August 2005

Arts & Letters

A dandy comes a cropper

By Craig Sherborne
It’s a very Australian thing to glorfy the rich, famous and dead. And yet Rene Rivkin was never really one of us, was he?

Rivkin Unauthorised? What a redundant title. Rivkin’s dead, and hardly in a position to authorise anything. Andrew Main’s book, one of the best business books I’ve read in a while, gets off on the wrong foot in a few ways. There’s the crappy cover, chock-full of big-print text pitching Rivkin’s life as a “tragic” story. Nonsense. His was no tragedy. Remember tragedy? It’s what comes to the minds of classicists when a person of greatness, or with the potential for greatness, is destroyed, usually brought down to the grave by the flaw in their character, by the vanity and egotism that becomes their undoing. Nowadays a dropped catch in a one-day cricket match is reported as being a tragic event.

Rivkin was in part brought down to the grave by the flaw in his character, but only in part. And even by the most relaxed standards Rivkin was not a person of greatness. Yet his demise brought out the sham classicist in many a slack hack reporting on his decline and suicide. It was “a Greek tragedy”, they said, or “a tragedy of Shakespearean roportions”. Perhaps even a Greek tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

Any determination to set him in a classical context is sheer pretension. I’ve been around journalists long enough to have identified any lurking classicists, and only a few of my fingers have been needed to do the sum. What, Rivkin was Hamlet? Shylock? Coriolanus? Richard III? Yes, Rivkin was a Jew like Shylock. He was mentally ill like Hamlet, but Hamlet was an actual Prince back when that meant something, not just a celebrity, though celebrities pass for cheap royalty in our fair land. Hamlet’s mother was fucking his uncle who’d stolen his dad’s throne while the old boy was still warm in the ground. That’s enough to addle any man’s brain and emotions, even if he might already have been predisposed to bipolar disorder, like Rivkin. The point is, most journos wouldn’t know their Falstaffs from their Fortinbrases. I expect to overhear the following conversation one Walkley Awards night: “That ‘quality of mercy’ speech. Who made that? It was King Lear, wasn’t it? Yeah, that was the fella. Just before he killed Macbeth – or was it Juliet? What’s the name of that female who got strangled by the black guy, Otto?”

Main, a journalist with the Australian Financial Review, is far from a slack hack. But even he tells us: “His [Rivkin’s] story is all about Classical tragedy and hubris, about a talented but vulnerable man who surrounds himself with sycophantic adherents, then starts to believe what they tell him.” Then this lazy aside – “Take it back two thousand years and it all fits: Aeschylus probably wrote a play about it.” Well no, actually, he didn’t. Yes, he wrote about hubris, but on such a vast and bloody scale that Rivkin’s harbour-view traumas are petty by comparison. This unstable, dishonest Sydney stockbroker was no Agamemnon. He conquered high-society Bellevue Hill, not Troy. Nor was he Orestes who killed his mother. Rivkin merely killed himself at his mother’s. To be sure, he was quite distant from the gods.

Unless your appetite for reading is satisfied by mere paper-chase accountancy, you’ll want writing that is more than the robotic reporting of facts and figures in a book 292 pages long. With Rivkin Unauthorised (Harper Collins, $29.95) we do get more. We get a financial post-mortem. We pry into the business entrails of Rivkin’s life. We see moral tumours of misdeed, character clots of gaucheness and greed. It is an indictment of someone wicked but not shockingly so. It is a fine piece of sustained journalism written in a brisk, plain style that thankfully avoids business-writer jargon. There is a gulf between the ephemera of journalism and something greater, something approaching art. It is seldom crossed. It requires a greater reckoning than facts and quotes, anecdotes and speculation. It requires a reckoning of the culture from which those things came, the reckoning of a people’s humanity, not just the indulgent, troubled life of one.

Rivkin had rat-cunning, a head for maths and snappy throwaway lines that would do for wit. That much is well-developed in this book. The greater reckoning is less so. Rivkin was a bona fide oddball, a spendthrift eccentric with vulgar taste. Once he was a speech-day guest prize-giver at his alma mater, Sydney Boys High, and as Main recounts: “Instead of praising the virtues of thrift, selflessness and hard work, he told his audience all about how nice it was to be rich.” The point Main needed to develop more strongly was that this is Australia. You don’t do that sort of thing here. By all means carry that money-lust in your heart, it’s expected and encouraged, but don’t bring it out like a rude photograph for everyone to see. Especially children. You may well be expressing what millions of your fellow countrymen and women would love to experience, great wealth, because if nothing else we are an actively avaricious people. But at least present a gracious facade of modesty and a-materialism. It’s one of the surviving Anglo-Saxon pretensions we value. Even uppity immigrants like Rivkin must conform to it.

