepit gardens of the Forbidden City in Beijing?
He insists these things are true.
''I remember looking down at the carpet and he [Mao] was sitting in a sort of old-style lounge chair with white tablecloths each side of it … [Later] Chou En-lai took me and dad to the Forbidden City. There was an old guy, cutting flowers; I remember his big hands and secateurs. He said when he was a young boy he used to live there and was very sad. Now he was cutting flowers and his life was full of happiness. That was Pu Yi, the last emperor.''
Exactly what Palmer snr and his family were doing in China at that critical time is nigh impossible to discover. Australia's most colourful billionaire just stonewalls.
George Palmer wasn't a spy, he says, and didn't speak the language but ''was concerned with the fact that 200 million to 300 million Chinese faced starvation''.
''I think he would have gone at other people's request.'' But as for the rest, Palmer says it's a secret he will probably take to his grave.
There's no mystery, though, about his own lavish admiration for the Chinese.
He even argues that the internal workings of the Communist Party are ''highly democratic - people vote for various leaders and things like that''.
Then again, why wouldn't you be fond of a country which has provided a good chunk of your billions? (BRW magazine most recently estimated Palmer's worth at $3.85 billion, down from $5 billion last year. Palmer won't give a figure but says ''don't believe what you read in the papers''.)
Like Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest, Clive Palmer can thank iron ore in Western Australia for some of his wealth, but he built his original fortune on Gold Coast real estate, amassing $40 million before he'd reached the age of 30.
He also has nickel and coal interests in Queensland and a stake in gas and oil claims off PNG which he claims could eventually rival the North West Shelf.
The mining press has pointed out that he has yet to actually ship any ore from the West Australian project, which has been plagued by delays and cost overruns. But Palmer says that will change next month, adding that if journalists weren't ''too lazy'' to travel to the Pilbara they would see for themselves the $6 billion Sino Iron port and mine construction being undertaken by his Chinese partner, Citic Pacific.
''I'll probably end up getting about 1½ billion dollars a year of income out of it,'' he states breezily. ''It's good enough to keep people away from the door.'' He insists he has never greased a palm to do business with China - ''I can honestly say that to you.''
When not tending his mining interests Palmer collects golf courses and resorts, has stables of vintage cars and trotting thoroughbreds and is fired with enthusiasm for his latest hobby horse, the recreation of the doomed 1912 ocean liner Titanic.
He says the idea sprang from a casual conversation with bosses at a Chinese shipyard, who were perplexed at buyers wanting their bulk shipping but not their cruise ships.
''I said 'people need to have confidence and faith in your project'. And they said 'how do we do that?' And I said 'well, you could build the Titanic'. It just popped out … We signed a memorandum to do it that day.''
Asked about the apparent randomness of this decision he replies, ''Why would you want to do the same thing all your life and be bored?''
The man who likes to style himself ''professor'' (he has an adjunct professorship at Bond University) meets the Herald for lunch at the Palmer Grill, inside the recently renamed Palmer Coolum resort on the Sunshine Coast, which he took over after a recent court battle with the Hyatt group. This weekend the 160-hectare resort is offering a ''Titanic Culinary Journey'' with ''lavish menus from the world's most famous ship''. But on a mid-week day the restaurant is empty of other diners.
Beyond the picture windows, the kangaroos outnumber the golfers on the championship course. Palmer points out, slightly defensively, that it is mid-winter.
Having made himself unpopular among locals with deep staff cuts, he has just announced plans for a $2.5 billion remake of the resort, with a proposed casino, theme park, water park, beachfront hotel and shopping centre linked by monorail to a new international airport. Environmental controversy looms.
Meanwhile he is trying to downsize himself, so lunch is an abstemious affair, apart from a shared bottle of red. He orders half a dozen scallops followed by a parma salad ''with extra tomato''. (He has lost 30 kilos, and is at 120 aiming for 100.)
As to why he hasn't tried the gastric bypass reputedly undergone by fellow weighty billionaire James Packer, Palmer says he is taking his father's advice to ''always go the hard way''.
George Palmer was infatuated with silent film as a child, and according to his son shot a Hollywood-acclaimed feature at the age of 16 with money he raised from five years of collecting bottles.
Palmer snr also pioneered the packaging of Queensland holidays, set up radio stations in Melbourne and Tasmania, and experimented with TV transmission.
''He was more talented then me, much more creative than I am,'' Palmer says. ''He started a lot of ventures but he sold them before they became really successful.''
George wasn't particularly impressed with the son's millions though. ''He took the view, and I take the same view, that anything you are given is only temporary.''
There's a lot of homespun philosophy peppering Palmer's conversation and it seems he hankers after being defined by more than his money.
Despite getting the cold shoulder from Tony Abbott, Palmer is still actively toying with running for a federal seat in Queensland, though he seems to have backed off targeting the Treasurer, Wayne Swan (who renewed his assault on the billionaire this week).
Palmer is adamant his own political ambitions shouldn't be dismissed.
A former spokesman for one-time premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, he has been a National Party member since the age of 15 and a life member since he was 36.
''I have been the youngest life member, I have been the largest donor, the strongest supporter of the party,'' he says.
''Why shouldn't I be prepared to nominate? Why should I worry about what Tony Abbott says?
''I'm not a business person who has been interested in politics, I'm a political person who has gone into business.''
But he won't countenance mothballing his business interests should he ever find himself in Parliament.
''All I need to do is not vote on or take part in any decision that affects me. As a company director I do that all the time. This whole concept of giving up your business is designed to keep achievers in Australia out of politics,'' he says.
Asked what keeps him awake at night, Palmer at first deadpans ''television''. Then he adds ''and my [four-year-old] daughter. And the economy … and refugees that come to Australia. You worry why the Australian navy stood by while 40 people drowned [off Christmas Island in December 2010]''.
He is a strong advocate of onshore processing and believes the refugee policies of both major parties are ''morally bankrupt''.
A practising Catholic who says he attends Mass weekly, Palmer has two adult children from his first marriage to Sue, who died of cancer. His youngest child is the product of his second marriage to Anna, the widow of a friend who also succumbed to cancer.
He bristles at being asked how he reconciles his religion with his liking for litigation and his reputation for ruthlessness in business. ''I don't think I am ruthless, not at all … I'm trying to do the best I can in sometimes difficult circumstances to make a contribution to whatever I do.''
It's true Palmer has sometimes shown extraordinary generosity, once showering employees at his Townsville nickel plant with Mercedes-Benz cars and overseas holidays.
But he can show scant mercy towards business rivals and critics. He has a hefty writ against this paper over an investigative series on his Chinese mining deals, yet sings the praises of the quality media and talks of starting a website for out-of-work journalists.
Similar contradictions manifest in his political heroes: apart from Joh, former US Democratic president John F. Kennedy is another - and Palmer's son Michael was an intern for a year with Senator Ted Kennedy. He says he is concerned about global warming but opposes the carbon tax and is not the least bit queasy about being a coal baron. ''I'd be hypocritical if I was.''
So how would he tackle the problem of a warming planet? ''Change our diet - not eat so many sheep,'' he offers. Or promote the search for ''global answers'' through the Club of Madrid, an organisation of former world leaders to which he contributes through its ''president's circle'' of donors.
These are not measures likely to immediately impact on his coal fortunes, I point out.
''Worse than doing nothing is to do something that's ineffective and say you've done something,'' he shoots back.
''If you're a billionaire you are always the baddie.''
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