Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Clive Palmer: last sentry

Clive Palmer continues to hold a fascination for Australian politicians and the media alike. Prime Minister Julia Gillard invoked his name in her revenge attack on Campbell Newman's Queensland LNP Government. Gillard made a long speech to the Queensland ALP conference yesterday but it was the reference to Clive Palmer (curiously left out of the official transcript) that gave the Brisbane Times its lead. "Even Clive Palmer is having doubts," Gillard said. "You know the ship is going down pretty fast when the bloke who wants to resurrectthe Titanic is seen leaving it."

Gillard is referring to LNP life member Palmer dishing out on LNP leader Newman. Palmer has been on the attack since last week’s Queensland budget where the new government raised coal royalties. The near billionaire Palmer is directly affected through his China First coal project in the Galilee Basin which was cancelled in May though he cloaked his criticism in wider concerns. According to News Ltd, Palmer said “strikes, protest marches and royalty hikes were not good for the image of the state and would drive away investment.”

It is amusing to see Labor use Palmer as a tool of their propaganda after painting him so often as the bogey man. Wayne Swan was in his sights for much of that past 12 months, but the businessman has added the State Government to his grumbles. He is up in arms against both levels of government over his proposal to pump wastewater from his Yabulu nickel plant into the Great Barrier Reef protection zone.

Meanwhile the Queensland Government decision to award Gina Rinehart and an Indian consortium a rail corridor to the Galilee still rankles. Palmer and his Chinese partners have put their joint venture on hold due to the dropping price of coal. Luckily for Palmer, his enormous wealth is in iron ore not coal. His company Minerology painstakingly secured 160 billion tonnes of iron ore deposits south of Dampier in the Pilbara Ranges in Western Australia over 15 years.

Forbes estimates Palmer as being worth $795m making him the 29th richest person in Australia. Palmer said his father George, a successful silent movie star of the 1920s and radio pioneer, had the greatest influence on him. "Dad worked with the then Prime Minister Billy Lyons when he was in power, advising him on media stuff. He was probably the first of the spin doctors,” Palmer told the Gold Coast News. "He also set up train and buslines for transportation. He broke that monopoly that the state railways had. He was quite an amazing guy."

On leaving uni, George's son got a job in real estate in the Gold Coast. He quickly became their top marketing consultant, before setting up his own company, GSS Property Sales. With the Coast in the middle of a construction boom, Palmer thrived and was worth $40m before the age of 30. In 1986 he set up companies to buy iron ore deposits and trade oil. He became a close confidant of Joh Bjelke Petersen and an admirer of the way the Premier turned Queensland into a coal exporter. Palmer was considered the architect of Joh’s final election victory in 1986.

Palmer also met Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and set up joint ventures with Russian companies that persist to this day. Palmer also greased the wheel with Chinese interests and had to be very patient to make the deals work over many years. The lesson was to treat everyone with respect. Palmer said their collective decision-making process often allowed middle management more power than the managing director. But Palmer’s key skill was his sense of timing. As Griffith Uni’s Jason West said, thermal coal prices spiked to unprecedented levels allowing the likes of Palmer, Hancock and Forrest to experience profit margins beyond their wildest expectations. “Instead of earning margins of $2 to $10 a tonne as they had for decades, coal miners were now earning margins of $50 to $100 a tonne which in turn increased asset values to levels rivalling well-established and brand name top 50 firms,” West said.

West said Palmer had one income-earning asset and a whole bunch of tenements offering nothing but promises of future wealth. But some of those promises are extremely lucrative. They include the massive $8 billion Sino Iron Project at Cape Preston, 100 km south west of Karratha, WA expected to deliver before the end of the year. Owned by Hong Kong-based CITIC Pacific, it is on Palmer’s tenements and will be the largest magnetite iron ore mining and processing operation in Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald estimates Palmer will rake in half a billion a year in royalties on Sino Iron.

These are impressive numbers for someone who is still mostly regarded as a joke. Much of this poor public profile is his own fault due to his buffoonish tendency to act as a walking headline. Palmer is not shy about self-promotion and prefers to call himself Professor Palmer, courtesy of an honorarium from Bond University. Somewhat bizarrely, he has also been officially listed as a "national living treasure" though the National Trust of Australia offers no reason for this accolade other than the incorrect statement “Palmer is a self–made billionaire”.

Whatever his status, there remains the unfinished business of political ambition. In a Lateline interview last week, he attacked Campbell Newman for his lack of experience in business. “I'm the most successful Queenslander in the commercial world that's ever lived, yet I'm not supposed to have any say and any knowledge about that,” Palmer said. But while he has flirted with Katter, he still wants change from inside his party. “I love the LNP and I've been a supporter of it for 43 years,” he said. “I remain the last sentry at the gate to protect democracy in this country.” The question remains whether the sentry is there to guard the gate or attack the castle.


Marion Diamond said...

Hello there. I couldn't get your Gold Coast link to work, so I wasn't able to look at the article about Clive and his father - but George Palmer must have worked for either Billy HUGHES (unlikely, as he was PM during WWI, too early) or JOE Lyons (PM 1932-9).

I'm also assuming that the bit about Joh B-P making Queensland a coal exporter comes from the same article - but that's dodgy too - the Thiess Brothers started exporting coal to Japan in the early 1960s, under a Country Party government, but pre-dating Joh.

Derek Barry said...

Thank you Marion - I've fixed up the Gold Coast link so it should be there now. The quote is "Billy Lyons" but as you say should be either Billy Hughes or Joe Lyons.

The coal claim is also from the same article.