The following judges' report was delivered by Senior Judge, Richard Fisher AM at the presentation of the 2018 Ashurst Business Literature Prize on Wednesday 15 May 2019.
On behalf of the Judges, might I begin by thanking Ashurst for the opportunity which it has given us to participate in the judging of this Prize? The opportunity to engage in an undertaking which not only recognises contributions to Australian writing but promotes those contributions is a circumstance which each of us values.
Coming to the entries, 33 books were nominated for the 2018 Prize. There are two particular features of the entries for 2018. First, as with last year, there were many less books submitted for consideration which might be described as being of a technical nature. Second, the shortlist of books contains more biographies including, for the first time, an autobiography, than has been the case in the past.
Turning to the shortlisted books in detail, as in previous years, I shall provide, on behalf of the Judges, some commentary on each of them, supplementing the material which you already have in your invitation. Observing precedent, I shall deal with them alphabetically by author’s name.
Ian D Gow and Stuart Kells – The Big Four: The Curious Past and Perilous Future of the Global Accounting Monopoly - published by La Trobe University Press
The Big Four traces the history of accounting practice and practices, particularly the large firms, from the Renaissance and the Medici Bank to the present day. The authors then ask; are the big four and other accounting practices sufficiently robust and resilient to manage the challenges which lie ahead?
The authors explore the issue of “how the Big Four began in the dangerous world of 19th-Century accountancy”.
For a former insolvency practitioner, it was interesting to note that it was the significant increase in the number of English bankruptcies during the 19th Century which informed the development of accounting practices.
It was also in the 19th and early 20th Centuries that names that are still with us, such as, Deloitte and Waterhouse, emerged.
The authors begin tracing the emergence of the firms which today make up the Big Four by debunking the view that accountants are colourless characters or, as they put it, “grey men in greyish flannel suits”.
In response to this suggestion, the reader is introduced to a number of colourful characters, such as, Sir Albert Wyon – a dyed-in-the-wool bachelor with a fondness for chorus girls!
With the development of the Big Four came the development of accounting standards. Of this process, the authors say:
“The large accounting firms use their links with regulators and standard-setters to co-produce a code… that is rich with acronyms, jargon and euphemisms. No intelligent amateur could any longer make sense of the arcane professional standards, company accounts and audit reports.”
Still, I will concede that it ill behoves a lawyer to adopt such a characterisation.
The other development upon which the authors focus is the expansion of the practice of these firms into advisory services more generally. Although, that is a development which has ebbed and flowed depending on the environment. For example, the collapse of Enron and the consequential disappearance of Arthur Anderson is one seismic event which impacted the broad-ranging practices of accounting firms.
One can only speculate as to the reaction of Commissioner Hayne to the various touchpoints which now appear to exist between audit firms and their clients.
Following an exploration of the early engagement of the Big Four firms with China, the authors then consider what might lie ahead for these firms. In this respect, the authors conclude:
“The firms have come too far to return to their principles-based past. Yet they will only be able to meet their future, and will only be able to understand and grapple with disruption, if they understand where they have come from.”
That said, as is recorded, one United States Attorney-General, when commenting on a penalty imposed on KPMG, acknowledged that it was too big to be allowed to fail an interesting even diabolical moral hazard.
Damon Kitney – The Price of Fortune – The Untold Story of Being James Packer – published by Harper Collins
For a biographer confronting the possibility of writing about James Packer, one can imagine them addressing the daunting question; what new can be written about him?
After all, there are few, if any, Australians whose lives have been better documented both in earlier books and in the press.
Fortunately for Damon Kitney and his readers, he seems to have had considerable access not only to James Packer but also his many friends, acquaintances and business associates. The result is a book whose claim in the title to be an “untold story” is not mere puffery.
Without diminishing the book, which tells the story of a varied life of a multi-faceted character, for me, there were three singular themes which emerged.
First, there is a fear of failure, although I sense that Packer might express it as a need to succeed. Without presuming to play the psychiatrist, it is easy to speculate that, notwithstanding Packer’s profession of love for his father, it was that relationship which lies at the root of this fear. In Packer’s case, failure, and success appears to be measured by wealth. As Peter Yates put it, “money will be his ultimate scorecard”.
