Clive Palmer is seen as the fat cat from central casting: so gauche and audacious, so blatant in his throwing around of weight, so absurd in his outbursts - yes, so dumb! - that some commentators have him pegged as a Labor stooge trying to claw back support for the party.
WHEN mining baron Clive Palmer announced his bid to stand against the Treasurer in the Brisbane seat of Lilley, it was widely reported as a ''relief'' for the Gillard government. Palmer is, after all, the fat cat from central casting: so gauche and audacious, so blatant in his throwing around of weight, so absurd in his outbursts - yes, so dumb! - that some commentators have him pegged as a Labor stooge trying to claw back support for the party. And Palmer broadcast his ambition for Canberra just as he flagged a plan to build in China a near-replica of the ill-fated Titanic. What a gift for Gillard the puns were writing themselves.
As the day wore on, however, I began to see the episode differently, as if it were reflected in a funhouse mirror in which everything appears distorted.
Perhaps the joke was really on Wayne Swan, with Palmer's performance an enormous dig at the man poised to hand down the nation's budget. The 58-year-old Palmer, with an estimated personal wealth of $6 billion, said politics was a good retirement option: ''I think when you get to a certain stage in your life it's important to give back where you can.'' So, having made his billions, he could simply enjoy them, but, well, dabbling in politics seemed more charitable- and only slightly more taxing. Politics was about ideas, Palmer said, you wouldn't do it for the money. The subtext being: in contrast to the sucker member for Lilley, I know about money, not least how to make it.
And the more I pondered the Titanic theme, the more I saw the fatalistic motif applying less to Palmer than to his enemies in Canberra. The Labor Party was the cruise ship drifting towards the inevitable Palmer the obliging iceberg. Pretty smart, really.
Actually the mining magnates - Palmer, Andrew Forrest and Gina Rinehart - have displayed sheer brilliance in making a national cult out of dumb and dumber. However sharp their individual minds, the trio still represent the antithesis of the ''clever country''- the old Hawke government vision of Australia developing its brains trust instead of relying on its natural assets for wealth.
And they deploy their larrikin anti-intellectualism to devastating effect.
''Twiggy'' Forrest's contribution to political debate on the mining tax, for instance, hurts the head. Having campaigned vehemently against the Rudd government's initial proposal for such a tax, he now criticises the new tax for lacking the rigour of that which he opposed. The old tax was a ''missed economy transforming opportunity''. The current ''ignorant'' tax guarantees survival of the industry giants- including his company, Fortescue Metals- and is therefore against the national interest. Where is the logic or consistency?
Forrest has a mocking disregard for the conventions of debate, just as Rinehart mocks poetic sensibilities in penning her ode, Our Future, which is engraved on a plaque fixed to a 30-tonne iron-ore boulder in her home. Australia's richest woman wrote: ''Some envious unthinking people have been conned/To think prosperity is created by waving a magic wand.''
When Palmer accused the Greens of accepting CIA money to undermine Australia's coalmining industry, it was bizarre enough for me to wonder if it might be true. And when the Treasurer took to the pages of the clever-clever journal The Monthly to accuse the mining magnates of ''poisoning'' democratic debate, Palmer's stunning retort in these pages was to call Swan an ''intellectual pygmy''.
And when the barons staged their billionaires' protest in Perth two years ago, I assumed the government's fortunes would fast turn around. This call to people power by the 0.01 per cent was surreal to the point of satire: Rinehart, wearing chunky pearls, bellowing into a megaphone from the back of a flatbed truck Forrest in his hi-vis uniform both of them chanting ''axe the tax'' with a fervour usually associated with dreadlocked greenies. Where were their spin doctors, I thought. Talk about a dreadful look. Of course, soon thereafter it was actually the country's bookish, Bonhoeffer-admiring prime minister who was axed.
Even if most Australians support the mining tax, which appears the case, these dazzling larger-than-life barons still possess a sentimental appeal, as does the industry they represent.
There is rugged romance to mining: the remote locations, the fly-in, fly-out adventure, the labour under wide open skies. However stratospheric their wealth, the magnates can say it rests on firm and tangible foundations. They almost pull off the salt-of-the-earth routine: Palmer, for one, has been deemed no less than a National Living Treasure.
The minerals industry advertisements, some of which profile Aborigines and women with careers in mining, feature shots of the red earth bathed in soft light. It is a more reassuring view of ''our future'' than the wordy abstractions of the ''clever country''.
Clearly, the barons won't be enough to save Labor. Maybe we are all too rich and too comfortable for that to happen.
Julie Szego is a senior writer.