'Lovely man' who led ASIC forerunner

LEIGH MASEL

LEIGH MASEL

LAWYER, CORPORATE REGULATOR

2-10-1924 - 15-6-2013

Leigh Masel's extended family say he was their gentle gentleman. A man of extraordinary strength, courage and intellect, integrity and kindness.

This is a tribute mirrored by normally hard-nosed business journalists whose job it was in the early 1980s to come to grips with the role and purpose of the National Companies and Securities Commission, rather than the personal qualities of its founding chairman. The NCSC was a new entrant and an unknown quantity in the business world. But without exception, when news broke of Leigh's death, he was remembered as a lovely man. Leigh was appointed inaugural chairman in 1980 and his term expired in 1985.

Former prime minister John Howard said last month that the NCSC was a highly significant development in unifying the administration of corporate law in Australia and a necessary element of the Australian economy operating on a national basis. The development process began in the early days of the first Fraser government when John Howard was minister for business and consumer affairs. It was continued by subsequent ministers and was established by Commonwealth legislation in 1979.

Howard said the appointment of the first chairman was a crucial decision and that getting it right was essential. The system, he said, did get it right, as Leigh was an excellent chairman.

Leigh was essentially presented with a blank canvas, and as author and journalist Edna Carew writes in her book National Market, National Interest: "The biggest challenge for Masel, who describes himself as a 'conceptual kind of person', was to get people to understand what the commission was. Consequently, he delivered many speeches, emphasising that the commission was a form of executive government rather than a watchdog; there were policy issues to be resolved."

Some 13 years later and after a name change to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, the then chairman paid Leigh an enormous compliment by reminding a gathering of company directors of the progress made in making investment markets fairer and more transparent.

Leigh Masel "was the first person I heard talk about the need to make our markets fairer and more transparent to retail investors. Remember, this was long before the days of privatisation and demutualisation, which subsequently revolutionised retail participation in equities. But even then he foresaw the need for our markets to be opened to direct investment as the population aged, and he knew that this could not happen for so long as the market was the preserve of the privileged few.

"Looking back, many of us will have forgotten how bad things were. The lack of transparency, the trading in selectively disclosed information, market abuse, including insider trading and anti-competitive market practices ..."

Leigh left the relative comfort of an extremely well-regarded, well-resourced law firm to join the NCSC. At the beginning of his term, his office had a switchboard in a reception area, balanced on a few packing cases. The chairman's office was a desk, a phone and not a precedent to follow.

Leigh studied law at Melbourne University, but these studies were put on hold in 1943 when he joined the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve. He graduated in 1948 and in the same year joined the firm Phillips, Fox and Masel, now known as DLA Piper Australia. He was a partner and then senior partner of that firm until he joined the NCSC.

With his late father Alec and younger brother Geoffrey, who died in 2004, the firm developed a substantial practice, with a good deal of emphasis on insurance and building insurance law. And to a large extent, it was Leigh's vision that expanded the firm's corporate law reach.

Leigh mentored and encouraged many young lawyers. Prominent lawyer, regulator and businessman Graeme Samuel was very much a young protege, hired in 1970. When Leigh became chairman of the Law Institute of Victoria in 1971, he encouraged Samuel to step up and continue the development of the firm's commercial activities.

Graeme Samuel says that when Leigh was approached to take on the NCSC role, he was among the half-dozen elite corporate lawyers who were well-known and who acted for corporate Melbourne.

So to leave this for the relative unknown of a new area of public service was in itself a tribute to him. Samuel says Leigh established a reputation for the NCSC as a highly respected regulator, which was a quantum leap forward for Australia and the beginning of proper regulation of securities in this country.

ASIC's current chairman, Greg Medcraft, says Leigh was a leading advocate for the pursuit of high standards of corporate behaviour who set the tone for the regulation of the securities industry in Australia.

Leigh devoted his time willingly and lavishly to many community endeavours. For more than 30 years he was involved with Rotary, and only recently put the finishing touches to the legal aspects of the Rotary Club of Melbourne Foundation. Rotary honoured him with a Paul Harris Fellowship. He was a past chairman of the State Library of Victoria, a founding governor of the Malcolm Sargeant Cancer Fund of Australia, and was elected a life governor of Vision Australia.

He was in demand and held directorships of a large number of private and public companies over many years, and despite this heavy responsibility, he found time to enjoy the non-commercial aspects of his life.

Leigh was a huge sports fan with a particular love of cricket and AFL. Family folklore has it that when the Sydney Swans won the 2005 premiership - the first since the 1933 premiership under the name of South Melbourne - he lay awake that night reciting the names of the entire 1933 team.

He learned several languages and he embraced technology. While many people of his generation would call the grandchildren to fix the computer, Leigh studied the manuals and made it work for him.

He loved people from all walks of life, he loved good food, red wine and jazz, and only recently downloaded much of his collection to his iPhone. It was this that provided much peace and serenity to him in the last days of his life in Melbourne's Cabrini Hospital.

Leigh is survived by Sandra, whom he married in 1983 after the death of his first wife, Helene, and his two daughters, Carolyn and Barbara. He was the second father to Sandra's children, Joanne and Craig, and loving grandfather to seven grandchildren.

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