Australia’s best-known Boy Scout has been dubbed a hypocrite and a shameless self-promoter. But he’s also gutsy, generous and passionate about making the world a better place: the archetypal rich crusader.
And he’s surprisingly likeable in the flesh. If you’re used to seeing Dick Smith on A Current Affair you may have got the impression he’s a do-gooder who takes himself far too seriously and has no sense of humour. But The Power Index found him expansive, entertaining and at times frankly hilarious when we went to his house for a chat.
Smith lives in the bush on the outskirts of Sydney, an hour from the CBD, but dodges the rush-hour traffic by flying everywhere in his helicopter. He’s got one on the lawn and another underneath the house, and at nearly 68 he storms up the hill so fast to show me his toys I can barely keep up. He’s talking all the while, of course.
He tells me he was a “dead loss” at school, that his father was a salesman and mother a housewife, and that they were always rolling up their sleeves to get involved: be it the Scouts, the mothers club or the P&C. “I was brainwashed by the Scouts, told I had to do a good turn every day or terrible things would happen,” he explains.
And that fear makes Dick do good. “I’m not religious,” he says, “but I do believe in Karma. If I do good things, good things will happen to me. I do it for entirely selfish reasons, because it makes me feel better.”
Last year, he paid a $600,000 ransom for two journalists held hostage in Somalia; two years earlier he saved Greens leader Bob Brown from bankruptcy (and losing his Senate seat) by paying his $240,000 legal bills from a failed court action; and two years before that he forked out $60,000 to defend David Hicks, proclaiming: “I get up and I feel sick. And I feel sick because of David Hicks.”
Dick also loves tilting at windmills, like Don Quixote. When he was anointed Australian of the Year, a quarter of a century ago, he used his award to campaign against cigarette advertising to young people.
Twenty-six years later, his themes are the same: decency, a fair go and justice for the ordinary bloke. And he still toils tirelessly for the Australia he wants to live in, where imports don’t destroy farming jobs and our fragile environment is protected from pollution and excess population growth.
Last year, he took aim at the Murdoch press for its attack on Cate Blanchett and her “Say Yes” (to a carbon tax) campaign, confessing he had been asked to do the TV ads but was too scared that Rupert’s tabloids would brand him a hypocrite for buzzing around in his helicopters and private jet. “I knew I would be a front page of lies in the Rupert Murdoch press here,” Smith told a Sydney book launch.
A couple of months later he took on the “evil empire” again, with an ad in The Daily Telegraph headed, “What This Newspaper Will Never Tell You”, highlighting the fact that Rupert Murdoch had invested in making News Corporation carbon neutral, even as his papers savaged Gillard for trying to reduce emissions in Australia. The Tele refused to run the ad until Smith demanded an audience with Murdoch’s local man, John Hartigan. The paper then ran an article alongside it, denying the claims.
While all this was going on, Smith was trying to persuade Murdoch to donate $1 billion to charity. It’s a testament to how naïve, cheeky or optimistic he can be. He genuinely thought he could do both.
Suggesting it could be called the Murdoch Foundation or the Dame Elisabeth Murdoch Foundation, Smith offered to kick start the fund with a $5 million personal donation and supplement it with donations from other rich Australians. But two days after his attack on The Sunday Telegraph for its “Carbon Cate” campaign, Dick got a letter from Rupert saying “No” and signing off: “After your insulting remarks about our newspaper front pages I see no further need of reply.”
Dick is still amazed that Rupert was so stung. “I wouldn’t think he’d give a stuff about me criticising his newspapers,” he explains to The Power Index. “But he’s obviously very sensitive.”