It's Lonely at the Top


It would be testing my already imperfect Christian faith to say that I ever felt much sympathy for Kerry Packer in life.

I know he endured the same pain as any other man or woman cut down by cancer and kidney disease. A friend once told me she had several friendly, if sometimes tortured, conversations with the poor old bugger when they visited the same dialysis clinic.

But in the course of daily life, $7 billion, or even the mere $100 million he started out with from the old man, insulates you pretty well from the difficult economic choices most of us have to make. I somehow doubt whether Kerry ever fretted over the purchase of a new washing machine versus a new fridge, a new car versus a family holiday.

F Scott Fitzgerald leaps obviously to mind, telling Ernest Hemingway, ‘The rich are different than you and me.’ Hemingway’s retort — ‘Yes, they have more money’ — seems especially apt today, given that it is money, far more than education, imagination or even application, that really talks.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Still, when I saw that photo in The Sydney Morning Herald, of the hole dug for Packer’s casket — a solitary hole, seemingly in the midst of a vast paddock on his NSW country property — I was reminded of, and genuinely saddened by, something people had often mentioned to me during his mostly charmed life: the big bloke’s chronic, almost crushing loneliness.

No doubt Packer’s taxpayer-funded State memorial service next month will be well attended — packed to the gunnels, I suspect — by the ‘great and good’ of Australia. John Howard will be there, as will ‘Hawkie’, ‘Nifty’, ‘Richo’ and the entire sorry parade of Labor supplicants who began the sycophantic, post-Whitlam two-step with the Big End of Town.

Even his old antagonist, Paul Keating, might show up, like Sam Goldwyn at the funeral of fellow movie mogul Louis B Mayer, ‘just to make sure he’s dead’.

There will be gushing professions of love and respect for the late media tycoon. Many, I suspect, in the vein of Packer executive Sam Chisholm, who said recently: ‘Kerry had an immense influence on Australia. He has left an indelible mark in business, sport and community service. He is someone who will truly never be forgotten.’

All of which is objectively true. I certainly don’t question Chisholm’s sincerity, or impugn his motives, but I have to say that if, in the heavenly afterlife I’m still not sure I will get, I learned that someone had said that about me, I would probably think, ‘Huh, he never really liked me after all.’

Packer seems to have built his reputation on three characteristics. The first was a selective generosity (I suppose we’re all selective about those to whom we give our money) towards individuals he liked or pitied, and institutions he had encountered.

The second was a rich man’s belief that he was, indeed, special and accountable to no one but himself. Remember his appearance before a committee of the nation’s democratically constituted parliament in 1991, when it called him to explain why he wanted further concentration of Australia’s media ownership? ‘Please state your name and the capacity in which you appear,’ asked the committee’s insipid chairman, Michael Lee. ‘Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer, and I appear reluctantly’, he snarled.

At the time, I recall the comments of my friend Terry Lane, then on ABC metropolitan radio. He said that contrary to the prevailing, pro-Packer sentiment among talkback callers on commercial radio, all he saw was a very rich man deeply contemptuous of the people’s elected representatives.

(Incidentally, I maintain that when Labor MP Jeannette McHugh, for whom I worked briefly, said ‘Well, I’m sorry Mr Packer’, after he savaged her for quoting from unflattering Costigan Royal Commission transcripts about him, she was being indignant, not grovellingly apologetic, as the media have interpreted it.)

He also showed his plutocratic, almost feudal, tendencies when he referred to grown men as ‘son’. When Keating wanted to open up the free-to-air television market to greater competition — to genuine entrepreneurial capitalism — Packer told him, ‘The problem with you, son, is that you believe in free enterprise and I don’t.’

I trust I’m not the only one who thinks it impudent for a businessman, even the nation’s richest — especially the nation’s richest — to address the elected prime minster as ‘son’. In my several journalistic encounters with Howard, even I have accorded him, through gritted teeth, the respect of calling him ‘prime minister’.

The third characteristic was Packer’s ability to instil fear. In the early 1990s, I attended a Labor Party meeting where Graham Richardson, who within three years had gone to work for Packer, said that when Rupert Murdoch met Labor cabinet ministers he was accorded a certain deference, ‘but no one shook in the presence of the bloke’. But when Packer came in, a palpable chill swept over the room. Perhaps it was the size of his body they feared, a vast bulk bearing down upon them. I suspect it was more the size of his bank balance and the fear that he might mobilise it against them.

You see, that’s the problem with such extraordinary wealth and power. People befriend you because of what they hope you can do for them or what they fear you can do to them. When you are so wealthy, every meeting, every conversation, every encounter is tinged with a potential economic transaction, a possible deal. You begin to wonder whether people really like you for who you are.

Philip Adams says that Packer once told him that it wasn’t easy being the richest man in Australia but it was a burden he was prepared to bear. But I suspect he bore the burden alone.

Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer wanted for nothing in this life that was material. The snap of his fingers or the press of a bell brought a man with a silver tray. But I suspect he died wondering whether fear and money had really bought him much at all.

I think I shall seek my riches elsewhere.

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