Mining tycoon's political fortunes on the rocks

Mr Palmer's wealth was estimated to be as high as A$6.3 billion during the commodity boom in 2008. It is now believed to be in the millions, rather than billions. 
Mr Palmer's wealth was estimated to be as high as A$6.3 billion during the commodity boom in 2008. It is now believed to be in the millions, rather than billions. PHOTO: REUTERS

Aussie-style Donald Trump losing credibility and wealth amid commodity crunch

He was the colourful, loud-mouthed Donald Trump-styled Australian tycoon who made global headlines with his plan to rebuild the Titanic before turning his attention to Australian politics.

But less than three years since he and his newly formed party marched into Federal Parliament, Mr Clive Palmer's fortunes have turned sour. 

Following the September 2013 election, Mr Palmer's party had effectively held the balance of power in the Senate and he boldly claimed he ultimately wanted to be prime minister. His policies included ending university education fees, allowing MPs a free vote on legalising same-sex marriage, and supporting the ruling coalition's cutting of taxes on mining and carbon emissions. 

But the magnate's mining empire has crumbled as commodity prices plummeted - and his political fortunes have plunged accordingly. 

Analysts believe his reputation has been shattered by his recent business troubles and that his political prospects are in tatters.

 

BEHIND THE BLUSTER

Reality is forcing its way through Clive's smokescreen and slowly revealing the truth.

POLITICAL COMMENTATOR PETER HARTCHER

"Reality is forcing its way through Clive's smokescreen and slowly revealing the truth," wrote political commentator Peter Hartcher in Fairfax Media. "It seems that operating under conflicts of interest is endemic to Mr Palmer. Endemic to his business practices as well as his political ones."

Mr Palmer's party - the Palmer United Party  - has lost two of its three senators, who quit the party and described him as a bully. 

Another senator who formed an alliance with Mr Palmer also went his own way. The four senators had given Mr Palmer the balance of power in the Senate, where no party has a majority. The party's only remaining senator is Zhenya - or Dio - Wang, 35, a Chinese-born engineer from Western Australia who formerly ran a resources company headed by Mr Palmer.

Mr Palmer won a seat in the House of Representatives in 2013 but appears certain to lose it at the next election, due later this year. An opinion poll conducted late last month showed just 2 per cent of people in his electorate planned to vote for him - down from the 26.5 per cent primary vote he received at the 2013 election. Just 7 per cent of the public believed he was doing a satisfactory job.

The 61-year-old has come under intense criticism after his company, Queensland Nickel, sacked more than 200 workers, despite electoral records showing that the firm had given A$21 million (S$20.8 million) to his party since 2013. The company owes more than A$100 million but appears to have continued to make political donations as its financial outlook worsened.

"A party built on publicity needs to avoid the bad publicity associated with business failure and lost jobs," an Australian election analyst, Mr Antony Green, wrote on the ABC website last month.

The tycoon's wealth was estimated to be as high as A$6.3 billion during the commodity boom in 2008. His fortunes are tied up in various private companies and his precise worth is difficult to estimate, but it is now believed to be in the millions, rather than the billions. 

Mr Palmer, who is based in Queensland, made his fortune negotiating deals to sell coal and iron ore to Chinese firms, but ended up locked in a long-running legal dispute over royalties with his estranged Hong Kong-based business partner Citic Pacific. 

He hit the spotlight in 2012 when he announced plans to build a replica of the Titanic, though the launch date was recently pushed back from this year to 2018.

Commentators said his swift political rise and fall stands as a salient warning about the likely fate of Mr Trump, who is now running for the US Republican presidential nomination. "I do hope the good voters of (America) can use the Internet and google Palmer to see what happens when you try to 'Trump' the system," wrote Ms Janine Perrett on Switzer Daily, a business and political commentary website.

For his part, Mr Palmer, like Mr Trump, is rarely deterred by criticism and appears to relish a political fight. Facing an onslaught of condemnation, he pledged late last month to recontest his own Queensland seat and insisted he would win.

"Our support hasn't shifted much, despite all the palaver," he told Queensland's Sunshine Coast Daily newspaper.  "No one has achieved as much for their electorate."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2016, with the headline 'Mining tycoon's political fortunes on the rocks'. Print Edition | Subscribe