Aussie millionaire primes for political spotlight

AP News
Posted: May 03, 2014 2:52 AM
Aussie millionaire primes for political spotlight

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Clive Palmer is a larger-than-life Australian multimillionaire whose headline-grabbing projects include building a replica of the Titanic and a Jurassic Park-style collection of 160 mechanized dinosaurs.

The 60-year-old mining magnate also looks poised to stamp his quirky style on the Australian government's legislative agenda when three members of his newly formed Palmer United Party and another political ally assume Senate seats in July to create a small but potentially influential voting bloc.

Palmer, who's worth an estimated $550 million, will be flaunting his growing political stature in Boston this weekend when he rubs shoulders with America's political elite at an award ceremony for former President George H.W. Bush.

"Most of the leading members of the U.S. administration will be there, and it's something I normally do," Palmer told The Associated Press, referring to attending the ceremony for the annual John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.

This year, he's bringing with him the four senators-elect who have pledged him their support.

Palmer's generosity toward his novice allies is typical, observers say. He's been known to give employees luxury Mercedes-Benz cars and overseas vacations as Christmas bonuses.

"Clive likes to be generous, Clive likes to be the benefactor — a man of action, the center of attention," said Paul Williams, a political scientist at Australia's Griffith University. "Clive is the extrovert's extrovert; he's got a big personality and a big ego."

Palmer used to be one of the biggest political donors backing Prime Minister Tony Abbott's conservative coalition.

But last year, Palmer decided to form and bankroll his own party and ended up splitting the conservative vote in September's parliamentary elections.

Palmer won a seat in the House of Representatives in his home district in Queensland state — winning by just 53 votes. Three Palmer United Party, or PUP, candidates, including former rugby league star Glenn Lazarus, won seats in the Senate, an extraordinary level of success for a minor party.

Ricky Muir, who was elected to the Senate for the obscure Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, quickly struck a deal to support the PUP, giving Palmer effective control of four seats in the 76-member Senate — and crucial bargaining power.

Abbott's coalition has control of the more powerful House of Representatives, where the party that controls a majority of seats forms government.

But come July, his ruling coalition will control only 33 seats in the Senate, the chamber that decides which bills passed by the House of Representatives will become law. The opposition Labor Party and like-minded Greens party will have 35 seats.

So when Labor and Greens senators vote together, as they often have in the past, Abbott's only hope to achieve a majority — 39 seats — will be Palmer's party.

Palmer has long opposed Labor and the Greens.

When a former Labor-Greens coalition government passed a new tax on the mining industry in 2012, Palmer launched a tirade in which he accused the Greens and environmentalists of involvement in a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency plot to bring down the Australian coal mining industry.

He later said he suspected no such conspiracy.

But Palmer has warned that his party's senators will block some of Abbott's policy goals unless the government goes along with Palmer's demands. He says his experience in the business world is part of his appeal.

"Most of our Parliament is made up of lawyers and accountants who have never created any real wealth," Palmer told AP. "We present a fresh alternative."

Palmer first made his fortune in real estate before branching into coal, iron ore and nickel. Forbes estimates his wealth at $550 million, down from $795 million last year due to lower resource stock prices.

In December, he opened Palmersaurus, a park with life-sized mechanized dinosaurs beside the golf course of his luxury Palmer Coolum Resort.

Palmer also says his company Blue Star Line will take delivery of Titanic II, a replica of the 835-cabin ocean liner that struck and iceberg and sank in 1912, from a Chinese shipyard in time for it to make its maiden passenger voyage from Southampton in Britain to New York in 2016.

"One of the benefits of global warming is there hasn't been as many icebergs in the North Atlantic these days," Palmer quipped at a press conference in New York City last year when he outlined the design plans to the strains of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On."

His political success, at least so far, is partly due to widespread voter disillusionment with the major parties, said Clive Bean, a Queensland University of Technology politics professor.

It's difficult to know what sort of political agenda Palmer will try to push come July. His carefully-crafted populism is short on policy detail, said Williams of Griffith University.

"He would be hard-pressed to name a specific Palmer policy or Palmer demographic because what Palmer is saying is: 'Australian politics are appalling. Let's make them better' — that doesn't really say anything," Williams said. "So what it's doing is really cashing in on a sense of disenchantment."

Palmer said his party's ambition was to become "the No. 1 party in Australia."

But he's backpedaled from previous statements that he wants to become prime minister.

"I think I'm available to serve the people of Australia. I don't know whether it's an ambition (to become prime minister) to be honest with you," Palmer said before abruptly ending a telephone interview with the AP.

Whatever his political ambitions, Williams said, one important motivation is to show that "no one's going to take Clive Palmer lightly."