Clive Palmer might be mad, but he’s not stupid

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One could say a lot about Clive Palmer’s recent behaviour. But instead I’ll regale you with a tale.

This one’s about the bloke changing a flat tyre out the front of the mental asylum, when a gust of wind from a passing truck blows the hubcap containing the wheel nuts into the long grass next to the road. He spends hours searching for them, but to no avail.

Realising he’s stuffed, he locks up and readies himself for the long walk back to town to get more wheel nuts. Suddenly, an inmate sticks his head up over the fence and suggests he take a nut off each of the other wheels instead.

“What a good idea,” the driver says. “You’re too smart to be in the loony bin.”

“Oh no,” the inmate says, “I’m mad as a cut snake. I’m not completely stupid though.”

Which brings us to Palmer’s proposed football think tank that will “publish papers, hold press conferences, seek opinions, lobby the government, lobby the FFA for a better outcome for Australians and the game in Australia.”

This sounds a pretty soft option next to a rebel national league but, well, Clive obviously isn’t completely stupid either.

What do so-called “think tanks” do? They try to change minds. They collect data, conduct research and frame arguments based on the evidence they’ve gathered, and they lobby in the political and public arenas trying to pressure governments into behaving differently.

So why would Clive Palmer want to be sinking money into a think tank that’s specialty is football?

Is it because he wants governments to throw more money at football?

I don’t think so.

Palmer’s recent pronouncements indicate the opposite; that he wants FFA to be made more accountable. Failing that, he wants governments to stop throwing taxpayers’ money at football.

And that in the end won’t be a particularly hard argument to sustain because football has left itself wide open to getting its head kicked in. If Palmer can gather up and table the truth about how grassroots football clubs make and spend their money, the results will be more damning than anything that goes on in the A-League.

The last major fact-finding mission around football in Australia was David Crawford’s, and it was “independent”. That is, it was commissioned by a government that didn’t have an axe to grind either way; it just wanted to know what was going on out there without starting a war.

Independent it may have been but Crawford’s findings were still unflattering. Criticism wasn’t confined to the national league; there was nary a compliment to found anywhere. As Crawford wrote, “the current structure of football in Australia is ineffective, does not work and needs changing.”

Former NSL clubs suffering as they have under Lowy might have sounded like big changes to some, but tormenting so-called ethnic clubs wasn’t even in the Crawford report; that was all Lowy’s idea.

The changes Crawford wanted imposed on football before government funding was restored were never implemented.

Crawford only gathered information and gave advice. He wasn’t a lobbyist and he didn’t try to spin the information he’d gathered to get a particular result

And that, one imagines, is what Palmer is talking about when he talks about “kicking harder”.

Palmer’s think tank, if it ever gets up, won’t be as civilised as an independent authority. It’ll have an agenda, and an axe to grind.

And it’s not hard to pick which bit of the game will cop a grinding first, judging by Palmer’s comments this week on the game’s seemingly inexplicable junior fees. He’s spotted the game’s soft underbelly already. He knows exactly where to kick hard.

How hard would it be to survey fee-paying parents, crunch the numbers on roughly how much money junior participants are pumping into football and deduct from that one or two billion dollars annually. Then look at the capital works football clubs have invested in – roughly zero – to determine how much is being spent on football “services”. Then, you could to run that past the tax office to see how much of that income has been declared by its recipients?

Not hard at all. Not when you’ve got millions to spend on research and spin doctors.

That’s when Clive’s think tank shall ask governments and taxpayers and all fair-minded Australians: Should governments be pumping taxpayers’ money into an institutionalised black economy that’s tendency is to eschew paying taxes on its earnings?

I’m sure Clive Palmer will have an opinion on it and a propensity for making that opinion heard very loudly.

What are the odds of a government going into bat on behalf of “proven” tax cheats now that Mark Arbib has left the building?

If Palmer gets his way – and he tends to because for all the apparent madness, he does actually do his homework – football may have to become less reliant on government income.

Without football hanging off the Treasury’s coattails, there might even be room for the minerals and resources sector to score another small tax concession or two.

Palmer may be mad, but he’s not completely stupid.

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