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Rich Tales: Palmer’s off to Canberra, but what do we really know about him?

Myriam Robin /

Here at SmartCompany, we’re used to reading and reporting on Palmer’s crazy schemes.

So it was with some measure of surprise that I watched one come to fruition on Saturday.

Billionaire Clive Palmer, the founder and leader of the newly formed Palmer United Party, has taken the seat of Fairfax from the Liberals. He’s on his way to Canberra – and he’s taking two senators with him.

Clive Palmer’s party won 5% of the national vote – a staggering result given this is a party formed merely months ago, and is mainly staffed by Palmer’s employees and friends. It looks like Palmer’s United Party won senate spots in Tasmania and Victoria.

We had some broad policy strokes from Palmer during the campaign. He wanted to lower income tax rates by 15%, raise the aged pension by 20%, and pour $80 billion into the health system (an unsurprising goal – Palmer’s first wife died of cancer, and he’s often said she wouldn’t have gotten the care she needed if it weren’t for him being independently wealthy).

Palmer also wants to encourage people to work two jobs by halving the tax rate on the second job, and abolishing fringe benefits tax entirely. He’s pro-asylum seeker (he wants to fly them in on planes with no visa required) and plans to “turbocharge” economic growth by allowing companies to pay tax annually instead of quarterly.

But with just himself in the lower-house and just two senators, Palmer isn’t going to get all he wants.

So what’s he likely to focus on? Perhaps here, we can look to Palmer’s life for clues.

For a man so well-known, and so well-loved, there’s relatively little known about Palmer’s life story.

That’s Palmer’s doing. His pronouncements come at so rapid a frequency I could fill this article with thousands of words just on things he’s said and done in the past few months.

But Palmer will be in parliament for the next three years, and we can expect to hear from his men in the Senate for the next six. A broader view is warranted.

Palmer’s life story has most recently been told in Clive: The Story of Clive Palmer, written by The Australian journalist Sean Parnell and released earlier this month.

According to the biography, which benefits from extensive interviews with the man himself, Palmer’s life has been characterised by incredible audacity, unyielding self-belief, unrelenting litigiousness, an inability to give up, and a desire to leave his mark on the nation’s character.

Palmer’s early life was comfortable enough. He grew up in a well-travelled and enterprising family, but didn’t inherit much financially. He did benefit from a good education and a broad worldview, developed through numerous round-the-world trips with his globe-trotting family in his childhood. 

He did well enough academically to get into university but not well enough to shine. He never completed his degree.

For some reason, Palmer’s education was interrupted and never completed when he moved to South Australia for a while.

According to Parnell, while Palmer was working as a trainee lawyer in Queensland, he blew the whistle on corrupt police who he believed were falsifying confessions. He took his concerns to a junior state Liberal MP. It’s not clear what happened next, but a few days later, he found himself demoted to delivering the mail, seemingly ending his ambitions to be a lawyer. Clive told Parnell he received a phone call soon after telling him his days were numbered if he did not leave Brisbane, prompting him to relocate to South Australia.

That clandestine episode would plant the seeds for Palmer’s enduring distrust of the Queensland Liberals. He would feel much more comfortable with the National Party for the rest of his life.

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Myriam Robin

Myriam Robin is a reporter for SmartCompany and its sister site LeadingCompany. She has degrees in economics, international studies and journalism. She likes writing about businesses taking risks and doing new things.

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