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How billionaire Clive Palmer became Queensland's patron saint of hopeless causes


The thing about Queensland’s billionaire businessman, political player and frequent litigant is that he thrives under attack, writes Sean Parnell

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You’d be wrong to think a $102m court order would see the end of Clive Palmer. You’d be mistaken for thinking that, just because Israel Folau will head back overseas to play rugby, Palmer might give up on his free speech crusade. You’d be naïve to think that, while facing criminal charges, Palmer might be a bit more circumspect, maybe hush up a bit, keep his head down a while.

It hasn’t happened in more than 40 years of public life and it won’t happen now. Palmer is like one of those inflatable boxing bags that kids love to bop – he just keeps coming back with the same old grin. It’s as if his longevity is at least partly due to having enough bravado to exhaust his attackers.

Palmer has been particularly active, and outspoken, during the past 18 months due to some financial windfalls, and what you might call some pet projects that keep him in the spotlight. Yet, behind it all, a prosecution by the financial regulator threatens everything. And maybe that’s the main game.

Palmer has run ads, in his trademark yellow and black, promoting alternative COVID-19 treatments – he pushed the point by donating millions of anti-malaria tablets to the National Medical Stockpile – and misstating the risk of death through vaccination. He backs former Liberal MP Craig Kelly, another one at odds with the official line on the pandemic, and has railed against border restrictions and lockdowns.

Palmer the politician frequently criticises the Australian health system and inequity of access, believing waiting lists are too long and the poor should not be denied treatment. Palmer the individual has flown overseas for treatment, brought in a cancer specialist from China in a desperate attempt to save his first wife, and vowed to support little-known research projects rather than become known as a major health philanthropist himself.

There is an anti-establishment side to the man, which perhaps comes with him being an outsider, not part of the normal business or political circles (and someone who can bizarrely argue for free market principles and big government at the same time). This is an image that Palmer is not only comfortable with but keen to promote.

On the surface, he and rugby player Israel Folau might appear to have little in common (though Palmer will tell you he was pretty fast as a youngster too). But they are both conservative Christians, Folau’s brothers play for Palmer’s beloved Southport Tigers rugby league team, and, most importantly, the establishment supposedly wants to silence Folau, something Palmer won’t stand for.

Palmer frequently defends what he regards as any attack on freedom of speech. When he owned a Gold Coast football team, and clashed with soccer bosses, he flew a ‘freedom of speech’ banner from his helicopter. When his Coolum golf course hosted a professional tournament, while he was still in dispute with others, he had the grass painted with ‘freedom of speech’.

And then there is the litigation, including those times Palmer claimed to have been defamed. Over the years, Palmer has instructed his lawyers to sue governments and councils, politicians and political parties, even schools and football organisations, among others. He appeared emotional when testifying in a recent multi-billion-dollar suit against the Western Australian Government, and presumably would have been upset by a court ordering his private company repay a loan of $102 million from the collapsed Queensland Nickel operation. Yet the cases keep piling up – from him, and against him.

Just this year, Palmer told the Electoral Commission his property arrangements did not make him a developer banned from funding his party (that case is ongoing). He tried telling Twisted Sister the rock anthem he ripped off was never theirs to begin with (the court found it was, he took it, and should therefore should pay for it).

Part of all this, of course, is Palmer simply believing he is right, and digging in. Even his legal strategies give the impression that perhaps whatever he did or said, or whatever grievances he has with others, might be fair enough. In the court of public opinion, making people think twice is a win in itself, and Palmer has practiced similar strategies in politics. Of course, being so litigious also makes people think twice about taking him on.

Yet part of Palmer’s love of litigation is simply about the fight, and how a decent fracas can blur right and wrong, draw out the big dogs to create a new underdog, or sometimes make a jester look like the rightful prince. Palmer appears to be playing for the crowd, mixing the law, media, politics and business to maintain a profile, and recrafting the issues as he goes along. He knows a lot about fake news (even it is the mainstream media he accuses of practicing it) and, if the timing is right, can easily claim to have won a debate or even an election.

There is method in the madness. In an interview for a biography, Palmer once gave fleeting insight into the lengths he will go to in order to corral public support.

“Let me explain to you how the art of politics works: If you have a lot of people who haven’t been able to say their dues, haven’t been able to express themselves, and they’re continually pushed down for a long time, and then you align yourself with them and say what’s true, when people then attack you for saying what’s true they’re attacking them.”

It remains to be seen whether there are enough anti-establishment, freedom of speech, vaccine hesitant, conservative warriors behind Palmer to keep him upright. For all his fights, he now faces an unprecedented threat in the form of the prosecution by the Australian Securities and Investment Commission. It has attracted countless yellow and black protest ads.

Palmer has been charged with fraud and breaching his duties as a company director, at a time when his business, personal and political ventures were all but interconnected. These are the most serious allegations ever levelled at Palmer and, if found guilty, he could face not only fines but a jail term.

ASIC’s case is due for next mention in September. In the meantime, Palmer has sued ASIC, an investigator and even the Magistrates Court itself in an effort to rid himself of the charges. They, in turn, have sought to have his case thrown out. Even Queensland Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman has been drawn into the fray, to defend the role of the court, but Palmer has still filed 11 volumes of evidence to support his case. Wherever the truth lies, it once again appears to be Palmer against the authorities, the man against the machine (or so he makes out).

Perhaps Palmer is exactly where he wants to be. He has no shortage of money to keep on with his various causes and activities, continues to authorise press releases and social media posts, still has his fans, and might even be eyeing off another election. But the question now is whether ASIC creates so much pressure that the Palmer bubble finally bursts.

That, in the strange and colourful life of Clive Palmer, would be unusual indeed.

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