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Crikey is amazed that the death last Monday of one of the most significant Australian business, political and media figures – Gordon Barton – has apparently gone unreported and ignored by “papers of record” like the Financial Review, The Australian, Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

How significant was Gordon Barton? Read on…

Colin Chapman, a former deputy editor The Australian and director of the Financial Times, writes:

Gordon Barton, who died on 4 April aged 76, was the founder of the Australia Party, which provided the foundation for the Democrats, set up IPEC, one of the biggest and most successful transport companies, and created the weekly newspaper Nation Review, until it was put out of business by a Fairfax rival, the National Times. For a number of years he controlled the publishing group Angus & Robertson.

A death notice (right) in The Sydney Morning Herald, placed by his children, describes their father as an “idealist, entrepeneur, gentleman and man of conscience.”

Others recall more colourful descriptions – such as that coined by former Faifax journalist and legend Lilian Roxon, “strange agony” – reflecting Barton’s complex personality as he strove to weld his left wing idealogy with a dynamic business brain.

Like Roxon, Barton was a prominent member of the Sydney push, a group of like-minded intellectuals from Sydney University who shared libertarian views when they were unfashionable.

His truck empire started when he hitched a lift to Melbourne and then agreed to take a half share in the trucker’s business, which was to become Australia’s second largest haulage group. It became large and successful after shipping vegetables across state borders, sometimes without the consent of the quarantine authorities.

Richard Walsh, who edited Barton’s Nation Reviewand was managing director of his Angus & Robertson group, writes:

Gordon Barton was a great, but slightly mysterious, Australian. Having amassed a personal fortune from interstate trucking (IPEC) in the mid 60s, he became one of the earliest and most prominent (and certainly wealthiest) opponents of the Vietnam War. He and his rival truckie, Ken Thomas (founder of TNT), were instrumental in launching the Liberal Reform Group, which transmogrified into the Australia Party and was a precursor of the Democrats.

Gordon was a dreamer and an idealist, at a time when such qualities were not greatly valued (and isn’t that all the time?). He was a capitalist, of course, but a fierce opponent of restrictive trade practices. His Tjuringa Group – a band of like-minded and super-bright blokes – were the first market raiders of note in Australia, and managed to rattle the pickets of the ultra-genteel business networks of this era. He famously acquired more shares in Antimony Nickel than actually existed because investors had ‘shorted’ (sold shares they didn’t actually own); to save its members from commercially punitive embarrassment, the Stock Exchange promptly changed the rules to meet the challenge he had thrown at them.

Gordon was the proprietor of the weekly newspaper, Nation Review, which I edited and ran. He also acquired Angus & Robertson, both its bookshops and its publishing house (I became the latter’s MD). Call me biased, but I regarded him as a wonderful breath of fresh air gusting up out of the musty 50s, when he had studied at Sydney University and fallen under the spell of the legendary philosopher, John Anderson. In some ways he was an aesthete; but he was also a party animal, whom Valerie Lawson once described as the Great Gatsby of Sydney.

For the last few decades he has lived in obscurity, in self-imposed exile in Italy. He has been sorely missed from Australian public life; his friends and admirers can only salute and mourn a most extraordinary maverick.

CRIKEY: The failure to report Gordon Barton’s death is an unfortunate example of the “serious” Australian print media at work. In a world where shifty entrepreneurs are feted, and people with ideas are the objects of suspicion, Gordon Barton was simply a fascinating and outstanding Australian – although not worthy of mention in the “quality press”.

Of course, now they’ve been alerted, newspapers like the Financial Review and Sydney Morning Herald will report his death, and run extensive obituaries. Watch for a Trevor Sykes piece ASAP. But because no-one issued them with a press release, or because most of their editors wouldn’t know who Gordon Barton was, they were asleep at the wheel when an important story happened.

Peter Fray

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