24 FEBRUARY 2006
The best thing about leaving Sydney on Wednesday 15th February to return to Vietnam was that it ensured I was away for the Packer memorial on the 17th and all the associated nonsense.
So much has been written about Packer that there is perhaps not a lot to add. I’ll have a shot though.
Packer’s shameless and ruthless exercise of political power has been widely discussed. The funeral line up of political, business, sporting and entertainment luminaries led by a fawning John Howard was evidence of the broad reach of Packer power.
So what else was there to this man?
Presumably to know his best attributes, you’d refer to his great admirers. Alan Jones clearly had the family’s endorsement. He was the MC at the Memorial Service after all. So what did he say?
In his Packer obituary published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 28 December, Jones’s obsequious portrait failed in its desperate efforts to create a legend. Jones recounts two of the classic Packer anecdotes. One concerned his bullying rants at a 1991 parliamentary enquiry where Packer “marvelled” at the fact that people pay tax at all given “the way politicians wasted it”.
The other was the tale of the huge tip given to pub staff in England to spite another establishment down the road where Packer had been refused service because they were closed. The tip we’re told was conditional on the enriched advising their unfortunate neighbours of Mr Packer’s pathetic use of his largesse.
No, nothing endearing about these portraits yet they are thrown around by Jones to demonstrate what a great bloke old KP was.
The reality is that they both reveal what a singularly unattractive persona we are choosing to lionise.
The Parliamentary enquiry performance revealed a man utterly contemptuous of the system that provided the infrastructure for his extraordinary accumulation of wealth. It may be a boring point to make but the Packers, the Pratts, the Singletons and every other wealthy person in the country depend on the education, health, judicial,transport and other infrastructure to do anything. These things happen to be funded by the tax system. It may be an imperfect system, but I did not see Packer presenting any worthwhile alternatives. Nor it seems did he go to any lengths apart from selective acts of benevolence to replenish the tax system for its contribution to his success.
Another oft recited Packer anecdote concerned his tacky proposal “I’ll toss you for it” when colliding with someone who’d won millions in a casino. This tale is especially grotesque and speaks only of complacent billionaire deluded by his material achievements and ready to show them off in the most tacky fashion.
Nothing of the humble, straight talking, modest down to earth Aussie bloke that those beholden to the big fella - who are now writing or rewriting his history - are attempting to overlay on the more apparent reality.
Perhaps the most interesting point about all of this is alluded to in former Packer man, Richard Walsh’s piece on the big man in the Herald today. The celebration of Packer tells the story of Australia’s power elites and where they’re at - especially the Howard government and its values. Howard has embraced the Packer legacy like no other since he became Prime Minister. Horrifying. I’m not sure whether Packer adoration flows into the wider community. Certainly Packer interest runs very high. I know that from talking with newsagents around Sydney about sales of the Packer memorial edition of the Bulletin magazine. It’s been reproduced repeatedly and must have injected a new sense of purpose into the moribund weekly.
I have another big beef with Packer though. It’s about casinos.
I frequently ponder which entrepreneur gets to take the moral high ground when the casino operator, the brothel operator, the porn peddlar and the drug runner come together. I don’t have an easy answer. The drug runner is breaking the law of course. But the social costs of gambling are very high - surely on a par with drug abuse? Casino operators gain respectability from the exclusive nature of their licenses and the huge amounts of money they pour into government coffers. Despite the money and glamour, it is a tawdry business by any measure preying on the desperate. Its operators do not deserve to hold esteemed positions in society. The Packers have increasingly viewed the gambling industry to be the future source of their wealth. Little recent attention has been given to this critical feature of the Packer empire. We’ve preferred to focus on his media and sporting business exploits.
So Kerry, don’t take any of this personally, after all I didn’t know you. I’m sure the affection expressed by your close friends and family is sometimes genuine - especially from those whose financial or political well-being was not connected to your empire. You may even have been a nice bloke. No, this piece is directed more at ourselves, our media and power elites and our polticians. You did what you did. We should view it for what it was.
Our country needs much better role models than you if we’re going to manage the challenges of this century. And we’re going to need to be measuring value using instruments more sophisticated than the size of someone’s bank account or the length of the trail of fawning politicians they leave. Let’s hope some better role models are out there!