Second, there is the paradox. On the one hand, Packer’s life is littered with fractured marriages and friendships, such as with David Gyngell, Matthew Csidei and Tom Cruise. On the other, he is a person whose business associates not only have regard for his acumen, particularly his numeracy and financial literacy, but also have a deep affection for him. Included amongst them are Peter Yates, Lawrence Ho and Lachlan Murdoch.
Third, there is the enigma. In this context, there is an interesting contrast which the author draws with with Lachlan Murdoch. Whilst Murdoch preferred privacy and focusses on his wife and children, it is said of Packer that he was seduced by the high-flying Hollywood world. Against that, he will happily retreat for extended periods to the seclusion of Ellerstina, his property in Argentia.
At the conclusion of the book, the reader is left in no doubt that, subject to Packer’s good health, there will be a sequel.
Eleanor Robin – Swanston: Merchant Statesman – published by Australian Scholarly Publishing
Charles Swanston was born in Northumberland and served with distinction in the Madras Army of the East India Company.
Following an exploratory visit to Van Diemen’s Land in 1829,. he returned to the Colony in 1831 to take up permanent residence.
It was during his exploratory visit that he met, amongst others, Lieutenant Governor Arthur and made the fortuitous acquaintance of one William Hamiliton. Fortuitous because, when Hamilton decided to return to England in 1832, Swanston succeeded him both as Managing Director of the Derwent Bank and as a member of Tasmania’s Legislative Council.
By the standards of today, the range of Swanston’s commercial activities is breathtaking. He was involved in finance, agriculture, in a number of its aspects, and land development. It was this latter engagement which saw him as a central participant in the establishment and activities of the Port Phillip Association. That Association sought to secure extensive landholdings in Victoria, following Batman’s so-called “treaty”, with the Aboriginal community around what is now Melbourne. That venture ultimately proved to be forlorn with Governor Burke declaring the syndicate’s claims to land to be void.
Yet, ironically, it was Burke who gave Swanston Street its name, in recognition of Swanston’s contribution to the development of Port Phillip.
Additionally to Swanston’s commercial activities, he was extraordinarily active in the political and social life of the colony.
His contribution to the Legislative Council, particularly by reason of his commercial acumen, was highly regarded. He was also engaged in a wide range of what might be called ‘good works’. These included’ “being one of the first wardens of St John’s Church, New Town, Guardian of the Orphan’s School, a member of the Board of Education and the Merchant’s Institute and Vice-President and Treasurer of the Royal Society from its inception to his departure from the colony.”
In spite of all this, the Derwent Bank failed in 1849 and Swanston was indebted to it for £58,509.
It is this circumstance which is the centrepiece of the divergent views about Swanston. A number of commentators are highly critical of him. Eleanor Robin’s view is more benign.
Whatever the true position may be, Swanston’s debt to the Derwent Bank represented some 70% to 80% of its capital. It is to be expected, therefore, that there was a number of witnesses who appeared before the Hayne Royal Commission who would have felt much more comfortable if Swanston had also been required to share the limelight with them at that inquiry.
That, however, could not have been, and Swanston left Van Diemen’s Land in 1850, whence he travelled to California via Melbourne to meet his son in the goldfields. It was most probably Swanston’s only visit to a city in which he is still remembered.
Brian Sherman with AM Johnson – The Lives of Brian – Entrepreneur, Philanthropist, Animal Activist – published by Melbourne University Press
Brian Sherman’s early life will resonate with many of his Australian readers who grew up in a suburb of one of its cities, or in a country town – school, albeit a period at a boarding school, a tightknit community, parents involved in the local club, university, work, travel, marriage, and more travel. There is, of course, one significant difference. All of this was set against the backdrop of the regime of apartheid in South Africa.
It was in that environment, and as a result of that circumstance, that Brian and his wife, Gene, had to confront a challenge with which his Australian counterparts are unfamiliar; that is, can we continue to live in our home country? That question was not only attended by what was undoubtedly the intimidating prospect of being uprooted from all that was familiar, but also the challenge of leaving family, particularly parents, behind.
Those questions addressed, if not resolved, Brian and his wife, together with their children, Emile and Ondine, set sail, at least metaphorically, for Sydney and life in its Eastern suburbs.
