I didn’t want to blog on the passing of Kerry Packer immediately, since I didn’t have appropriately generous thoughts to add to the encomiums that were flowing. And indeed, praise seems to have come from many unexpected sources. Even Bob Gould, when I poppped in to buy a copy of the SMH from Gould’s Books in Newtown yesterday, opined to me that "as members of the ruling class go, he wasn’t too bad".
Still, I was surprised to see the suggestion from no less a source than our PM that Packer was a generous philanthropist. Perhaps by historical standards this is true, but certainly not in comparison with the super-rich in the US. Justin Wolfers and I did some work comparing Australian and US philanthropy for an article in AQ in 2002, and concluded that:
At the top, the contrast is at its most stark. Americaâ€™s richest man, Bill Gates, has given away one-third of his wealth â€“ a cool $33 billion â€“ primarily towards addressing global health challenges. Moreover he plans to give most of the rest away, in short order. By comparison, while Australiaâ€™s richest man, Kerry Packer, is coy about his donations, we estimate that he has given away less than one-twentieth of his money â€“ with the largest donations going to Australian hospitals.* Frank Lowyâ€™s bold decision to fund a new thinktank is sadly atypical of the Australian super-rich. Enlightened self-interest for affluent Americans means leaving a better society. Australian silvertails generally prefer to leave behind rich children instead.
* According to BRW Magazineâ€™s â€œRich 200â€ list, Packerâ€™s wealth in 2003 was $5.5 billion. We have been unable to find evidence to suggest that Packerâ€™s lifetime charitable donations have exceeded 5% of this figure, or $275 million. Scant data on giving are available. In December 2002, Philanthropy Australia listed Frank Lowy as Australiaâ€™s leading philanthropist, with donations that year of $10 million: John Synnott, â€œSilvertails Who Have It And Happily Share Itâ€, Sun Herald, December 1, 2002. If this is true, then Packerâ€™s donations in 2002 would have been below $10 million. Packerâ€™s largest publicized donation in 2002 may have been to the Farmhand appeal – it was reported that he had been one of seven people who collectively donated $4.5 million to the appeal. In 2001, it was reported that Packer had donated $10 million to the hospital that performed his kidney transplant. When we approached Packerâ€™s office for further details on his charitable donations, we were told that â€œMr Packer does not generally participate in interviews and prefers to keep the details of any donations a personal matter.â€ (email from Di Stone, 8 April 2003).
Of course, it was entirely Kerry Packer’s business whether he chose to donate to charitable causes or not. My only concern is the posthumous branding of Packer as a generous philanthropist, accompanied by the suggestion that we should not quibble about his tax minimisation because of his generosity.