Human beings seem to like causing massive problems and then spending interminable hours talking about how to solve them; preferably wearing suits. The Club de Madrid is another think tank/talking shop which seeks to utilise the opinions of experts on solving the planet’s pressing problems they may have helped create. This club ropes in an impressive line-up of ex-government leaders who have been pre-programmed to offer earnest insights and no responsibility. And they all descended on Clive Palmer’s resort near the beach on the Sunshine Coast last weekend. In a five-star resort? Welcome to the world of junkets. And Clive. This is also the World of Clive.

Club de Madrid’s annual soiree was wall-to-wall suits with the occasional tie-less chest in the spirit of a weekend gathering. The theme was “Jobs for Inclusive Growth” and plenty of interesting views were aired. The shape was more progressive than your Crikey correspondent expected, drawing thumbs to chins and eliciting serious words.

But ultimately, how progressive can any conference on such a topic be, taking place in the air-conditioned, water bottle-rich bubble of international think-tankery? All the good intentions, educated thoughts and smart ideas seem targeted on what needs to be done to those at the bottom of the scale, rather than perhaps what changes are needed at the top. Reform is a dish best served, not consumed.

It’s so common for the life and death struggles of the world’s underprivileged to become genteel talking points in glitzy venues, with lanyard-wearing, expense-account experts leaning in over posh food and glasses of chardonnay.

There were discussions on labour tax versus consumption tax, on short and long-term financial trading, on the gaps between real markets and the ethereal worlds of shares and derivatives, on the impacts of China or Latin American growth, on the weaknesses of the Washington Consensus, on the Tobin Tax, on the social costs of unemployment, on global governance, on the wonders of 19th century infrastructure investment as opposed to today’s short-termism, on the Nordic welfare state model and on green jobs. There was a mea culpa on the damage done by structural adjustments from the OECD. There were ex-prime ministers saying how the culture of politics is behind many of these problems.

The thematic line presumed a lot: that everyone wanted to work and that full employment was something of a panacea. Yet those in work in the developed world are falling increasingly into pits of depression, debt and into community and family breakdowns.

In the world of rights advocacy, why is the right to chose not to work never considered? What if we want to opt out of being taxpayers and consumer statistics? Imagine a world where everybody who chose employment did, and those who didn’t contributed in others ways: child-rearing, art, community building, etc. Could that even work in a money society? Big question, yes. Probably crazy.

So, the summit was running well. But while most considered this to be pitched to an international demographic, Clive Palmer MP appeared to be targeting a national audience. The member for Fairfax graced most of the plenaries, working groups and breakouts with his entourage and spoke at many, suitably attired in his uniform of shirt sleeves and slacks, with the obligatory flap of shirt-tail escaping over his tortured belt.

“Palmer announced that chocolate cake was now ready and that a tour of the dinosaurs would be on afterwards.”

His role in the Club de Madrid appears deeply symbolic, bordering on fanciful. Or maybe it’s just fun. Palmer received two honorary positions in the venerable group after a reported high six-figure donation, despite not being eligible for actual membership yet (one has to have been a government leader). This donation brought two new bodies into the club, which Palmer was to run.

It may also have bought him the credibility to use the honorific “professor”, as former Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga constantly referred to him by.

Most of the delegates I spoke to seemed in thrall of their host. Many appeared to think him a highly exalted figure in Australia. Yet when he deigned to appear in their midst, it’s not clear whether everybody really knew who he was. Plebs like former Netherlands PM and perennial world summit attendee Wim Kok and former New Zealand PM Jenny Shipley parted more from the bustle of his court than his aura.

Many may have begun to wonder by the time dessert was served at the poolside dinner on Saturday. After a speech by said ex-leader of Latvia, Palmer announced that chocolate cake was now ready and that a tour of the dinosaurs would be on afterwards. It seemed an appropriate program for those perhaps 50 or 60 years younger and prompted some odd looks and a few nervous titters. It also seemed perhaps a bit insensitive as many of those very attendees looked, and occasionally acted and talked, a little Jurassic themselves.

A joke about the beasts already eating a few small children and that visitors needed to be careful fell flat and it was perhaps about here that many delegates first started hearing their inner voices asking “what the …?”.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t stick around to see the faces of the world’s great and good taking in Clive’s big fibreglass toy collection. Many looked to be escaping the offer, pleading jet-lag and hastily manufactured deadlines.

The conference looked to be a success as these things go, with plenty of policy statements and food for thought. Friends were made, networks created and the politics of globalism served. The speakers were excellent and the discussions enlightening. Palmer ought to be congratulated for bringing it together and for making it work.

But that may be a lesser outcome for Palmer. Coups like this seem designed to bolster his credibility at home, forming him in the minds of Australians as a statesman and a globalist. As someone who attended the same rough-and-tumble public high school he attended on the Gold Coast, I can understand the reach for validation and respect. In this sense, the conference may have been less successful. Local media attendance was very light.

And as for those other globalists, you have to wonder if they are thinking again about their embrace of Clive of Coolum. Some may be willing to ride his bank balance for all its worth, but others may be thinking that being used by the dilettantish Australian mining mogul might not suit their gravitas.

I wonder if, after I left, Clive started a conga line or kicked off a fully-clothed bombie raid into the vast pool. Maybe that’s what these old dinosaurs need. But for many Australians, the fascinating question of just what this intriguing man is up to remains as alive as ever.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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