Brian, as a pointer of things to come, and having worked in funds management in South Africa, starts work with the Bank of NSW in that area of the Bank’s activities.
Also as a pointer of things to come, Brian was greatly assisted by Gene’s cousin, Lawrence Freidman, when it came to exploring employment opportunities.
Albeit that it does not do it justice to all the dramatis personæ, thus began the story of Equitilink.
It is an extraordinary story, particularly when viewed from 2019.
Both in Australia and then in the United States, the success which Equitilink ultimately enjoyed, rested on, amongst other things, the preparedness of Brian and Lawrence to barnstorm both of those countries.
It must have been a formidable task and made even more so in the United States by at least one early encounter. They were at a cocktail party and met the head of international equities of an investment bank. Brian records the meeting in these terms; they began; “ ‘Hi. We’re from Australia. We’d like to tell you about our country, a new fund and our ideas.’ We are met with cold disdain. ‘It may be of interest to you, but not to me’ “ she replied. She turns her back on us and walks away.”.
Brian and Lawrence were not to be discouraged and achieved great success in the US notwithstanding that early encounter. With their success, though, came third party interest and, ultimately, the decision to sell.
As difficult as that decision was, it freed Brian to pursue other passions and interests - supporting his wife with her art gallery, becoming involved in animal activism and serving as Chairman of the Australian Museum, amongst other things.
With all of this activity, though, a constant in his life is family. It is remarkable to reflect that, with all of his success and all of the demands which his professional career made on his time and energy, he never failed to make time for them. His love for and pride in all that they have achieved is a palpable feature of the book.
Michelle Scott Tucker - Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World - published by Text Publishing
The winner of this Prize a couple of years ago was Catherine Bishop’s “Minding Her Own Business”. Michelle Tucker’s account of Elizabeth Macarthur’s life could well have been subtitled; “Minding the Family’s Business”.
Elizabeth’s life is traced from its beginning as a girl growing up in Bridgerule, Devon to her death at Watson’s Bay in 1850 at the age of 83.
And what an extraordinary life.
She became engaged to and married John Macarthur in 1788. Whilst it was a propitious year, given its significance in the context of the history of Australia in the European era, the marriage of the Macarthurs was regarded as ill-advised. It was also, undoubtedly, tumultuous on account of John’s irascibility and, ultimately, his dementia.
Equally, though, as the author explores, it was a married life filled with much pleasure as well as the usual trials and tribulations.
Following their marriage and John securing a commission in the New South Wales Corps, they left England, a country to which Elizabeth never returned, in 1789, and began their journey to Australia. As the author observes, it was during its seaward leg that “the young couple was beginning to operate as a partnership”.
It is that quality of the relationship between Elizabeth and John which underscores and informs so much of their lives together. Although it was not sufficiently strong for John to defy the convention of the day and leave his estate to his wife. His sons were his beneficiaries.
What is compelling, though, is not so much the story of their partnership but to appreciate Elizabeth’s contribution to the family business when John was in exile, as it were, from the Colony, first for six years and subsequently for a period of nine years.
First there is the scale of that business. Its dimensions can be appreciated from the following passage in the book: “The  Census records the Macarthurs as owning, in total, about 43,000 acres. Theirs was the largest single holding in New South Wales, except for that of the Australian Agricultural Company. The Macarthurs held grazing land at Camden and Argyle, Elizabeth Farm, a town allotment in Parramatta and several in Sydney and the Pyrmont Estate consisting of 22 hectares of unimproved land on Darling Harbour. Their livestock included nearly 14,000 sheep, 172 horses and some 200 cattle.”
Even by the standards of today, that was a mammoth undertaking. Second, and beyond that, whilst it was John who identified the potential for Merino Sheep in New South Wales, it was Elizabeth who demonstrated particular skills when it came to animal husbandry. It would seem that she maintained what, in today’s terms, would be called a ‘stud book’. It was by reference to that and her knowledge of sheep that she was able to manage the Macarthur flock to ensure that it was producing the finest of fleece. It is undoubtedly these considerations which enables Elizabeth to be ranked as almost certainly preeminent among Australia’s early businesswomen.