Graeme Samuel is back in business. It’s less than a year since the former ACCC boss resigned last August, but he now says he is "absolutely" ready to return to public office at the highest level.
However after eight months of low profile, the veteran corporate adviser – currently managing director at Greenhill Caliburn – is bluntly outspoken on the exceptional political strains now evident in Canberra.
He says Australian business is increasingly hamstrung by unprecedented political uncertainty… "you just don’t know what the current government might do," he suggests.
Samuel tells Business Spectator business activity, and specifically mergers and acquisition activity, is being paralysed by three unprecedented government initiatives – the carbon tax, the mining tax and particularly the new industrial relations regime at Fair Work Australia.
"Some businesses are just throwing their hands up and saying what can we do? …it is incredibly difficult. You can understand and have some empathy for Alan Joyce at Qantas and what he had to deal with… let me tell you it is virtually impossible to do any due diligence on the impact of Fair Work Australia and industrial relations."
Says Samuel: "Business does not know what to do, neither do they know what the Coalition would do if they won government… so you have this umbrella of political uncertainty."
Samuel, who ran the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for eight years and managed the agency’s staff growth from 490 to a substantial organisation with a staff of 833, also says he regrets the "renewed xenophobia" which he detects in political commentary around some recent foreign investment decisions, particularly the rejection by the government of China-based Huawei’s participation in the national broadband network.
He is nonetheless careful to describe "political uncertainty" as a parliamentary problem as opposed to an ALP problem, suggesting an election may not necessarily solve key issues. And regardless of who is in power Samuel makes it clear he would – despite the exhausting controversies during his ACCC reign – take high public office one more. "Would I go back into public life? The answer is...yes...I love it," he says.
And he is also willing to talk about aspects of his private business. Samuel recently had a high profile bust-up with his one-time business partners in the DFO discount shopping chain – tycoons David Goldberger and David Wieland.
During the ACCC years Samuel had left his business affairs – including holdings in DFO properties – in what is called ‘a blind trust’, linked with the holding company Austexx. The Austexx group later hit trouble and DFO properties are now being sold off by the receiver, McGrathNicol.
The saga around the investment included a Victorian Supreme Court battle with Justice Jennifer Davies throwing out allegations from DFO executives that Samuel knew about business matters at DFO while still with the ACCC. Samuel received a favourable ruling at the end of the case and secured $5 million in surplus funds from the DFO sell-off.
Asked if blind trusts are ever feasible in terms of their objectives Samuel thinks for a minute and says carefully across Caliburn’s boardroom table: "If you are dealing with real estate investment and the like ...it could become very difficult because you’re dealing in the private arena, you have to put an enormous trust in individuals and I think the individuals in whom you can put absolute trust are very few and far between."