Crikey’s biggest criticism of Graeme Samuel when he was appointed chairman of the ACCC two years ago was that he was too personally close to many of the big corporate gorillas he would be regulating. The Australian’s Matthew Stevens touched on that this morning in a piece looking at the respective backgrounds of Samuel and Dick Pratt, two giants in Melbourne’s Jewish, AFL, corporate and arts communities.
Samuel and Pratt would undoubtedly be well known to each other, although any friendship is presumably now gone. For instance, Samuel spent two years as Treasurer of the Victorian Liberal Party in the early 1990s and Pratt has been the largest donor to the Liberals over the past 15 years.
When Samuel was defending BHP against Robert Holmes a Court in the 1980s, Dick Pratt and Alan Hawkins’ Equiticorp snapped up a key 4% stake defensive stake. John Elliott and Samuel went to the football together a few times during this period and Pratt was (and remains) the most generous benefactor of Elliott’s old club, Carlton.
You can’t fault the ACCC for the court action against Pratt and Visy but Samuel really had no choice once the Amcor board delivered the heads of their executives on a platter to the competition regulator 12 months ago.
It’s a bit like ASIC being delivered the Steve Vizard insider trading allegations in court by his former book-keeper Roy Hilliard. The evidence was so damning it just couldn’t be ignored. At least the ACCC didn’t take three years to move like ASIC did with the Vizard case.
Pratt and his chief executive Harry Debney have come out swinging this morning holding a press conference protesting their innocence, adding to this statement from yesterday. Asked how he felt about the immunity deal for Amcor, Pratt said: “How would you feel? No comment.”
The big question now is whether Pratt’s legendary influence – he’s probably the most powerful man in Victoria – can impact the legal processes in train. The Australian‘s Richard Gluyas was leaked parts of Pratt’s payroll in 1996 and revealed that Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Nick Greiner and the late Victorian Premier Rupert Hamer were all on his payroll for different services.
Then there is Pratt’s legendary ability to extract grants and subsidies from taxpayers, such as the $40 million the Howard Government handed over in 1998 for the $400 million pulp and paper mill near Tumut, in NSW. Pratt now wants to spend another $400 million doubling the plant, but is seeking a sweetheart wood supply deal from the NSW Government, plus some taxpayer funded roads. Similarly, New York City provided $US50 million worth of incentives when Pratt built a $US250 million plant on Staten Island.
When Treasurer Peter Costello appointed Samuel, he called him the night before and said he was now completely free of any political influence for the next five years. However, it would be interesting to know whether the impending court action against Pratt was mentioned when Samuel and Costello met again on Tuesday to discuss regulation of Telstra.
Finally, what should happen to Pratt while these serious accusations remain untested? Surely he should step down from the Prime Minister’s Community Business Partnerships advisory committee. Then again, Rob Gerard remains a member, so what’s the problem.
John Howard thought it was perfectly fine to appoint his mate John Pascoe as Federal Chief Magistrate, even though he’d been pinged several times by the ACCC for naughty behaviour as boss of George Weston Foods, so why should anyone be concerned about the astonishing allegations against Dick Pratt.