30 April 2009

White-collar Underbelly

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.

- Shakespeare Julius Caesar Act III Scene II

The sight of those two rogues, Vizard and Elliott, at Richard Pratt's funeral were reminiscent of the funeral scenes from Underbelly, where a different Carlton Crew were out in force.

The fawning over Pratt has received a great deal of attention, but it's a fraction of that showered on the late Kerry Packer. Both men had a mistress in Sydney, and both are responsible for screwing consumers and producers in search of a quick buck. Was the box market in Australia any less competitive than the television market? Has Graeme Samuel suffered more opprobrium for going after Pratt than Frank Costigan did for uttering the most timorous mention of Packer? At a time when the consequences of inadequate regulation are being felt across the community, the vilification of Samuel is absurd. Being bagged by John Elliott might be a badge of honour, but wouldn't Lindsay Fox be better off schtumm?

Whatever you may think of the merits of the way Pratt built his market power, it is likely that had he been a much less wealthy man, he would have been similarly philanthropic. Had he been a farmer like his father, or pursued either of the careers he flirted with in his youth (Aussie Rules player and Hollywood actor), Pratt demonstrated a greater sense of community in any of his toes than Packer ever had. Yet it was Packer who got the state memorial service.

Nobody (except, perhaps, Christopher Hitchens; and this must be one of the few subjects on which he has been silent) is obliged to speak the unvarnished truth about a man in the hours surrounding his death. Rudd struck the right note both in praising Pratt's achievements and not attending his funeral. While two of Rudd's predecessors attended Pratt's funeral, they diminished themselves by showing that they, Hawke and Howard, could have done more to rein in market-distorting greed and distance themselves from wealthy men in the name of good governance in their day, if only they'd had the guts to do so. It is doubtful that a Melbourne-based Prime Minister could have afforded not to be seen there.

Daniel Bernstein's comparison of Pratt with Marcus Einfeld is telling: a man of great achievement sullied by petty avarice, but because Einfeld is not yet physically dead he is denied the oratorical excesses excusable by grief.

Noticeable for being so quiet about Pratt are those lions of free enterprise, the Eye Pee Yay. Pratt made small producers pay more for an essential input to their business while restricting their capacity to go elsewhere for it at a better price. Consumers paid more for unrelated goods thanks to Pratt's connivance and greed. It was Adam Smith who identified collusion as an unfortunate part of the free market, but his more intellectually lazy heirs have a blind spot to market distortion and monopoly/oligopoly power. Now that Roskam has dipped out of Kooyong, and thereby denying a battle of intellectual titans with Frydenberg, he should work on remedying this defect (if it is possible to do so without the entire IPA suffering a capital strike).

It remains to be seen whether Anthony Pratt suffers the sorts of comparisons with his father under which Jamie Packer has laboured. The sins of Richard Pratt against the corporate law are visited upon the son, and Pratt's other corporate heirs at Visy. In going after Pratt, Graeme Samuel has shown more teeth than all Australian corporate regulators combined; together with the recent James Hardie decision, Australian business are on notice about sloppy compliance. No amount of philanthropy or the extraordinary Melbourne showbiz-political vortex that is AFL can save you from corporate malfeasance, it would seem.

Richard Pratt, child of the Depression and the Shoah, man of late twentieth century Australia; as the country entered the twentyfirst century you were lost, alternating between venal collusion and lavish generosity, both shocking to those incapable of either extreme. Now you've died and those who were part of your life (for good or ill) must make do without you: let's see how they go.

No comments:

Post a Comment