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Steve Vizard and Rodney Adler would be within their rights to be feeling a little hard done by at the moment. Vizard, while a Telstra director, greedily and dishonestly used inside information to acquire shares in three companies. While Vizard’s crime amounted to a significant breach of trust, his crimes cost the community little and the benefit to himself was marginal. For his sins, Vizard was pilloried for months by the mainstream press and held up as a stereotypical corporate villain, not to mention being banned from acting as a company director for ten years.

Adler last week was released from prison after serving a two and a half-year sentence for effectively misleading a journalist about purchases of HIH shares. Adler’s actual crimes also cost the community little – he was not charged with anything directly relating to the collapse of HIH.

By contrast, Richard Pratt and his privately held company, Visy, will agree to a statement of facts with the ACCC admitting that the company engaged in a cartel with major competitor Amcor to fix the prices of cardboard boxes which had a significant effect on the community. The fine which the court will most likely impose is only slightly larger than a rounding error in Visy’s annual report.

Further, unlike Adler and Vizard, despite admitting to what is possibly the most significant anti-competitive behaviour ever seen in this country, Pratt has largely avoided significant personal and financial fallout – possibly by virtue of the fact that Pratt, and wife Jeanne, are two of the largest and most public donors in the country – to both charitable and political causes.

The Smage’s Stuart Washington put it best on Saturday when he questioned “who really foots the bill for Pratt’s philanthropy?” While the numbers are very difficult to determine, as a result of the price fixing activity, Pratt’s company could have reaped ill-gotten profits of literally hundreds of millions of dollars (it is believed that a class action against Visy and co-conspirator Amcor will seek approximately $700 million while a Cadbury Schweppes action is seeking $120 million).

If the claims represent even a rough proxy for the loss suffered, it would seem that the profits earned by Visy would greatly exceed Pratt’s (admittedly generous) donations to hospitals, schools and the Carlton Football Club.

Pratt of course isn’t exactly the modern day Robin Hood that politicians seem to be painting him as. Rather, the victims of Visy and Amcor’s cartel are ordinary Australians, anyone who has bought a slab of Carlton Draught beer (Foster’s are a large Visy client) or eaten a block of Cadbury chocolate, would have paid more as a result of the cartel.

But as Washington noted, Amcor and Visy’s victims aren’t just faceless consumers. Some are real people, like Queensland farmer like Paul Ziebarth. Ziebarth noted what politicians, like John Howard and John Brumby failed to see: “It’s easy to be generous with other people’s money. He’s screwing us and takes that money and builds this image of a wonderful benefactor in Australia.” Ziebarth noted that the cost he faced as a result of the cartel activity could have been $75,000 over five years.

While there is much to admire about Pratt (the son of a Shepparton box maker has built a greater net worth than all but one other living Australian and donates upwards of $10 million annually to charities) that doesn’t change the fact that his company has twice been caught committing the gross anti-competitive behaviour which has allegedly cost Australians hundreds of millions of dollars.

Adler and Vizard committed crimes which amounted to a breach of trust, but caused little, if any financial damage. The same cannot be said for Visy.

Peter Fray

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