Review of Allan Fels: A Portrait of Power by Fred Brenchley

Eras Journal – McLeod, A: Review of “Allan Fels: A Portrait of Power”, Fred Brenchley

Fred Brenchley, Allan Fels: A Portrait of Power,
John Wiley, Milton, Qld, 2003
Isbn 1 74031 070 5

“Not a history and not a biography”, writes Fred Brenchley, “but a story of how competition policy was changing Australia with the aid of a previously obscure, slightly eccentric academic who, in the process, had achieved head waiter status” (p. x). Written by Brenchley, a former editor of the Australian Financial Review, a senior executive with Fairfax newspapers and magazines and correspondent for the Bulletin , Allan Fels: A Portrait of Power is both a history and a biography. It is a history of competition policy in Australia since the enactment of the Trade Practices Act 1974, a landmark legislation that bought the dual ideologies of competition promotion and consumer protection for the first time. It is also a biography, as it traces the work of Fels as the head of the Trade Practices Commission (TPC) and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). Brenchley’s intention is to show how Fels’ particular brand of activism moulded competition reform during the 1980s and 1990s and changed the Australian commercial landscape.

Fels has been variously described as a reformer, an eccentric academic, a “media nymphomaniac”, a media tart, the “most boring man in Australia”, an evil genius and a Robin Hood consumer protector. That Fels has been an influential participant in Australian commercial life is universally accepted. As the title suggests, Brenchley focuses on Fels’ power by using the Australian Financial Review‘s claim that Fels, as the head of the TPC and the ACCC, was the third most powerful man in Australia after Howard and Costello.

In this Portrait of Power, we get glimpses of Fels’ personal life: his “middle, middle class” (p. 43) Catholic upbringing in suburban Perth; his enduring commitment to Catholicism which formed his social conscience; his love of cricket; and his serious commitment and contribution to student politics. Brenchley covers Fels’ time at Duke University, yet, the most significant part of this period for Fels, Brenchley argues, was not his doctoral thesis in economics but meeting Maria-Isabel Cid who later became his wife. Brenchley touches upon their courtship, their marriage and their two children Isabella and Teresa. Brenchley somewhat uncomfortably, but nonetheless sympathetically, mentions Isabella’s battle with Schizophrenia. The inclusion of Isabella’s Schizophrenia sits awkwardly in this book, perhaps emblematic of wider society’s uneasiness with mental illness. Brenchley includes this aspect of Fels’ life in order to give insight into Fels’ relationship with his children. He is painted as a committed family man, yet Fels’ relationship with his family remains in the background of A Portrait of Power, which is clearly a professional rather than personal biography.

We follow Fels to the Economics Department at Cambridge University where he took his first research job in 1969. Cambridge, Brenchley shows, was a turning point for Fels, marking the beginning of his career as a competition regulator. Brenchley recounts Fels’ return to Australia and his career as a fulltime academic at Monash University from the early 1970s until 1984, and as a part-time regulator, first at the Prices Justification Tribunal and then as the Victorian Prices Commissioner. Brenchley also shows Fels’ commitment to Keynesian demand management that focused on prices and income policies (p. 62) and his subsequent shift to competition policy.

What is particularly interesting is the way in which Brenchley shows the many crossroads Fels came to in the lead up to becoming Australia’s most well-known consumer protector. From success in student politics, Fels moved towards a career as a Liberal Party politician, becoming president of the Nedlands (WA) Liberal Branch in 1965 (p. 52). In his final undergraduate year, with excellent results in economics, Fels was faced with the choice of “politics, public service or a higher education?” (p. 53). Initially he chose the latter. What becomes apparent is that Fels combines all three vocations throughout his working life culminating with his twelve-year chairmanship of the Trade Practices Commission which was renamed the ACCC in 1995. It is this latter aspect of Fels’ career that is the major focus of this book.

Brenchley’s use of case studies such as parallel import restriction of books and CDs, the introduction of the GST, and abuses of the Trade Practices Act by the medical profession is a particular strength of this book, demonstrating the breadth of Fels’ competition activism. These case studies prevent this book from becoming a dry chronology of events and legal cases.

Fels’ manipulation of the media was probably his greatest success. Perhaps due to the fact that he is a media insider, Brenchley’s persuasive account of this aspect of Fels’ career is particularly strong. The business community, Brenchley argues, underestimated Fels who fought them in the courts and through the media with extraordinary successes and with only one major failure. Driven by the belief that regulation of competition would protect consumers and the economy, Fels led many successful cartel busting, price-fixing and anti-competitive merger cases. However, the highly publicised Caltex raid to investigate alleged price-fixing between Caltex, Shell and Mobil in 2002 was the beginning of the end for Fels (pp. 155-161). Increasing criticisms from the business community, declining political support, and the Dawson review of the TPA – coupled with family commitments – conspired to end Fels’ chairmanship. The book ends as Fels departs from the ACCC and Graeme Samuel takes up the role of Chairman. Brenchley concludes on a cautionary note, wondering if Fels’ brand of activism and regulation will be continued as the political wind is changing. What the future of the ACCC and competition will be only time will tell.

Despite Brenchley referring to Fels as a consumer protector and the National Library of Australia subject cataloguing placing the book in ‘consumer protection’, this is not strictly a book about consumer protection.Allan Fels is a book about competition policy. The assumption that competition promotion and consumer protection are synonymous is due in part to the increasing reliance of competition to regulate the market since the 1980s and the belief that the promotion of competition is sufficient to protect consumers. Brenchley does not reflect on this ideological shift, nor does he examine the intentions of Lionel Murphy who was responsible for framing the 1974 Trade Practices Act. I am left wondering why Allan Fels – a card carrying economic rationalist – is Australia’s most well-known consumer protector. I wonder if Murphy would consider Fels Australia’s greatest consumer champion?

It is a difficult task to make a book about market competition accessible to a wide audience. The problem is further compounded as it is also about a man who is a card-carrying economic rationalist. Despite this, Brenchley, in uncomplicated style, succeeds in achieving what he sets out to do. Allan Fels: A Portrait of Power demonstrates how Fels’ brand of competition activism has forever changed the Australian commercial landscape.

Amanda McLeod
Department of Management, Monash University