In mid-2013 I found myself at the federal election campaign launch of Clive Palmer, which was as ridiculous as you’d imagine.
My story ran in the August 2013 print edition of The Music, which you can see on pages 32-33 of the embedded flipbook or just read on below…
HANGING WITH MR PALMER
WHEN CLIVE PALMER HAS MORE POLITICAL APPEAL THAN YOUR PRIME MINISTER YOU KNOW THERE’S SOMETHING ROTTEN AT THE HEAD OF AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, WRITES KRIS SWALES FROM DEEP IN CLIVE COUNTRY.
The billboard is the first sign that you’re entering Clive Palmer country. The eccentric billionaire – or just multi-millionaire, depending on whether you trust his personal value assessment of $6 billion or Forbes magazine’s more conservative $795 million estimate – beams down from the sign holding two thumbs up. His “she’ll be right, mate” visage doesn’t quite match up with the “serious business” image we expect from political leaders in Australia. Or anywhere, for that matter.
We’re on David Low Way, between Mount Coolum and Yaroomba on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, on our way to a private pre-election “Call To Action” from the mining magnate and his Palmer United Party (PUP) for his local membership base. Palmer’s corporate branding is consistent, the carpet matching the curtains from the billboard to the signage outside the nearby Palmer Coolum Resort.
All the Palmer iconography is present and accounted for, from the sign for his Titanic II boat-building project as you enter the gates, to ‘Jeff’, the full scale Tyrannosaurus Rex who stands off to one side of the hotel complex. The Universal Studios Jurassic Park ride seems a little half-baked compared to this behemoth, so one can only imagine what scope Palmer’s recently approved dinosaur theme park will have when Jeff is joined by 159 of his favourite foods.
Just a few weeks ago, the resort was alive as the Queensland State Of Origin team completed their preparations for the series decider here. Tonight, as darkness falls, a lone golfer gets in some putting practice under lights on a course that until recently hosted the Australian PGA Championships. Stretch golf carts ferry guests from the bitumen car park to the function room, independent Queensland MP Peter Wellington and ‘colourful’ former Sunshine Coast mayor Alison Barry-Jones (formerly Grosse) among them.
Why am I here? My old man has joined the PUP ranks – in part due to exasperation with the major parties, but in the hope of having the ear of a local powerbroker who’ll respond to his policy queries with something more substantial than the political equivalent of an email auto-response. Palmer’s PA says it’s fine for me to tag along and write what I like. After reading Max Robson’s comical assessment of the man of the hour in Fairfax’s Good Weekend supplement on the train north from Brisbane, I’m expecting something akin to a slapstick version of ABC political satire The Hollowmen.
It’s a low-key affair, though, this ‘Cocktail Function’ sans cocktails, and the first social gathering I’ve walked into for a while where I’ve been closer to halving the average age than doubling it. Palmer is personable, working the room, moving from group to group, sipping a soft drink while shaking hands and dropping wisecracks. When he jibes that my old man and I share a similar high forehead as we shake hands, I take it on the chin and ascribe it to his obvious nerves.
Bill Schoch, the PUP candidate for Fisher (Palmer is running for Fairfax, directly to the north), takes the stage with little fanfare, calling “the next Prime Minister of Australia” forward to speak. He’s warmly received by the 100-odd rank and file in the room, give-or-take one southern journalist who’s still slightly disappointed that PUP senate candidate and rugby league legend Glenn Lazarus isn’t present.
What follows isn’t the rantings of a fool, though Palmer may well be insane; nor a regurgitation of party rhetoric, though Palmer does drop some policy ideas. His freewheeling 15 minute speech, followed by a 10 minute addendum, feels like it’s being delivered from the heart – by a man whose heart seems driven by people rather than politics – with zero obfuscation. He reels off stats so quickly that you suspect his habit of running fast and loose with the facts (even when it comes to his own past) is in full effect, but it’s hard not to get caught up in his charisma.
Like most of us, he’s fed up with the lowest common denominator political discourse in Canberra. Unlike us, he’s actually got the money to put where his mouth is.
A fortnight earlier, I found myself standing on the outside looking in at Redfern Town Hall. A crowd of several hundred spilled out of the first floor function room and down the stairwell for the ‘A new way: new policies, new politics’ seminar – an awareness builder for Sydney Greens candidate Dianne Hiles, but ostensibly a forum for human rights advocate Julian Burnside AO QC to elaborate on his asylum seeker solutions.
Much as he wrote in his You’ve Been Misled On Boat People: Here Are The Facts piece for Fairfax Media, Burnside spoke of asylum seekers not as political pawns, but people. Humans with hopes and dreams and much to offer areas of Australia that need a population boost. That keeping an asylum seeker in detention costs between $200-450k a year, but paying them Centrelink benefits is closer to $25,000 – and if they’re in a struggling regional community, much of that money goes directly back into it.
Meanwhile, back on the campaign trail, Messrs Rudd and Abbott continue to promise ‘solutions’ and announce borderline non-policies that have more to with saving their own careers than human life.
In his “Call To Action” speech, Palmer references asylum seekers just once. Playing to his demographic, he says that raising the Age Pension is one of his priorities.
“Talking to a lot of elderly people on the pension, who find that they’re getting – I think it’s $327 a week,” Palmer says. “Asylum seekers that are being paid benefits in Australia are getting $427 a week.
“Not to have a shot at asylum seekers,” he adds. “It’s the system we’re talking about here.”
A system where those at the top prey on the weak. Much like it was in Jeff the T-Rex’s heyday.