Larger than life, determined to succeed
Clive: The Story of Clive Palmer By Sean Parnell HarperCollins, 328pp, $39.99 (HB)
THE man described by Barry Humphries as ‘‘ the reincarnation of Sir Les Patterson’’ was, as this review went to print, within grasp of a seat in the federal parliament. That prospect raises an intriguing question: would the result have been different if those who voted for the Queensland mining magnate had read Clive: The Life of Clive Palmer before casting their votes?
In Sean Parnell’s timely biography, Palmer comes across as having an extreme personality: bombastic, opinionated yet naive, impetuous, a man obsessed with publicity but deeply sensitive to criticism. He is quick to attack the many enemies he has made in the course of building his wealth and influence, sometimes inaccurately and unfairly. He doesn’t know when to have his say, then shut up.
Yet for all his bluster and gaucheness, he has succeeded in business, and the party he named after himself exceeded all expectations in last weekend’s polls. He is clearly a determined person who identifies his goals, no matter how cockeyed they may appear to others, and pursues them.
Parnell, a senior journalist at The Australian, struggles at times to tread a path between ‘‘ explaining the inexplicable (who is Clive Palmer?)’’ and recording his subject’s largerthan-life existence in a measured, nonjudgmental fashion.
The result is the reader is invited to make the final judgment. I suspect it will not be a positive one. It is hard to warm to the man, at least as presented here. The only time he elicits sympathy is following the death of his first wife, Sue, to whom he clearly was very close. The sympathy fades a little when he immediately starts seeing the widow of a former employee and marries her within 12 months.
Palmer claims to be heavily influenced by the deas and entrepreneurship of his father, George. Palmer Sr’s courting of the media to have positive stories published on his numerous and varied business ventures was noticed by the young Clive, and the courtship and obsession continues.
His wealth — Forbes magazine put his net worth at $US795 million in January last year — is clearly a huge part of his life.
Yet the reader of Clive may be left wondering how secure that fortune is. Palmer’s biggest projects are plagued by technical problems and running over budget (the iron ore deposit at Cape Preston in the Pilbara), awaiting approvals (Waratah Coal in Queensland) or losing money (Palmer Coolum, the Palmer Nickel and Cobalt Refinery near Townsville).
Parnell has been able to identify the $40m Palmer claims to have made in his early years as a property developer and the $US415m paid as an upfront royalty in 2006 by his longsuffering partner in the Pilbara project, Chinese investment group CITIC Pacific.
When Palmer debuted on BRW’s Rich List in 2007 with estimated wealth of $1 billion, he derided the figure at the time, claiming to be worth three times that, although not a sod of