Is Fels really a tyrant?


BY ANNE CHONG

THE close-up of a blotchy, stern-looking man on the cover of Allan Fels: A Portrait of Power (John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd) - and simply the words “portrait of power”, really – conveys the impression that Allan Fels must be a rather tyrannical figure. Not true, says author and journalist Fred Brenchley, who introduces the book and its subject in his preface by describing a brief encounter with Fels which prompted him to take on the task of writing A Portrait of Power.  

Written in an easy, no-frills manner, A Portrait of Power is a well-researched and well-balanced journalistic effort. 

As chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) – a much simpler and spot-on description of the job would be “prices watchdog” – from 1995 to mid-2003, Fels was one of those love-him-or-loathe-him personalities. To many big businesses, he picked on issues and rocked the boat on practices that wouldn’t have been questioned by someone less vigilant. To many consumers, he was like a modern-day Robin Hood who took note of unjustified high prices and fought to make them fair. 

To extend the “watchdog” analogy a little further, Fels barked up trees that included the prices of fuel, books, CDs and medical services, and made a very big noise over the Sydney Olympics ticketing fiasco. With his regulatory clout, he came down on the likes of David Jones, Woolworths and Video EZY for installing higher prices before the new GST tax came to pass in July 2000.  

Cartels were a primary target, with whistleblowers helping unearth them and a team of trusted investigators (which the media likened to Elliot Ness and the Untouchables) busting them. The objective was simple: Maintain competition, eliminate monopolies. For the most part, Fels’s efforts were successful. Brenchley points out that the Australian Financial Review named him the third most powerful man in Australia. 

Fels’s method of getting things done – he regularly employed (some say exploited) the power of media to highlight issues he wanted both politicians and the public to take note of – brought on its share of detractors. Why wasn’t he sitting quietly behind a desk in Canberra instead of appearing in the society pages of the Sydney Morning Herald or publicly shaming powerful interests on camera?  

Right in the first chapter, Brenchley leaves no doubt about Fels’s “public recognition factor”, the fact that he was a force to be reckoned with and that he left an indelible mark on Australia’s economy. He finishes the chapter with the words, “Australia might never again see his like”, suggesting a deep respect for his subject. 

As fascinating as his public persona was, the private Fels was no less interesting. Descended from German Catholic immigrants from Poland, Fels had a “middle, middle class” upbringing that included regular church attendance, Jesuit teachers, piano lessons, and punishment for smoking and lots of cricket.  

Fels was passionate about and excelled at cricket from an early age and might have made a career of it, had it not been for the fact his game was too erratic. Writing was another early dream. As one thing led to another, leading his path and moulding his thoughts and personality over the years, Brenchley expertly illustrates how Fels was already on the road to his powerful career. 

After a stint as an academic in Cambridge, England, Fels returned to Australia in 1972 to teach at Melbourne University, then Monash University; became Professor Fels; and was chairman of the Australian Trade Practices Commission, then Prices Surveillance Authority, before joining the ACCC.  

As busy as he was at work, he always had time for his family. For years, his older daughter was plagued with behavioural problems and only much later diagnosed with schizophrenia – a fact that was publicly revealed during a TV interview in 2002, which ended with Fels’s announcement that he would step down as chairman of the ACCC to return to a life of academia and to spend more time with his family. 

Allan Fels: A Portrait of Power is part biography and part history. While Brenchley presents a portrait of his subject, he also weaves in a good amount of detail about Australia’s economy to frame it. Chapter Two: The Slow Revolution, for example, traces the development of the Australian economy and trade practices from the 1960s to the 1990s. For anyone interested in Australia’s unique economic environment, and for an inspiring read about a cricket-mad law graduate and slightly eccentric academic figure that became an hardline economist and politician, and made a difference, give A Portrait of Power a try. 

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