Clive Frederick Palmer, as he incongruously appears on the writs so often issued to those who cross him, is no stranger to the ins and outs of the Australian legal system. Famously listing his hobbies as “reading and litigation” in Who’s Who in the late 1990s, Palmer has time and time again proven that when it comes to the courts, the professor is here to read books and sue for defamation — and right now, he’s all out of books.
So what’s his legal record like? Well, winning might not matter as much as you think. While Palmer has a long and growing list of legal stoushes, the following are just a handful of cases that prove it’s possible to lose the battle but win the war.
Heralded as the biggest industrial project in Australian history, then-New South Wales premier Bob Carr and his treasurer Michael Egan’s decision to sign a development agreement with Clive Palmer to re-invigorate the NSW steel manufacturing industry seemed like a work of divine providence.
It was 2001 and BHP had just announced its decision to cease steel-making operations in Newcastle when Clive Palmer appeared with a multibillion-dollar project that would bring a consortium of global financial, engineering, steel and petroleum corporations together with one purpose: to turn Palmer’s Western Australian iron ore deposits into high-grade steel using a new state-of-the-art mill at Hunter River.
The NSW government leapt at the opportunity, signing an exclusive deal with Palmer’s company Austeel and pledging $240 million to get the project going. Three years later, the project had stalled. Blaming government bureaucracy, Palmer sued the state government for $521 million in damages — his company, Austeel, accused the government of colluding with BHP to derail the project.
For his part, treasurer Michael Egan blamed Austeel for failing to bring investors to the project and dismissed Palmer’s claims.
Palmer later dropped the claim, saying he was concerned about leaving taxpayers footing the bill for the legal fallout. But the damage was done: the NSW government had already spent over $20 million on the Austeel project and more than $5 million on legal fees.
Undeterred, Clive Palmer would take to the courts again to defend his honour in the lead-up to the 2009 Queensland state election. Furious with what he saw as accusations from then-premier Anna Bligh and her treasurer Andrew Fraser that he had “bought” the Liberal National Party with political donations, Palmer lodged a claim for $1 million in damages from Bligh and a quarter of a million from Fraser for defamation.
Fraser told reporters at the time that the billionaire was manipulating the courts to disrupt the Labor Party’s election campaign. “The reality here is it’s up to [LNP Leader] Mr Springborg to stop Mr Palmer pursuing defamation action and potentially seeking to influence the election campaign through intimidation of both the premier and myself,” he said.
“As long as he has the resources to use the full force of the Australian legal system as a cudgel to intimidate those who refuse to see the World According to Palmer, it won’t matter whether his record is 68 for zero, or zero for 68 …”
Unwilling to enter a lengthy court case so soon before an election, Bligh and Fraser reached an out-of-court agreement with Palmer to bury the issue. The beleaguered politicians had to publicly declare that Palmer had not acted unlawfully in supporting the LNP and concede that all parties involved were “honestly committed to the prosperous future of Queensland”. Palmer, for his part, made the smirking concession that “robust political debate” was essential to a functioning democracy. Both parties paid their own legal costs, with taxpayers picking up the brunt of Bligh and Fraser’s. No damages were paid.
In one blow, Palmer was able to strong-arm the state government into conferring legitimacy on him, create a damaging media frenzy in the middle of the election campaign and, perhaps most crucially, choke off any hope of public debate — robust or otherwise — about the impact of political donations on party policy.
Bolstered by these early successes, Palmer then began using just the threat of litigation to distort public debate around his own agenda.
In opposition, Tony Abbott vowed to remove the carbon tax after the election; Palmer just promised to sue Julia Gillard and her government for what he loudly — and repeatedly — claimed was an unconstitutional tax. In the three years since, no such case has been brought forward.
In a startling interview on Seven’s Sunrise program last year, Palmer announced that he would be suing Rupert Murdoch for a scathing article about him published in The Australian, holding Murdoch personally responsible for what he saw as a vicious News Corp campaign to degrade and discredit the would-be politician. That same day, Palmer also claimed that Murdoch’s ex-wife Wendi Deng was a spy for the Chinese government — an allegation that was irrelevant to his case, but perhaps the perfect addition to a story already too good for the media to resist. To date no action against Murdoch has been taken — nor is it likely to be.
In any case, Palmer was already pursuing a $1 million defamation case against The Australian for a series of articles beginning in June last year questioning his abilities as a businessman and investigating his relationship with Chinese-owned Citic Pacific. Queensland Supreme Court judge David Boddice was unimpressed with the billionaire’s case, rejecting three of the five so-called “defamatory” articles on the basis that they carried no imputations against Palmer. His claim withered after that, and the PUP leader finally dropped the case against the newspaper last month — though not without a few parting shots.
Now Palmer’s going up against Queensland Premier Campbell Newman. His complaints seem much the same as those he levelled against another Queensland premier all those years ago, with the writ issued to the Supreme Court saying that Newman implied that Palmer had “improperly offered money to members of the defendant’s government so that they might prefer his interests to those of the people they represented”. Newman was never going to back down easily — this time, Palmer may not be able to stare down his opponent as he did Bligh and Egan. His ongoing legal case against Citic Pacific is hardly likely to end any better.
Not that it matters — and Professor Palmer knows this. As long as he has the resources to use the full force of the Australian legal system as a cudgel to intimidate those who refuse to see the World According to Palmer, it won’t matter whether his record is 68 for zero, or zero for 68; by threatening litigation, Palmer has for years either cowed political opponents and critics into grudging silence or, failing that, twisted the ensuing media circus into a shape that he can work to his own ends.
This is perhaps one of the greatest failings of the Australian legal system — when it comes to the courts, it all comes down to how much you can afford to lose. And Palmer has very deep pockets indeed.