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Mark Latham On Kerry Packer

The following speech was delivered by Mark Latham, ALP Member for Werriwa, during “Statements by Members” in the House of Representatives Main Committee on Thursday 31 August, 2000.

The speech is printed as it appeared in Hansard.

Mark Latham speech in the House of Representatives, August 31, 2000.

LathamMr LATHAM (Werriwa) (9.46 a.m.) — I wish to reflect on the news that Australia’s richest man, Kerry Packer, lost $34 million last month on a gambling spree in Las Vegas. I am sure that most Australians will feel uneasy about this sort of extravagance. Notions of public morality and justice are under threat when it is possible for one person to accumulate such extraordinary wealth and then use it in such an extraordinary way.

The economist Thorstein Veblen called it conspicuous consumption—the use of wealth for a personally indulgent and flamboyant lifestyle, way beyond any decent community standard. In a society plagued by entrenched poverty and disadvantage, this kind of behaviour is morally offensive. Surely those who have been fortunate enough to accumulate considerable wealth should use it in a socially responsible fashion. Blowing $34 million at a casino is not a very responsible thing to do.

In his defence, I am sure Mr Packer would say that he has every right to spend as much as he likes, wherever he likes. Having the right to do something, however, does not necessarily make it the right thing to do.

Social norms matter, especially at the extremes of social behaviour. In his defence, Mr Packer would also point to his support for a number of charitable causes. Like most forms of corporate philanthropy, however, Mr Packer donates to those organisations with which he has had personal experience, particularly medical equipment and hospital services. Only a small proportion of corporate donations in Australia actually reach poor communities. Surely this is the most important test of one’s social conscience—the capacity to support causes beyond the range of one’s own interests.

So what does such an incident mean for the Australian parliament? I believe that it highlights one of the ethical flaws in the Howard government’s policy on mutual obligation. What is more unacceptable in our society: for an unemployed, low income person to refuse to look for work or for a wealthy person to waste $34 million in a senseless gambling binge? I find both cases unacceptable. They should be subject to policies of mutual obligation. Unfortunately, under this government, only the first case—the low income, unemployed person—is expected to discharge his or her social responsibilities.

The standard for Mr Packer is very different. He is one of the beneficiaries of the parliament’s decision to halve the capital gains tax rate and lower the corporate tax rate. He is a leading beneficiary of the government’s inability to eliminate tax manipulation and tax avoidance in corporate Australia. He is the primary beneficiary of the government’s decision to introduce a restrictive anticompetitive regime for digital television. This is a publicly funded donation to Mr Packer—more money to fund his mad gambling.

On each of these issues, the parliament has failed to uphold decent standards. If someone has enough money to blow $34 million at a casino, then they have enough money to pay more tax and help to build a better society. If someone has enough money to engage in conspicuous consumption, then they have a conspicuous responsibility to assist the most disadvantaged parts of society. Two weeks ago, to its credit, the McClure report on welfare reform recommended that the principle of mutual obligation be extended to corporate Australia. Mr Kerry Packer would be a very good place to start.

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