IT IS one of the oldest boom-boom jokes in the book. Q: What gets bigger, the more you take away? A: A hole. To a miner, it is boom, but no joke. Clive Palmer has spent a lifetime digging bigger holes, and enlarging his fortune, profile and girth. You might even think that Clive was trying to dig his way to China. Certainly, he has dug his way to one of the biggest piles in Australia. To Clive, the bottom of a pit is the top of the world.
This upside-down view might explain a few things. Latterly, Clive has been digging himself into what look like orthodox holes, the kind we know as pitfalls. There was the business with the Gold Coast United Soccer Club. Clive bought it, he said, to raise his profile in China. He ran it on a shoestring, with a minimum of full-time staff, and at one stage locked out fans to save on costs.
He picked the team, sacked the coach and confronted the Football Federation of Australia, meanwhile declaring: ''I don't even like the game. I think it's a hopeless game. Rugby league's much better.'' When the FFA stripped him of his licence, he declared that he would put chairman Frank Lowy in an institution, set up his own rival soccer body and took legal action. One of Clive's favourite digging, expanding implements is legal action. He is suing to get rid of the carbon tax and the so-called mining tax, and has actions against a hotel chain and QR National. He had claimed to be 68-0 in legal actions. ''We will fight them in court to a standstill,'' he said of the FFA. Apparently, there was a bit of a cave-in; now he is 68-1.
No matter, Clive bellowed from his hole. ''The club's a very small portion of what I do,'' he said. ''We've got over $20 billion of projects.'' Yesterday, he said: ''We've only got a small family company.'' That's one of the problems with life at the bottom of ever-growing holes: it is hard to remember what was there before.
There have been other holes. On Q&A last year, addressing those malicious taxes, he said that they would be repealed ''when we get in''. He is a life member of the Liberal National Party, but has no formal role in politics, so the ''we'' appeared somewhat presumptuous. Was the Coalition one of his $20 billion portfolio of projects? Yesterday, he cleared that up.
On the same program, Clive declared that asylum seekers arriving by boat should be welcomed and treated with dignity. This wrong-footed critics and supporters alike, a treacherous turn of events when peering into an ever-more-gaping hole. One who would have been flummoxed was Tony Abbott: it would mean that he would have to stop stopping the boats.
Then, from the hole next door, Gina Rinehart ran up the flagpole her proposal for the north of Australia to be declared a special economic zone, with different tax rules and an exemption to bring in cheap semi-skilled workers from Asia. Launch the boats, she said. Could it be that the beating of the drums in one hole carried through the earth and were heard and understood in the other?
Another recent time, Clive was surprised to discover the Greens burrowing into his hole, threatening to leave him with nothing more to take away. Behind them, he spied the CIA, arch underminers. He soon put a stop to that.
Meantime, Clive digs and piles and flings a little mud and dodges a little, and hauls off to court and generally exercises his rights as an Australian citizen, the same as everyone else, he says, with a bank of lawyers or without. It is just a matter of digging in. Yesterday, Clive bulldozed his way into the headlines again, twice. Once, it was to announce a joint venture between yet another new company of his and one in China to build a near replica of the Titanic.
In making the announcement, Clive tempted fate in two ways. One was to call it the Titanic II. Surely any other name would have been better, given the problem the original Titanic had with holes. The other thumbing of his nose at fate was to declare that the Titanic II would be designed so that it could not sink. The first Titanic was said to be ''the unsinkable ship'', also ''the ship even God can't sink''. In his hole, Clive seems to see it this way: the further down, the better.
But Clive's other announcement yesterday was his most surprising yet. He said he wanted to be endorsed to stand for the Coalition against Treasurer Wayne Swan in the seat of Lilley in the next federal election. For Clive, this represents a dramatic change of direction. Up. No longer is he content in and with his hole; he wants a mound, too. It's not just that Swan once shovelled a bit of dirt at him, Kennett style, messing up his hole. It is more that he wants his ideas to be heard and seen and followed. After all those years of taking away and getting bigger underground, he is now into views.
But already he has discovered that the rules above ground are different from the rule below, his. If he wants his mound, it was suggested, he might have to give up his hole. Why, he asked. It's only a small hole.
Greg Baum is an associate editor.
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