In light of the Howard Government’s record in appointing inappropriate regulators (David Flint at the ABA, Jeffrey Carmichael at APRA and John Pascoe as federal chief magistrate) and the poor disclosures of Robert Gerard’s tax problems and John Anderson’s AWB share trading, we started to wonder about how ACCC chairman Graeme Samuel is managing his family’s large investments.

For instance, Samuel was a shareholder in Austexx, the burgeoning developer and retailer that was founded by his close mates David Wieland and David Goldberger – the men who made the BRW Rich List through their success in Solo Oil and then Liberty Oil and who live next door to each other in identical Toorak mansions.

The firm was last week part of the winning Multiplex consortium to build the new $1 billion convention centre for the Bracks government and has also recently unveiled a $100 million DFO outlet in Canberra and another $100 million development at Hobart Airport, which is the size of nine football fields.

These lads are obviously playing with serious dollars and have been in furious conflict with Frank Lowy’s Westfield group over DFO developments at Homebush in Sydney and Brisbane Airport. We emailed Samuel to ask about the status of his Austexx investment and he replied as follows:

My family retains an interest in certain Austexx developments that existed prior to my severing connections with the Group last year. That interest, as with all my family’s investments, is held in a blind trust managed by individuals who are independent and are not members of my family. I am neither informed nor consulted about any Austexx developments held in this blind trust. Any information I receive concerning the Austexx developments comes from publicly available material such as the media.

Full details of my family’s investment interests are disclosed to the Commonwealth Treasurer and a copy is provided to the CEO of the ACCC. My fellow Commissioners have, at all relevant times, been fully aware of my family’s interest in the Austexx Group and the severance of that interest.

My family has no interest in any developments more recently announced by the Austexx Group – Hobart or Canberra DFOs – and will have no interest in any future developments undertaken by that Group.

This means that Samuel still presumably has an interest in the 27,000 sq m $200 million development at Spencer Street station in which Austexx will introduce 130 retail premises. Similarly, he has an interest in the original Moorabbin outlet, which was the subject of a six year legal battle with Westfield, plus the 25,000 sq m DFO at Essendon Airport. DFO also had a major victory over Westfield in getting their Brisbane Airport proposal up last year. Could Samuel’s approach to any Westfield competition be influenced by personal experience of their bullying?

Given that Samuel is a former Liberal Party Treasurer in Victoria who once ran for preselection in Peter Costello’s seat of Higgins and used to share a St Kilda Rd office with Andrew Kroger, the brother of Peter Costello’s best friend Michael Kroger, does anyone else think that a full disclosure of his financial interests should be made to someone other than the Federal Treasurer?

After all, Wieland and Goldberger got seriously rich through Liberty Oil on the back of the very generous supply deal that former ACCC chairman Allan Fels negotiated as part of the 1995 merger between Caltex and Ampol. Liberty used their ACTU connections to approach Fels and Samuel sat on the AFL Commission for many years with Bill Kelty.

Similarly, it must have been an interesting experience for Samuel to sit on the board of Victoria’s Docklands Authority from 1997 until 2003 whilst Austexx made the final short-list of just two in 2002 for the $700 million Waterfront City project, which eventually went to ING Real Estate and Lewis Land. He naturally left the room during these discussions.

Given the enormous power Samuel wields as ACCC chairman and kingmaker, surely a full public declaration of his family’s interests is desirable to ensure maximum transparency. He seems to be a strong and independent ACCC chairman and no pushover for big business, but sunlight is always the best disinfectant in these situations and public disclosure would settle any niggling concerns about the richest regulator in Australian history.

Peter Fray

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