In his typical blustering manner, Clive Palmer, having refused every attempt to persuade him to participate in Monday’s ABC Four Corners – an expose of his controversial business affairs and overbearing political style – then demanded to appear live on the program.
Ahead of the airing both Palmer and Four Corners took to social media – in his case to complain, in its case to explain.
Palmer knew the program only did pre-recorded interviews. His outburst was just his latest attempt at bluff and bombast. But he did score an invitation to appear on Lateline immediately following Four Corners.
The Palmer story is one of the most remarkable in recent federal politics.
In the space of months in 2013 he built his Palmer United Party (PUP) from nothing. It won a Senate seat in each of Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia, as well as his own House of Representatives Queensland seat of Fairfax. A negotiated alliance also promised to bring Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party senator Ricky Muir into Palmer’s orbit.
Palmer’s electoral surge came from the combination of a huge spend on blitzkrieg advertising, and a larger-than-life personality who was a magnet for the media. Although he had been around politics all his life, Palmer was seen as the colourful, outspoken, frequently outrageous outsider.
When the new Senate commenced in July 2014, PUP had a commanding position within the eight-strong non-Green crossbench. It quickly made its voice felt in opposition to key measures from the 2014 Hockey budget. In October 2014 Palmer did a deal with the government to support its Direct Action climate policy in which the quid pro quo was the preservation of the Climate Change Authority.
But as suddenly as Palmer’s political empire appeared, it fell away. Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus became independents, in November 2014 and March 2015 respectively. The Muir alliance came to nothing. Only WA’s Dio Wang remains a PUP senator. Palmer, if he stands there again, will lose Fairfax. He is now seen in political terms as a joke or worse.
It’s little wonder Palmer wanted to create a diversion around Monday’s Four Corners, which documented his activities reaching back to the 1980s, with interviews that portrayed a man who has used and abused, courted and trashed, many of those he has dealt with in business and politics.
The most recent, and rawest, episode in his tumultuous business career is the collapse of Queensland Nickel, with the sacking of hundreds of workers. Palmer’s attempt to distance himself from responsibility, and the fact that more than A$20 million had been donated to PUP have increased the anger and rancour of former workers.
Four Corners said Palmer approved purchases worth millions of dollars while he was not a listed director of the company. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission is investigating whether he was a “shadow director” – someone who has the same obligations as a formal director.
The administrators’ report into Queensland Nickel is imminent.
Palmer told Lateline that he was not acting as a shadow director. He said Queensland Nickel was manager of a joint venture made up of two companies of which he owned 100%, and he was on the six-person joint venture management committee that approved expenditures. “We are talking about buying things over $500. We are not talking about the running of the company,” he said.
Despite his early insistence that he was retiring from business when he entered politics, Palmer never did so. And anyway, the controversies from his earlier business past would inevitably continue to dog him, put under a brighter spotlight when he became a national political figure.
Palmer brought his capricious business style to his political operations.
Lazarus told Four Corners that Palmer would “rant and rave”, berating and yelling, which amounted to “a form of bullying”. “It was Clive’s way or the highway.”
He treated his tyro senators as vassals. Dealing with personalities like Lambie and Lazarus, this was always likely to end in tears.
Politically, the disintegration of Palmer’s power is a tale of overreach containing the seeds of its own destruction.
But, though PUP may be a busted flush now, its spectacular rise is a salutary story about the way that enough money and publicity can make an extraordinarily potent political cocktail, at least for a while.