V. G. Venturini
Mal Practice: The Administration of the Murphy Trade Practices Act
Non Mallare, 465pp

Australian Book Review, October 1981, pp. 24-25

At the start of 1979, Australia had six major private trading banks: today, there are three. Mergers and takeover bids provide headlines outside the financial pages while media companies themselves are among the liveliest battle grounds for Mass Murdoch as he raids his competitors, absorbing airlines and book publishers. The concentration of economic power expands as one of the responses to recession.

The main effect of laws against monopolising has been to camouflage large combinations because the anti-trust laws let people believe that cartels are illegal and hence impossible. This deceit is what one writer has called the folklore of capitalism. The USA has a tradition of trust-busting while Australia has done next to nothing. The results are about the same. Monopolies arise from the laws of capitalist development, and irrespective of the laws of the land. To prevent monopolies in the twentieth century would be to abolish capitalism.

George Venturini was an expert and highly qualified practitioner in company law when the Whitlam government appointed him for a seven-year term to its strengthened Trades Practices Commission (TPC) early in 1975. The Fraser government weakened the TPC, giving it corporate status, and dropped Venturini who resigned shortly after the National Times published material from a file which became known as the “Venturini Papers”. Mal Practice is an overly expanded version of those documents. Its importance is in the detail it adds to our understanding of public administration. Venturini says that “his formal relations with the Commission deteriorated in direct arithmetical proportion to my knowledge of things I was not supposed to know.”

Australian antitrust laws began with a 1906 Act designed to protect local manufacturers against the International Harvester Company. This law lapsed after failing to secure prosecutions against a coal vendor and a shipping combine. In 1914, H L Wilkinson identified the flourishing of cartels for sugar, tobacco, shipping, coal, four and beef in his The Trust Movement in Australia. Barwick’s tamed Trade Practices Act of 1965 was amended in 1967 and 1971.

Then, in 1974, Labor attorney-general Lionel Murphy introduced what Venturini believed to be “the most powerful anti-trust Act in the world”. Mal Practice shows how Murphy’s law became virtually powerless because of the way it was administered by the TPC well before the Fraser government rewrote the Act and starved the TPC of funds.

The strongest action taken by the Fraser government on cartels was in November 1976 when it rushed a bill through parliament to protect the uranium cartel, the doings of which are told in Yellowcake (Pergamon, 1980) by June Taylor and Michael Yokell.

The Fraser government’s 1977 Trade Practices Act followed recommendations from a committee of review headed by the deputy chairman of ICI, the fertilizer oligopoly; also on the committee was a Sydney lawyer who had represented the life insurance companies and Colgate before the TPC.

One of Venturini’s fellow commissioners argued in May 1977 that business could ignore the law against price-fixing for a decade because the TPC would not enforce it. According to Venturini, the TPC operated on the unwritten command “Slow ahead – ready to go astern”. Of the detergents case, he asked his fellow commissioners “are we trust-busters or whiter-than-white-washers?”

Both Venturini’s brief career as a Trade Practices Commissioner and his book centre on the zinc cartel, which he traces back to the late 1920s, via CRA and its British parent RTZ. In fact, the zinc cartel goes back to the Great War and the activities of W S Robinson. Venturini could not get information to which the Act entitled him and the zinc case files disappeared for almost a year. The TPC got interested in the zinc cartel again only after the filing of an anti-trust suit in the USA.

The story of the transnational zinc cartel is the strength of Venturini’s saga, just as his way of presenting it highlights his failings as an author-editor. Fortunately, a page of detailed index entries under “zinc” helps the reader to piece the evidence and then the argument together. What a pity Venturini did not write a book on the zinc cartel. As it is, we can be grateful for the mass of material he has collected and printed between one set of covers. His zinc story should earn Mal Practice a place on the reading lists of diverse disciplines.

Most of the faults in Mal Practice could have been corrected by a publisher’s editor. For a number of reasons, Venturini published his own work and so did not have to defend his rococo style or his pages of digressions and redundancies.

Mal Practice reads like a law text or a judgment citing endless precedents. When Venturini includes several of his paragraphs that were cut down to a few lines by the “bureaucracy” it is his version that is full of jargon while the summary does little harm to his ideas and none at all to the English language which he tells us he wants to protect from the abuses inflicted on it by the Watergate conspirators and their Australian counterparts.

An additional obstacle is Venturini’s fascination with exotic words. The final three of his five chapters are entitled Charrada, Pantouflage and Poshlost respectively. While these terms are apt for the material they describe, they also show how unapproachable Venturini has made his revelations. Charrada is Spanish for “speech or action of a clown” and is here used for the TPC’s brush with the film distributors. Pantouflage is the least satisfactory of his three titles and is derived from the French word for slipper; Venturini tries to make it cover the twin ideas of public servants’ feet interlocking under the table with those of businessmen as well as the bureaucrats’ willingness to go in whatever direction is most advantageous to them. The Pantouflage chapter covers the Commission’s dealings with soap and detergent manufacturers.

A fifth chapter, taking up almost half of the book, deals with a range of matters with which Venturini was not involved directly, such as the drafting of the Fraser Bill, and his own exclusion from the Commission in 1977 by the Minister for Business, John Howard. Venturini recounts these goings on under the Russian word Poshlost which means “a frightening, debasing and interminable vulgarity”.

It is true but too easy to say that monopolies are bad, or that a state one is better than a non-government one. Some monopolies could be better for Australia’s working people than are certain forms of what is called “monopoly competition”. For instance, our economy might be sounder today if governments had allowed only one (or, at most, two) motor-vehicle producers into the Australian market after 1945. The current restructuring of our manufacturing sector means that the real choice will be between encouraging a local monopoly producer or allowing imports from foreign-based competitors who might well operate a cartel of their own. When monopolies are encouraged, they have to be patrolled if any benefits are to be spread. Venturini’s book makes it clear that a TPC will become effective only if it is part of a broader system of controls built on organised employees and customers.

The two most effective actions against restrictive trade practices involving Australia were in 1971 by unions against retail price maintenance, and from 1977 to 1981 by the Westinghouse corporation against the cartel of uranium producers. Both cases involved legal procedures, but neither would have been possible without the extra-legal activities of union boycotts and the leaking of documents.