Australia: The eighties boomers - down but not out? (5 of 5)

Australia: The eighties boomers - down but not out? (5 of 5) - The long-term effects of what the Australian Financial Review has called "the grim harvest of corporate excess" can still only be guessed. The party may have been over long ago, but the bills

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The long-term effects of what the Australian Financial Review has called "the grim harvest of corporate excess" can still only be guessed. The party may have been over long ago, but the bills are only slowly beginning to flow in. The failure of the entrepreneurs - and the system that produced them - is now being blamed for boosting national debt (Alan Bond's companies were once responsible for one tenth of the total), the destruction of thousands of jobs (as failed businesses, such as the television networks, are forced into painful restructuring) and the loss of Australian assets to overseas buyers. For example, Elders was forced to sell a brewery stake to the Japanese company Asahi; part of Bond Corporation went to New Zealand company Lion Nathan; while media assets, including a sizeable chunk of the Fairfax empire, may still go to a foreign buyer.

The rapid destruction and reconstruction of the entrepreneurial companies has actually reduced the proportion of national debt which they account for - possibly once as high as 20%, according to analysts - and a report by ratings agency Standard and Poor's said that the vast majority of Australian companies had "fundamentally sound" borrowings. But full recovery will take several years. From being a feared predator, Australian business, its international reputation damaged, has become a bargain basement full of fire-sale assets.

Several prominent businessmen, including Bond and Laurie Connell, a Perth financier, and lesser names such as Brian Yuill of failed investment group Spedley Securities, face criminal charges over the conduct of their companies. Property developer George Herscu has been sent to jail on corruption charges.

But more important, perhaps, than any revenge on particular individuals is the sense of collective outrage. Already it has prompted several post-mortems into the involvement of governments, banks and regulatory agencies in the rise and fall of The Great Australian Entrepreneur. The inquiry into "WA Inc" has already forced the resignation of Brian Burke, a former state premier and until recently Australian ambassador to Ireland and the Holy See. It has also gravely embarrassed Prime Minister Bob Hawke, often a companion of many of the state's corporate casualties.

The big banks have been bitterly attacked for eagerly and injudiciously funding the business fantasies of the entrepreneurs. Says analyst Block: "Too often, I believe, presentation and style and the borrower's force of personality outweighed the quality of his balance sheet."

And, belatedly, the watchdog regulator, which watched but failed to dog the deal-doers of the '80s, has been strengthened, following community anger over the behaviour of entrepreneurs, whose business ethics now appear to have been questionable and whose contribution to the well-being of the nation (for example, in terms of tax paid) negligible.

So farewell, homo entrepreneurius australiensis. Or is it perhaps only au revoir, or in the local patois, "See ya later"?

Only recently Barry Humphries' creation, Dame Edna Everage - an enduring national treasure in an uncertain world - confided to audiences that she might one day "shrug off the carapace of mega-stardom". Meanwhile, she explained, she was "getting into training for that by doing meals on wheels at the Rehabilitation Centre for Australian tycoons".

It sounds like a sick joke. Seriously, though, rehabilitation, like economic recovery, may not be far away. Certainly Kerry Packer, having kept his eye firmly on the ball, is recovered from illness, cashed up and ready to strike again, while Elliott said at his public reappearance in Melbourne recently: "This is not a second coming: I'm still around." The resilient Bond reportedly is travelling overseas looking for opportunities to begin rebuilding, while Skase has apparently turned his attention, temporarily at least, to resort development opportunities.

All expect to bounce back. And it would be unwise to doubt their ability to do so. As John Elliott said recently: "Without entrepreneurial spirit and people taking risks, Australia will never progress. Part of the free enterprise system is that if you make mistakes you suffer for them. That's what it's all about." Just ask Mark Povey.

(John Huxley is a journalist on the Sydney Morning Herald.)

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