David Marr’s piece in the Herald today is predictably for him way off the mark. Sure for him it is an opportunity to use the death of Frank Costigan to score points off the deceased Kerry Packer and to make some moralistic comments into the bargain. However those who saw the Costigan Commission close up realised it was a farce, run by a briefless barrister, determined to keep it going for as long as possible so he could enjoy the spoils and perpetuate his image as a crusader. And the bureaucracy under him likewise. Costigan was a haunted religious nutter who saw evil under every stone and it governed how he felt and acted. He could never understand why his Commission was ultimately closed down but it was because it literally did not produce any skulls.

Even the proceedings against Brian Ray, Packer’s (then) bankrupt property developer friend were lost. And at best Packer and Ray were tangential victims of Costigan. Very few scores against the Painters and Dockers were recorded. Ray went on to achieve commercial success on the Gold Coast before dying with his wife in a place crash in Victoria on the way to visit one of his developments at Mount Hotham. Ray left behind a successful crop of children who continue to manage his developments, more than Costigan’s legacy.

In his article this morning Marr says that Ray was funded by Packer “And Robert Redlich, QC, the special prosecutor charged with pursuing various tax matters arising out of Costigan, would agree … in August 1985 when prosecuting Ray for conspiracy to defraud the Commonwealth.” A small point is omitted: Ray won the case! So Redlich may have “agreed” but his contention was not accepted by the jury. So we are left with an innuendo that Packer should have been pursued based on a very misleading and incomplete statement.

Perhaps the greatest demonstration of Costigan’s folly (and amateurism) was the enquiry into the suicide of the gold coast bank manager Ian Coote (the manager of the Capaliba bank branch used by Ray and others), which an earlier autopsy had found was suicide. Costigan said it was murder, allegedly by Packer and his cronies, however when the coronial enquiry was reopened Malcolm Turnbull then a relatively junior barrister working for Consolidated Press and Packer was able to show that Costigan had ignored the ballistics reports that showed Coote had died from a gunshot fired at close range (consistent with suicide) because of the gunpowder splattered on the side of his head. Turnbull was able to denounce Costigan and his methods on the steps of the Queensland court and the government started to lose patience with Costigan.

Costigan leaked the confidential case summaries to the National Times newspaper in order to try and put leverage on the Government to extend his enquiry but instead all it did was to allow Packer and Turnbull to go public about how shallow the allegations against Packer were, and completely removed from the Commission’s terms of reference. However when Costigan interviewed Packer the only thing he asked him about (apart from an incident that Packer had volunteered about a tea chest containing Indian artefacts stuffed with heroin that were delivered to his Park Street loading dock addressed to “K Packer, Bellevue Hill”) concerned the financing of a film scheme (promoted by Ray) and a quite hilarious tale of how Packer’s long term secretary Pat Wheatley, had been told to go into the safe and get a million dollars to open a bank account at the nearby bank.

“There was a million dollars in the safe?” asked Costigan incredulously.

“No,” said Packer.

“I thought so,” said Costigan, “now get to the point”.

“There was more than that,” said Packer.

Costigan nearly fell over.

“I have a squirrel mentality,” explained Packer, coining the code name Costigan used for him in the case summaries, changed by the National Times to “the Goanna” which went down in history.

Costigan was one of the few who Packer’s charm did not win over at close range. Packer did much better with the Parliamentary Committee televised some years later when he snapped at a questioner who dared to raise the Costigan allegations. And Packer’s subsequent victories against the ATO in the courts can’t be lost sight of in the face of Marr’s allegations of tax avoidance.

To Costigan a man like Packer who had large sums of money could only have obtained it by immoral purposes. Not only wasn’t it the truth it was also irrelevant to his Commission. Only a man of Packer’s wealth could have stood up against Costigan and it was probably one of the worst misuses of investigatory power ever to occur in this country and which haunted Packer for the rest of his life. Packer always blamed James Fairfax for having run the innuendo against him in his own papers and back then he always predicted that his son James would one day own Fairfax (then the pinnacle of media success but now long since eclipsed by News Corp).

Those feelings fuelled Packer’s many tilts at Fairfax, firstly in acquiring a spoiling stake against young Warwick Fairfax’s privatisation attempts, which he foolishly pressed on with after the 1987 stock market crash, enriching the rest of his family and impoverishing himself in a pattern continued to this day by his cousins. Packer’s greenmail attempt worked and he exchanged his stake for Fairfax Magazines which included Women’s Day and became the backbone of his magazine empire (which he sold to CVC for many billions 15 years later) and The Canberra Times, bought originally for Murdoch and then on-sold to the Stokes empire. Ironically The Canberra Times was then on-sold to JB Fairfax at Rural Press before ending up full circle with Fairfax as part of JB Fairfax’s ill fated attempt to become its largest shareholder when he backed Rural Press into it.

So David Marr may miss Costigan but anyone who believes in fair play, the proper discharge of authority and confidentiality will not.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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