Estimating Clive Palmer

Of the three tycoons Wayne Swan has attacked, China-connected Palmer is the one who may cause the most trouble... but is he a billionaire?

Never underestimate a tycoon, especially one with unlikely friends. Former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, a loud mouthed over-ambitious but ultra-successful politician, came out swinging in defence of mining magnate Clive Palmer this week as Treasurer Wayne Swan sought to bring him down.

In defending the larger-than-life iron ore kingpin Kennett accused Swan of ‘kneeing in the groin people trying to succeed'. Ugly language and a foretaste of what may become a very dirty battle if round one of the mining tax campaign and its hysterics over ‘sovereign risk’ are anything to go by.

In slamming the ‘vested interests’ of the three big names in iron ore – Gina Rinehart, Andrew Forrest and Palmer – Swan put an entire constituency offside forever.

But it is Palmer that Swan should worry about most: like Kennett in his heyday, Palmer's ham-fisted approach to public debate can lure the conventionally cautious into making mistakes. And though he may be regularly underestimated at home, Palmer's China connections are second-to-none. Are Palmer's foreign business partners now guilty by association? Is the treasurer attacking them too?…It won’t take long for Palmer to turn this domestic squabble into a fresh ‘sovereign risk’ issue and this time he'll have a case.

In fact it seems the only time Palmer is overestimated is when it comes to his public perception as a ‘billionaire’ (more on that later).

For now business leaders are aghast at the prospect of a public battle between Palmer and Swan. Though they are disappointed with Swan, a mainstay of a shaky government, many are just as uncomfortable with Palmer, that most incendiary of market characters, the maverick.

One of the reasons Swan went for Palmer is because he saw a businessman who has never been welcomed into the boardrooms of Australia. There is no seat at the Reserve Bank waiting for this magnate unlike his arch-rival in soccer administration, Westfield's Frank Lowy. Palmer, with his bad jokes, his over-sized suits, and his links with Joh-era National Party Queensland, is out with the latte-set.

While Lowy works his philanthropy through the subtleties of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Palmer works his largesse with the unadorned gusto of a 19th century capitalist dishing out presents to those he meets every day…those who work with him.

Through his loose conglomerate of iron ore companies, Palmer employs an estimated 3000 people. With typical candour – or what one blogger tagged as vulgarity – he recently listed the presents he has granted staff: 55 Mercedes and 1,500 trips to Fiji. On those numbers, every second Clive Palmer employee may have been to Fiji courtesy of the boss.

With that sort of targeted benevolence, no wonder Palmer has popped up as one of the National Trust’s ‘living treasures’. Though it has to be said the National Trust living treasure awards system, with no transparency whatsoever on its 'public voting', is almost as opaque as Palmer’s privately held fortune.

Yesterday (Thursday March 12), the US business magazine Forbes put Palmer down for a generous valuation of $US785 million on its annual rich list. Yet Palmer’s only significant big ticket deal on the public record comes in at $200 million six years ago. And as Forbes has reported, the planned $3.6 billion Hong Kong float of Palmer’s Resource House operation has now been postponed four times. Consequently, when it comes to calculating Palmer's fortune we're talking back of the envelope calculations by rich list researchers and even at that he does not make it as a billionaire.

Still, let’s not quibble… Palmer’s a tycoon and the treasurer has fingered him as a public enemy. In doing so Swan has triggered two battles – the first with a veteran fighter, distributor of largesse and cartoon capitalist strongly supported by those he enriches. The second is more dangerous – it’s with a China-connected magnate, and in that battle just about anything could happen.

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