Friday, May 1, 2009

Bob Carr, Richard Pratt, books, boxes, cartels and the commentariat

There's nothing like a bracing dose of hypocrisy in the morning to kick start the old motor and get out on the highway.

Over at the Daily Terror, we have former premier of NSW Bob Carr telling us all how fiendish local publishers are for attempting to retain a cartel in the face of international trade. (Bring Aussie publishers to book).

Okay, fair cop. We buy all our books via Amazon anyhow (if you order up you can save on freight and make it economical) and any attempt at price fixing should be treated with abhorrence. Especially as in a few short years books are also going to discover about the digital revolution, and experience the same as the music and movie businesses, blather about the wonderful feel and texture of books put safely to one side (watch out, Apple might be coming to get you).

Yet over in the Australian Financial Review, Carr is part of the  pious defence team for billionaire Richard Pratt, a price fixer of the most lavish and corrupt kind (no link, subscription only).

The crocodile tears that have been shed over Pratt shows money can buy you a lot of respect amongst the political class and the commentariat - not bad for a racketeer who ran up hundreds of millions in excess profit through price fixing cardboard boxes, and whose company copped a $36 million dollar fine as a consequence.

But then you can never expect consistency or coherence from Carr, who's turned himself into something of a good time Charlie since he left the premiership and went off to Macquarie Bank.

He's not the only one to trot out humbuggery in praise of Pratt - John Howard, Jeff Kennett, Kevin Rudd have all been there - while poor old Michael Carlton has copped a pounding for unloading on Pratt and calling him on air for what he was - a price fixing fraudster. (The Daily Terror went into meltdown at the outrageous behavior of the rich larrikin leftie abusing nice old Pratt).

But the guy who's copped it most is one time Pratt friend, Graeme Samuel, head of the ACCC, because after Pratt had forked over the largest fine in Australian corporate history, the rules of the old boy club seem to suggest that then you have to give up the game. 

Honor's been served, wot wot, and there's no more to be said, and certainly no reason to hound a harmless billionaire by taking him to court to suggest he's committed perjury over the matter. Terribly unfair old sport, wot wot, and besides old Dicky's been a tremendous giver to the community (with the community's money) and a devout lover of Australian Rules.

Remember all the fuss about Marcus Enfield getting sent down for evading a measly $77 fine? The commentariat were all over him like fleas over a wretched dog, and why not, since what he did was bizarre, silly and reprehensible.

But not a murmur about Pratt. All's quiet on loon pond.

David Bernstein remembers Enfield in Some are tall poppies are taller than others (well never mind the English, you get the drift).

The Australian public takes an often spiteful pleasure in the lopping of tall poppies. But not all tall poppies are created equal, evidently, as the contrasting treatment of Pratt and Einfeld clearly demonstrates. If the tall poppy in question happens to be a convivial good fellow with lots of mates in high places and an endearingly Aussie passion for his footy club, even if he may have been a price-fixer on a mammoth scale, he is more likely to be spared the secateurs than an aloof, somewhat arrogant former judge who, despite his magnificent record of good works for Aborigines and other underprivileged people, lied in a statutory declaration to evade paying a speeding ticket. Off with his head! What does all this say about us?

Well it says to me that the likes of Bob Carr and the right wing commentariat like to blather on about competition, but when confronted by a cartel that donated a more than healthy amount to political parties, and a lot to a lot of other charities, there might be a little tut-tutting, but then it's full steam ahead with all the eulogies about Pratt's up from the bootstraps career, and his life as a jolly good bloke, and all round decent chap.

According to Elizabeth Sexton, in her column Politicians should defend the public interest, not Pratt's reputation, Pratt's private companies kicked the can for $2.34 million for the coalition, and $700,000 to Labor, and of course in Victoria his support of the Carlton football club was always guaranteed to take him a little closer to sainthood. And I'm indebted to her quotation from Justice Heerey in imposing the $36 million dollar fine on Visy for its part in the cartel:

Every day every man, woman and child in Australia would use or consume something that at some stage has been transported in a cardboard box. The whole point of price-fixing and market-sharing is to obtain the benefit of prices greater than those which would be obtained in a competitive market.

It must follow that customers pay more than they would in a competitive market, and so suffer loss.

You won't be hearing too much of this kind of stuff from the commentariat in the coming days. More likely you'll get the sort of stuff trotted out by Sam Lipski, chief executive of the Pratt Foundation, in his eulogy (History will smile on a man of honour).

There was something profoundly human about Richard. Strengths and weaknesses. Complexities and simplicities. He was loved because of who he was, and despite the way he sometimes was. A great man, and yet everyman. A great Australian, wealthy and powerful, and yet every Australian.

He was profoundly human, yet writ large. No man is an island, it's true, but Richard was a continent among men. There are not that many continents in the world. Australia is one of them, and Richard was one of them.

Well sure, and I guess his clipping of his fellow everyperson Australians had more style and subtlety than Ned Kelly, and he made a hell of a lot more than Ned, but every time I see a cardboard box these days I wonder about how much a cartel might have added to its price rather than shaved it for the benefit of the consumer. 

Pratt headed a cartel that turned out to be the Ned Kelly of cardboard boxes. Good luck to him, but don't expect me to get excited about his passing, or upset about his treatment by the ACCC - though I do spare a thought for Graeme Samuel as he gets pounded by relentless humbuggery. 

And as for Bob Carr, can he spare us the sanctimonious nonsense about righteous competition, and just get on with the serious business of clipping the sheep ... unless of course Macquarie has to suddenly indulge in a capital raising because in these hard times its business model has suddenly hit a rather stern concrete wall?  Could it be? Could Macquarie be teetering? 

Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

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