Australia’s Maverick Entrepreneur
By Sam Everingham, Allen & Unwin, 432pp
Reviewed: 7 March 2009
It’s fashionable to talk of the 1960s as the time of spectacular cultural change in Australia. But the facts are that there was little structural change in Australian society or economy until the 1970s. Australia today owes more to the structural reforms of the 1970s and 1980s than to the superficial rebel-hip that younger people like to imagine characterized the 1960s. Gordon Barton, while never holding any public office, played an extraordinary role in catalyzing social and economic change in Australia.
He was a buccaneering self-made capitalist who repeatedly challenged comfortable industry cartels that loafed along under government protection. His epic legal challenges to government regulation set precedents that ultimately led to major micro-economic reforms, particularly of Australia’s transport industries.
Barton founded, funded, and for many years led the Australia Party, whose socially-progressive but non-socialist agenda created the first effective third force in Australian federal politics. It was Australia’s first political party with no Class War history. Without ever winning a seat, the Australia Party was significant in bringing Whitlam to power in 1972, and later merged with disaffected Liberals to form the Australian Democrats. In a sense, he helped break the two-party political cartel.
Barton also bankrolled and protected first the Sunday Oberver, then the Sunday Review, then Nation Review, which in the pre-Internet world provided Australia’s most important non-establishment journalism in a period of concentrated, conservative control of the mass media. Along the way, he gave the Australian publishing industry a timely kick in the tail during a turbulent period of ownership of Angus and Robertson.
Nation Review’s cheeky style, overseen by Richard Walsh of Oz fame, encouraged the talents of many writers who had felt suffocated by the timid editorial policies of establishment media, among them Mungo MacCallum, John Hepworth, Richard Beckett, Bob Ellis and Patrick Cook. Michael Leunig and Peter Nicholson were among many cartoonists who at that time other media would have found unprintable.
Barton also tolerated a seemingly unending deluge of libel writs from the targets of Nation Review’s satire or investigative reporting. He supported the paper for ten years until mainstream media and social change had caught up and taken away Nation Review’s enfant terrible market appeal.
Gordon Barton himself did not fit Australian stereotypes. His father was a Queenslander working for Burns Philp in Indonesia; his mother a Dutch girl of obscure origins seeking to better herself in the Dutch East Indies. Gordon, born in 1929, enjoyed a early life of colonial privilege in Indonesia. It was shattered by the Japanese invasion. He grew up with his mother in genteel poverty, in Sydney, while his father was absent for twenty years: first in a Japanese internment camp, then after release returning to New Guinea to resume work with Burns Philp. A burning desire to be rich, and to provide for his family, drove him from childhood. At Sydney University he associated with the libertarian “Push” and embraced the individualist philosophy of the Andersonians – especially the notions of uncommitted free sex.
While picking up degrees in Arts, Economics and Law, and while President of the University branch of the Liberal Party, he went into partnership with the then-Communist law student Jim Staples (later of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission) to start a trucking business. This was the foundation of his fortune, and also of his life-long habit of challenging, or ignoring, laws and regulations he considered unfair.
It’s easy to forget how hide-bound in regulation Australian industry used to be. As Barton’s business interests grew, he found more and more regulations to challenge. When the trucking business grew into IPEC, specializing in overnight interstate deliveries, Barton had to mount challenges all the way to the Privy Council in London to strike down state-based laws that prevented interstate road haulage competing with the state-owned railways.
Many more years and colossal legal costs were expended in challenging Federal aviation regulations that prevented IPEC introducing airfreight services – again, to protect the incumbents. Later there would be challenges to Post Office monopoly privileges on courier services, and to the coastal shipping cartel that gave power to the seamen’s and waterfront unions as well as the uncompetitive shipping lines.
Through IPEC ownership of Federal Hotels, Barton and his colleagues negotiated the establishment of Australia’s first legalized casino, the Wrest Point in Hobart. In 1974, Barton would underwrite the opening of Sydney’s first legal abortion clinic, the Preterm Foundation.
In many cases the reforms Barton and IPEC forced through, against vested interests with entrenched political support, opened up opportunities for other market entrants and precipitated structural reform we now take for granted.
Yet at the same time Barton was more than willing to form anti-competitive cartels himself, when he could get away with it. A blatant price-fixing cartel among major road transport operators, set up by IPEC under Barton, lasted fifteen years and was ultimately described by Allan Fels as “the most sustained and systematic price-fixing case that’s ever been before the Courts in Australia”.
Over time, Barton’s addiction to risk and to personal drama undid much of his personal life and his fortune. Repudiated by the corporations he had built, and squandering his millions on speculation and a spendthrift consort, he spent his declining years pottering about a small villa in Italy looked after by a son and daughter, dying in 2005.
Everingham is to be thanked for putting together this epic tale of rise and fall while many of the players were still alive to speak. The biography is rich in first-hand anecdote. Barton’s trajectory touched a phenomenal list of those who were to play creative and influential roles in developing the Australia of today. His obvious flaws were inseparable from his capacity to energize others and to catalyze significant change in an Australia otherwise far too inclined to doze in the sunshine.
Richard Thwaites worked in publishing and in journalism through the 1970s