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Titanic undertaking for Oz billionaire

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BRISBANE -- When you can buy your 15-year-old daughter a $5-million yacht and hand out a fleet of 55 Mercedes Benz cars to your staff, why not go ahead and rebuild the Titanic?

Australian Clive Palmer has clearly asked himself that question and found no earthly reason to answer in the negative.

There are 35 billionaires in Australia, but Clive undoubtedly is the loudest.

And possibly the boldest. It does take a certain verve, a particularly discriminating brand of brio, to set about rebuilding a doomed ocean liner that's globally recognized as a metaphor for disaster.

But Clive is no ordinary Australian. Ordinary Australians don't own a football team in China or keep the local press captivated with false claims of the CIA backing a bid by the Australian Greens to kill off the Australian coal-mining industry.

When he was a kid and his dad owned the local movie theatre, he could display what appeared to be congenital generosity by inviting friends over to watch the latest releases. Now he hands out cheques to charities or, as he did on Christmas Eve 2010, distributes 55 Mercedes-Benz cars to loyal workers at one of his nickel refineries. With that sort of bankroll, rebuilding the Titanic in a joint venture with Chinese partners should be a breeze. Clive even tempted fate at the announcement by declaring this time the technological age won't be thwarted by an ice cube.

"It is going to be designed so it won't sink," he said, echoing the White Star Line's publicity blurb that the Titanic was designed "as far as possible to do so" to be unsinkable.

"Of course it will sink if you put a hole in it," he told a persistent reporter at the press conference a fortnight ago, before sailing on majestically, much like the unsinkable Molly Brown, with his vision of honouring the workers and designers who built the 20th century engineering marvel.

"These people (the Titanic's builders) produced work that is still marvelled at more than 100 years later, and we want that spirit to go on for another 100 years," he said. "It will be every bit as luxurious as the original Titanic but of course it will have state-of-the-art 21st century technology and the latest navigation and safety systems."

Palmer may sound like a windbag. But the man who built his fortune in mining and is reputed to be worth well over $3 billion has a reputation for getting things done. He has signed a memorandum of understanding to build the cruise liner in China, with the ship's maiden voyage from England to North America already scheduled for late 2016.

Once it was pretty much the House of Rothschild and perhaps the odd Rockefeller who supplied pleasure to voyeurs of wealth. Today we are spoiled for choice.

Clive is Australia's own Donald Trump, he's Ted Turner, he's Conrad Black (before prison), but he is also uniquely Australian in his own version of the ancient role of "rich man."

Wealthy Australians who capture popular appeal invariably have a common touch. The now deceased media magnate Kerry Packer always spoke blunt "Australianese" and often insisted on simple fare like hamburgers and milkshakes. Clive, with his large frame and subtle media skills, has a similar persona, but he still makes it clear his extraordinary wealth gives his worldly existence a far wider frame of reference than the rest of us. While announcing the Titanic plan, he casually threw in that he wanted to contest the next federal election -- in the seat now held by Australian Treasurer Wayne Swan.

In short, Clive has what the talented Australian poet Les Murray calls "sprawl" -- a difficult-to-define characteristic incorporating much more than a disregard for convention:

Sprawl is the quality

of the man who cut down his Rolls-Royce

into a farm utility truck, and sprawl

is what the company lacked when it made repeated efforts

to buy the vehicle back and repair its image.

As the talented Murray would probably agree, a poor person can display "sprawl," but it's the Clive Palmers of the world who give this characteristic the glistening sheen it deserves. We may sneer at the wealthy, we may gaze at them in wide-eyed admiration. But there's no doubt they can, if they're so inclined, roam well outside the square that imprisons so many of us in our workaday lives.


Michael Madigan is the 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 11, 2012 A12

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