October 2013

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Rex Connor and Tirath Khemlani

Rex Connor had a dream. Like the man himself, it was a big one. Huge. Visionary. He imagined a rich, independent Australia built on mining, modern technology and a skilled workforce. And when he was appointed minister for minerals and energy, he thought he’d found a way to turn his vision into reality.

It was November 1974, and Connor was the third most powerful man in the Labor government. Encouraged by PM Gough Whitlam, he began looking for money to implement Labor’s policy of public participation in national development. A potential source lay in petro-dollars, the billions accumulating in the Middle East after the price of oil had quadrupled over the past year. But how to tap these funds at reasonable interest rates?

Enter Tirath Khemlani, a London-based Pakistani deal maker. Introduced to Connor by an Adelaide businessman, he talked up a storm, claiming that he could find up to $4 billion for a gas pipeline project.

A massive, shambling hulk of a man, nicknamed “the Strangler”, Connor had begun his political career as an alderman in his hometown of Wollongong. Suspicious and secretive, he accepted the assurances of his department that Khemlani was legit but refused to authorise him as an agent of the Australian government, issuing him instead with a mere expression of interest in obtaining a loan. Khemlani promised he would deliver within a month.

The month became six. Deals were always imminent, forever on the brink of success. Connor waited anxiously for news. He took to sleeping in his office, next to the telex machine. In fact, Khemlani had never raised a loan in his life. A shadowy figure, rumoured to have CIA connections, he spent his days in constant motion, trading commodities and subsisting on potato chips.

With a political scandal building around the so-called “loans affair”, Whitlam told Connor to pull the plug on the mysterious money man. But it was too late. “Old Rice and Monkey Nuts” sold his story to the newspapers and then, when Connor denied his version, arrived in Australia with bulging bags of documents. Locked in a cheap Canberra hotel room with lemonade, potato chips and Opposition front-bencher John Howard, he provided the pretext needed to block supply and bring down the Whitlam government.

Mission accomplished, Khemlani faded into obscurity. In 1981 he was convicted in New York of attempting to sell stolen securities but immediately pardoned. He died in Scotland in 1991. Rex Connor is buried in Dapto. Life, he said, is an equation in hydrocarbons.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.


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