He's a businessman who wanted to turn the political system upside down. And with his fiery rhetoric (and distinctive platinum locks), he found an audience that was willing to support him to do it, even as he was accused of prejudice, ignorance and much worse by his liberal foes.
Yet, unlike U.S. business mogul Donald Trump, to whom he has often been compared, Clive Palmer's political days may well be numbered.
This week, the Australian mining-magnate-turned-politician announced that he would not run for reelection in the lower house of Parliament. "I believe I have the courage today to leave the House of Representatives, satisfied with what Palmer United Party has done," Palmer told his colleagues on Wednesday, referring to the political party he founded three years ago.
Like Trump, Palmer earned his vast wealth, estimated at more than $1 billion last year, through business — mining, in particular — but soon became better known for an apparent love of both grand ventures and grandiose publicity.
He announced plans to construct a $500 million version of the Titanic, imaginatively titled the "Titanic II," though construction never began. His plan to build a "Jurassic Park" did go through, but it turned out to simply be a golf course revamped with 160 replica dinosaurs (online reviews suggest guests weren't impressed; the attraction now lies vacant).
And, again like his American counterpart, Palmer's comments have sometimes veered into controversy. He has accused his political opponents of being funded by the CIA, called Chinese officials "mongrels" and suggested that Australia's former prime minister should "commit suicide."
Palmer also found his political success as a populist, despite his wealth. In 2013, he announced that he was running for office and that he had formed the Palmer United Party. He was narrowly elected to the House of Representatives, while two other members of his party were elected to Australia's Senate and were joined by a third the next year. "How long can Parliament remain indifferent to the needs of all Australians?" he told the legislature in his opening speech. "How long can government be deaf to the everyday struggles of all Australians?"
Palmer quickly became a power broker within Australian politics, with the Palmer United Party forming a voting bloc in the Senate that allowed the members to veto legislation they didn't like. Even his critics were forced to admit that despite his sometimes ridiculous manner, he was sharper than he seemed: In 2014, Crikey reported that Palmer had spent "weeks playing the buffoon" ahead of elections in what appeared to be a successful tactic to drum up publicity for a Palmer United Party candidate.
However, Palmer's political fortunes didn't last long. Two of the three Palmer United Party senators soon defected, citing personality differences — Palmer would accuse one, Jacqui Lambie, of having "infiltrated" his party to "blow it up." With this, Palmer lost control of the balance of power in the Senate, and with it most of the political relevance he had. Critics began to point out that he seemed barely interested in politics: He was found to have one of the poorest attendance records in Parliament, beaten only by the country's trade minister, who was often away on travel. His constituents would tell reporters that they never saw him in their district, Fairfax.
“Is it fair to say your stint has been, at best, an embarrassment and, at worst, a disaster?” one journalist asked him in a particularly brutal interview on live television this year.
Worse still, the commodities boom had turned to a bust, putting Palmer's wealth at serious risk. In January, his company Queensland Nickel entered voluntary administration — an insolvency procedure under which an external administrator is appointed — after the price of nickel dropped dramatically. Hundreds of workers were laid off, and the administrator's report would later accuse Palmer of taking $150 million out of the company to invest in other areas of his business empire — including nearly $6 million on the "Titanic II." There could be serious repercussions for this: Palmer faces the possibility of up to five years in jail and bankruptcy.
As Trump rose in the polls, many Australians noticed that he bore a similarity to Palmer. "Is Donald Trump America's answer to Clive Palmer?" the Australian Financial Review asked last summer. "Trump is really Clive Palmer but in a better suit," the Jack the Insider column answered this year. Even Palmer's business issues are somewhat reminiscent of Trump's problems in the 1990s.
So it seems almost like a weird symmetry that the apparent end of Palmer's political career coincides with Trump becoming the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. But Palmer has said that he hasn't ruled out running for Senate, so don't count him out yet.
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