The late Rene Rivkin’s lawyer, Mark O’Brien of Gilbert & Tobin, got Steve Vizard’s deal with ASIC right in his comments to the SMH and on ABC radio yesterday. O’Brien is considered one of Sydney’s best litigators and he does plenty of work for various Packer associates, which extended to Rivkin’s insider trading battle with ASIC all the way to the High Court.

“One law for members of the Melbourne establishment and another for Sydney eccentrics,” was the O’Brien line that resonated, although he also observed that Rivkin antagonised ASIC by belittling its ability to prosecute corporate crooks.

Rivkin had one interview with ASIC and then presumed the matter had been dropped when he suddenly discovered he was to be charged with a criminal offence in November 2001, only seven months after the purchase of 50,000 Qantas shares took place.

The wheels of justice moved much more slowly and politely for Steve Vizard, who has now confessed to three different insider trades way back in 2000. These first came to ASIC’s attention in March 2003 when Vizard’s former book keeper, Roy Hilliard, dropped a bucket on his former boss during his own court case. It then took ASIC another seven months to raid Vizard’s home and office in December 2003 and another 18 months to strike its gentlemanly civil deal. In reality, he should have been criminally charged within weeks of the initial revelations.

Malcolm Maiden in The Age almost got the balance right in his column today, taking a harder line than his colleague Stephen Bartholomeusz yesterday, but not quite as tough as Terry McCrann, who set the agenda yesterday with this effort that was picked up by The 7:30 Report.

Maiden fell for the line from ASIC that it did the deal because of the uncertainty about whether a conviction could be obtained. While Vizard’s popularity and celebrity status in Melbourne might make a jury conviction harder to achieve, McCrann and many others believe ASIC still should have proceeded.

Rivkin’s former wife, Gayle, certainly saw the double standard as she explained to the Herald Sun, and former Telstra CEO Frank Blount is the first prominent businessman to come out and declare: “We all know that’s against the rules.”

The AFR’s Chanticleer columnist John Durie has toughened his rhetoric from yesterday morning, telling ABC Victoria and his own readers that Vizard “is nothing short of a disgrace.”

There’s a further point to be made here: Rivkin was convicted of insider trading in Qantas shares because Gerry McGowan told him Qantas was in the process of buying his failing airline, Impulse, and he testified to this effect in court.

Vizard’s defenders and Melbourne Inc say it would have been hard to obtain a conviction because his share deals went through a separate company, Creative Technology Investments. But Roy Hilliard would have been available for any criminal trial, as would Greg Lay, Vizard’s accountant and the man at CTI.

So there are similarities with the Rivkin case in that there are other parties available to give evidence, based on what we know at the moment. The DPP’s advice to ASIC should be published to make sure the whole process has not been negotiated to a nice, safe Melbourne deal that will shuffle the whole thing off to oblivion.

Given the fulsome support of Vizard from the likes of successive Victorian Premiers Steve Bracks and Jeff Kennett, that’s obviously the hope of Melbourne Inc. But who will be the first Liberal Party figure to blast Vizard for his disgraceful behaviour? The line-up of character referees in the Federal Court on 21 February will be interesting to watch.

Peter Fray

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