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Oz faces Titanic struggle

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BRISBANE -- Camels may struggle to walk through the eye of the needle, but Australian billionaire Clive Palmer reckons he can gets his bulk through the door of the prime minister's office.

The man rebuilding the Titanic announced this week, in his gloriously blithe manner, that he also desired to lead the nation.

"I'm running to be the prime minister of Australia," Palmer said at a Canberra press conference.

"I am standing because I think I can offer better service to the community than anyone else."

Were Australians dozing contentedly in the arms of their normal political guardians, Palmer's announcement would be dismissed as another eccentricity from a man who scares off PGA golfers by placing life-sized dinosaurs on his golf courses.

But the last three words of his statement will have resonance in a country suffering a political winter of discontent.

The hung Parliament that emerged at the end of the 2010 contest, resolved by the ruling Labor government winning over two independents, has never sat well with an increasingly restless electorate.

The prevailing mood is one of growing resentment against the dominant two-party system ruling since the Second World War, and Palmer's belief he can do a better job "than anyone else'' no doubt sparked millions of silent nods of approval.

The "anyone else'' is Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who has never been warmly embraced by the people, and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

Abbott is expected to win the September election but is still regarded with the suspicious and baleful eye of a people tired of politicians.

Palmer has a political confederate in the form of the even more delightfully eccentric Bob Katter -- a cowboy-hat-wearing independent from northern Australia.

Katter, like Palmer, has formed his own party to test the party duopoly both believe has become an unhealthy virus in the body politic.

While the two-party system will remain dominant, hard heads on both sides of the mainstream know Katter and Palmer could do some serious damage by directing preferences to one another in a poll where preferential voting is compulsory.

But Palmer's wealth might prove a political handicap in a country reluctant to invite the rich into public office.

America started life with the wealthy George Washington and while the log cabin has its place, there's always been a welcome mat for a Kennedy or a Bush in the White House.

But Australia seems to retain an affection for leaders who (in the vernacular) "don't have two bob to rub together.''

The last five PMs came from largely humble beginnings, even if a few made modest millions in post-political life.

Almost all found it politically expedient to throw in anecdotes about the deprivations of their youth when ingratiating themselves with the public.

Former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd won that contest hands down with a sad story about having to sleep in the car one night when his widowed mum struggled to find accommodation.

Palmer, who once served as an adviser to one of the country's most successful state premiers, (Queensland's Sir John Bjelke Petersen) knows how to sniff the political winds.

He owns a super-yacht, several private planes, mansions and soon, if all goes well, the 21st-century version of the Titanic.

But at one of his first press conference since announcing his prime ministerial plans, he was at pains to insist he was a simple bloke.

"When it comes to me, I don't care if I've got nothing -- I'm happy to sleep in one bed, eat one meal a day and be with one woman," he said.

''Why am I standing as a billionaire? Why aren't I standing in Saint Tropez? I'm standing because I have a belief in this country.''


Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2013 A9

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