For we are a deeply conformist people, despite our jingoistic posturing of being a nation that relishes individualism and standing up to authority, despite our kitsch icons, from Ned Kelly to Paul Hogan, who badge the myth. Australians are a conservative lot, suspicious of difference, authoritarian, prone to obsequiousness. Eccentrics are not enjoyed. Someone like Rivkin, an unashamed dandy with show-off accoutrements – gold worry beads, fat cigars, a ghastly Italianate mansion – who was not inclined to hide away his own vanity and rapacity, or to pretend to espouse folksy community values, was not a good Australian. He was a sort of Bernard King of Australian finance, a narky, campy fellow who even went to his grave having been outed in the press, inaccurately it would seem, as gay. But where a mocked eccentric like King was an entertainer, a TV chef, and therefore accepted by the public as hamming it up for its televisual pleasure, Rivkin was different. Where King was tolerable, if only as a figure of homophobic fun in the more liberal 1970s and 80s, Rivkin never really was, least of all in the sniffy and pious 1990s and 2000s.

Then there was that Oz-Jew accent of his. That can’t have helped his public standing. Any non-Jew who thinks there’s no anti-Semitism in polite Australia might like to think about how many times in their lives they’ve heard someone say: “I’m not anti-Semitic, but …” And his mental illness. Of all the illnesses you can have, that’s the one you’ll get the least sympathy for. You’re letting the side down, you’re society’s embarrassment, probably shirking, probably putting it on – and if not you might kill us all with an axe in our sleep. You’re fair game therefore for news cameras when you’re in your dressing gown under treatment in a hospital, as Rivkin was, little more than a freak to be giggled at through the gates of the asylum.


Worst of all, Rivkin challenged authority, he scoffed at it. In November 2001, when he was charged with insider trading Qantas shares for a notional profit of $425, he jacked up. Corporate watchdogs at the Australian Securities and Investment Commission had been after him for years on a range of matters; some of Rivkin’s professional dealings as a stockbroker and investor ranged from unorthodox to shifty to downright illegal. But insider trading is difficult to prove. He would have fancied his chances of beating the rap. “I’ve done nothing wrong so there’s nothing to fight. It’s called a vendetta,” he said. “I assure ASIC and the pursuers that we will be pursuing them for malicious prosecution.”

Much has been made of Steve Vizard’s recent amazing escape from charges of insider trading while a Telstra director. Vizard’s trades in Telstra-linked companies appeared to be about as inside as it gets. “He [Vizard] was a true insider,” exclaimed Rivkin’s lawyer, Mark O’Brien. Peter Faris QC, former National Crime Authority chief, wondered aloud for the public record if Vizard, the relentlessly smiley patrician do-gooder, was simply too well-connected in the wood-lined corridors of power to be made a criminal. Vizard was praised by the authorities for having “co-operated” with them. In other words, he tugged his forelock and kept his mouth shut.

How is it possible that a person convicted of unlawfully earning a piddling $425 goes to jail when they have a 20-year history of mental illness and growths on their brain? If you or I stole that amount of money and fronted a court with similar supporting medical data, would we go to jail? The Australian stock market has a capitalisation of $975 billion. Around 44% of adult Australians invest in shares directly. Then there are those investing in them through managed funds or their super. Probity and propriety in share dealings are essential to the financial health of the economy and its citizens. Yet insider trading laws look like a bit of a joke when you compare the treatment of Rivkin and Vizard. Before, they merely seemed strange. Why employ a stockbroker or investment adviser in the first place if they don’t have the inside running on companies?

If you work for a company and observe that it’s very well-run, has devoted employees, astute mid- and lower-level managers – all information that is not readily available to the public – and you invest in that company’s shares, aren’t you insider trading? What about if you tell your aunty and she does the same? Alternatively, if you work for a company and observe that it’s very poorly run, has a disgruntled and inefficient workforce, hopeless management at all levels, wastefulness of resources and a massive sexual harassment payout in the offing because the CEO is a lecher and his victims have had a gutful, and you sell your shares, is that insider trading? Or what if you don’t invest in that company when given the opportunity through a staff share scheme – are you guilty of insider not-trading?

After reading Main’s book you probably won’t have much sympathy for Rivkin. He got away with plenty. But it is to be hoped the justice system didn’t become a vengeful sadist in dealing with him, that it wasn’t swayed by Rivkin’s unusual traits. Surely somewhere, someone attached to him that ignoramus’s label “unAustralian”. If the Rivkins of this world are a threat to our way of life, then such vengefulness would be infinitely more dangerous.

Craig Sherborne

Craig Sherborne is the author of the highly acclaimed memoir Hoi Polloi, and its sequel Muck, which won the Queensland Literary Award for Non-Fiction. He has written two volumes of poetry, Bullion and Necessary Evil, and two novels, The Amateur Science of Love and Tree Palace.

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