Monday, April 10, 2006

Claire Harvey: Generosity should be made public to spur on others

Begging pilgrims who arrived on the doorstep of media tycoon Kerry Packer with a sob story rarely left empty-handed, but they always got a gruff warning: don't you dare tell anyone where this came from.

Packer, who until his death last Christmas was Australasia's richest man, left a personal fortune estimated at A$6.9 billion ($8.25 billion), but during his life he quietly donated up to A$150 million to charities, hospitals and other causes.

If an employee died or became ill, Packer would immediately step in to support widows and families. He would pay off their mortgages, fund the children's school fees, buy medical equipment or medication or operations or whatever they needed.

Some of these gifts became public. In 1990, after Packer had a heart attack on a polo field and was clinically dead for six minutes ("I've been to the other side, and let me tell you, son, there's [expletive] nothing there") he was revived by an ambulance crew using a portable heart-starting defibrillator. From his hospital bed, Packer rang NSW Premier Nick Greiner and said "I'll go you 50/50" on the cost of putting defibrillators in all NSW ambulances".

He often challenged governments to match the sums he was donating to hospitals and other institutions, and when Packer thought a cause merited publicity as well as money, he would reluctantly appear on television to talk about it - such as when he created an organ-donation foundation in the memory of cricketer David Hookes in 2004.

But Packer, whose grumpiness could be as vast as his generosity, found it easier to keep things quiet.

His friend Alan Jones, a radio broadcaster and former Wallaby coach, said after the magnate's death the reason Packer was so reticent was that he knew his many knockers would use it as ammunition.

"Kerry argued that if he gave $10 million, they'd say, 'Rich bastard should have given $20 [million]'," Jones said.

"They" might have said that, or they might have come knocking on his door in even greater numbers, as New Zealand economist Gareth Morgan discovered. .

Morgan, who finds his new wealth "a bit of a hassle" because he'd rather be off fishing or motorcycling, is giving away all of his $47 million Trade Me windfall to charities and worthy projects, at home and in developing countries.

He is appalled at the greed and selfishness of some of the "thousands of thousands of letters" he has received asking for some of his dough. Only one in 10 is genuinely needy and the rest just want him to pay off their home loans, Morgan claims.

"I wonder if New Zealanders should look at themselves hard; it's no wonder the Government has such a job sorting out benefits and has to employ armies to sort out the genuine cases from the freeloaders."

Morgan is learning a depressing lesson about the nature of greed - even though sudden wealth has not changed him, it has changed the way people treat him. He has been given a window into the minds of people who want a handout. That, sadly, is the risk Morgan took when he told this newspaper's Michele Hewitson he would give the money to charity.

It is a risk worth taking. Philanthropy is surely better for society when it is public, when people around the world can hear of actions like Morgan's.

Perhaps the news of his decision will inspire some other squillionaire to be a bit more generous, or prompt a few ordinary workers to think a bit harder about letting the moths out of the wallets next time the Red Cross comes calling, or the Salvation Army appeals for winter blankets, or they pass a beggar on the train platform.

Kerry Packer's silence might have served as protection from some of the grasping hands of avarice, and given him some respite from the ringing doorbell, but we as a society are richer for the exemplary public generosity of people such as Gareth Morgan, Bill and Melinda Gates and philanthropist George Soros.

Sure, some might say the rich bastards should give more, and the rich bastards might get a few campers on the front lawn rattling tins and clawing at rich and bastardly trouser-legs, but it's all for the greater good, Gareth.

A bit of hassling is small price to pay for a society which celebrates generosity.

* In news that will delight fans of Brian Tamaki, supporters of the war in Iraq and others who have been kind enough to offer constructive criticism, this is my last column - I'm off to become deputy editor and writer at canvas, the Herald's Saturday magazine. Thanks for reading.

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