Steve Bracks has just announced that comedian Steve Vizard will replace Ron Walker as chairman of the Major Events Company, continuing the tradition of ensuring the position is held by someone with the maximum number of conflicts.

Vizard is in business with that Labor-connected heavyweight and Packer front man Eddie McGuire through the company Sportsview. Another one of Eddie’s companies has already won the footy tipping licence and now Vizard gets paid to secure major sports and arts events.

Cast your mind back six months and you might remember Vizard was a Telstra director at a time when it was negotiating internet rights for the AFL. Simultaneously, his Sportsview company was running around privately stitching up internet deals with AFL clubs. At the time we reported that Vizard had promised to donate generously to the Liberal cause but failed to deliver, much to the chagrin of senior Victorian Libs.

Vizard quit the Telstra board not long after we announced plans to stand against him at last year’s AGM. We also hear that the Federal government had previously expressed conflict of interest concerns to former Telstra chairman David Hoare about Vizard’s involvement with the Virtual Communities operation that is promising cheap computers and internet access to trade union members across the country.

Vizard was appointed to the Telstra board a couple of years back when it was restructured ahead of privatisation. He got his first serious post-comedian gig in life when the Kennett government made him a director of the Transport Accident Commission. This was really just TAC and now Qantas chairman Margaret Jackson working her vast network because Jackson’s husband Roger worked with Vizard at legal firm Herbert Geer & Rundle a few years back.

Anyway, the first major complaint from the government came when Virtual Communities put around a document arguing why it was such a great proposition for unionists. This proposal actually included a chart that showed how much more expensive Telstra’s Big Pond was than the VC proposition.

So here you had a Telstra director involved in a company that was dressed up to look like a charity but is actually a hard-hitting money making venture (now valued at $360 million) that bought itself extraordinarily cheap access to a massive mailing list by bringing former ACTU Secretary Bill Kelty into the fold. However, Vizard was far than just involved, this business was actually trying to profit by highlighting how expensive Telstra’s product was. That’s not exactly what you’d call corporate loyalty or within the realms of a director’s fiduciary duties. Then again, maybe Steve is too busy to read the fine print in the various businesses that he’s involved with? Surely no-one would be silly enough to do that deliberately.

Despite the subsequent complaint to his Telstra chairman, Vizard survived this episode but Kelty quit the ACTU last August just as union opposition to the plan out of NSW was reaching a peak. The key man behind Virtual Communities was 30-something Porsche-driving advertising man Chris Clarke. However, just like Vizard has fallen out badly with Malcolm Turnbull, we hear he has also fallen out with Chris Clarke in recent times.

Incidentally, speaking of the Turnbull breakdown, we hear this was partly because Steve failed to put his hand in his pocket to help fund the Republic Yes campaign. Malcolm might have done a dreadful job as president of the ARM but at least he made a seven figure donation to the course. Vizard, it seems, was interested in all of the glory but none of the cost.

Moving right along, we get to Vizard’s latest conflict of interest where he is dealing with AFL clubs in getting the rights to develop their internet sites at the same time as Telstra is trying to secure some of these rights.

Vizard owns 25% of a company called Sportsview. The other three broadly equal investors are Eddie McGuire, former Age CEO Stuart Simson and the listed company Multiemedia. Vizard copped about 4.5 million 20c Multiemedia options around the time they were brought in and he sold out for a profit of more than $1 million almost immediately. He also quit the Multiemedia board late last year as the share price tumbled.

When you then also consider that he’s on the Melbourne Cricket Club committee, it becomes pretty clear that something has got to give. Sportview won the contract to operate the MCC’s website so it will be interesting to see how this fits in with his new gig as head of Melbourne Major Events.

Finally, you have the potential for further conflicts through Vizard’s involvement with Granada and Red Heart productions. He’ll need to be very careful not to offer taxpayer incentives to arts events where his company might have generated some of the production or is putting on some of the staging. After the furore surrounding Ron Walker’s conflicts, it is surprising Labor has chosen someone with so many of his own potential conflicts to avoid.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey