Bankster and winemaker hid behind philanthropy
15 April 2011
To the living we owe respect but to the dead, we owe only the truth.
It was one of those jobs that brings an old PI down. A woman very old before her time came to see me. Could I find her grandson? Just out of juvenile detention, he’d disappeared. His mum had disappeared. Junkie. His dad was in gaol. He’d beaten the kid and his wife.
They came from a long line of people left behind by society. Shitty rented homes. Low-wage temporary jobs. The dole. Drugs. The kid didn’t have a chance. Trouble at school. Illiteracy. Foster care. Diagnosed pyschological disorder. Trouble with the law. Break-and-enter. Juvenile detention.
I made a few calls to an old contact in the welfare sector; followed a hunch; found the kid in Darlinghurst; coaxed him back to his grandmum. I asked her for a pittance and then slipped the notes under a magazine on the hall table as I left. There was bugger-all chance of a good outcome there. Not with Julia Gillard talking tough love at the Sydney Institute.
I trudged back to the Brushtail Café and sat outside in the lane, warming my fur, with a cider and the Sydney Morning Herald, and my eye fell on an obit for Macquarie banker, David Clarke, who’d died of cancer, aged 69.
Laid out in a well-laundered piece by Stuart Washington was a shimmering vision of a different sort of life. An upbringing on the North Shore. Knox Grammar. Sydney University. Economics. Rugby. Stockbroking. A founder of the Millionaire Factory. Chairman of the Australian Rugby Union. Order of Australia. Owner of a stunning winery. Award-winning restaurant. US-style philanthropy. Executive Chairman of Macquarie.
“In frequently controversial annual meetings in the 2000s, Clarke was a gentlemanly standard bearer for Macquarie’s foray into infrastructure funds”, Washington warbled after lingering over Clarke’s role as a philanthropist – a sponsor of the arts and a campaigner for the Salvation Army who saw “giving back to the community as a duty”. Yeah. A bit of work for charity and the arts. The age-old robber baron strategy for exculpating a life of rampant greed and, indeed, war against democracy.
But I remember Clarke as he should be remembered. Back around 1998 I did some work for a three dollar company, called Truth About Motorways Pty Ltd, set up by some community activists.
Macquarie’s wholly-owned subsidiary, Macquarie Infrastructure Investment Management Ltd, the promoters of the Eastern Distributor Motorway, were telling a pack of obvious lies to justify the road and gull investors into pouring in money.
I did some snooping and found a few documents the Roads and Traffic Authority hadn’t hidden quite well enough and my clients took Macquarie to the Federal Court, alleging misleading and deceptive conduct.
The Millionaire Factory was angry. They were owed respect. If they said their road would get 60,000 toll-paying vehicles a day by 2011, they should be believed, dammit.
The moment it looked like my clients had bulldozed all the legal roadblocks Macquarie could throw in their path, the bank’s legal team applied to shift the whole thing to the High Court. My clients were stunned. Here they were trying to get the court to hear some evidence about Macquarie’s bodgy motorway traffic predictions and the next thing, they’re forced before the highest court in the land to defend the constitutional validity of the proposition that Parliament had a right to pass a law saying any person had a right to “bring a matter before the court”.
That “open standing” clause – which was by then found in a few bits of legislation – is a whistleblower provision. It means that if you see something you think is unlawful going on, you don’t need to have a direct material interest (like, in this case, being a shareholder) to take the matter before the relevant court. And Macquarie were arguing that the elected representatives of the people didn’t have the right to give citizens that right. They hired a guy who was, by reputation, the finest constitutional barrister in the land to argue this anti-democratic crap.
In the upshot, the High Court judges decided, seven nil, to throw Macquarie down the stairs. It’s not often that you see a bunch of eminent jurists, conservative and ‘activist’, united like that. Parliament, they felt, had a right to pass any law it liked. The high and mighty were just as powerless before that principle as the most addled street kid.
The big end of town’s attempt to constitutionally stifle whistleblowers was dead in the water. Well, their representative sniffed, they’d never expected to win anyway, which if true, is very, very, naughty, because you aren’t supposed to take a legal action without a genuine belief you can win.
Nobody did anything about that, and my clients’ case was put on indefinite hold when they couldn’t come up with about of a quarter of a million dollars surety against the possibility of their losing the original case. The public-private partnership pirates and the roads authorities went on inventing increasingly fanciful motorway traffic predictions with disastrous results. And not only that. Under Clarke, Macquarie pioneered the strategy of hiring influential ex-politicians for their contacts and their expertise in ‘facilitation’.
Corruption of the political process was Clarke’s enduring legacy, and a bit of charity work won’t wash it clean.