Ray Williams loses his Order of Australia
(and if I had one, I’d be handing it back)
In December 2005, Ray Williams – former CEO of failed insurance giant HIH – was stripped of his Order of Australia. Ray is currently serving a four and a half year sentence for breeches of the Corporations Act, associated with the collapse of HIH. Ray is my personal friend, and one of the men I most admire.
So we’ve stripped Ray Williams of his Order of Australia, have we?
Well, … I suppose that there may be some who are thanking God that the purity of the noble Orderhas been upheld. In truth though, what on earth was the rationale behind such a move?
Ray has been imprisoned for supposed technical breeches in his business practices. He was awarded the Order of Australia for his extensive charitable work. Even if you thought that Ray deserved to be imprisoned for his business failings, I’m struggling to see how that in any way invalidates the significance of his charitable work?
Perhaps it’s a bit like after a marriage breakdown? After the Mrs walks out with your children, you can’t remember a single good thing she ever did or said in all the years you were together!
Everything your former-best-friend touched is now tarnished by the anger associated with the breakdown. You never spent any good times together. The happy photos from the past get smashed, not because they are a painful reminder of the fact that you once had a good relationship, but because it was all ’lies, lies, lies!’ If you’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about.
Is this how it is with Ray? Even since we took his picture off the mantle-piece in disgust, we can’t remember a damn good thing he ever did. Looking back, he was obviously a shonky businessman all along. His charitable work must have really been a tax lurk. I bet his happy family is a sham too!
I suppose if Ray had been responsible for painting some beautiful artworks, we’d now be sending them to the tip as worthless rubbish. If he’d written some mighty orchestral work in his youth, we’d now be bagging it as amateurish or sinister.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen!
I remember a similar conundrum when the US were impeaching Bill Clinton. What did his failings as a husband have to do with his abilities as a President?
Admittedly, in Clinton’s case, there was the issue of the fact that he had lied to the American people, and I appreciate that this was relevant to his political stature. But as to the connection between his personal fidelity and his professional performance, I just couldn’t see it.
In Ray’s case of course it’s the other way around. Nobody has ever been able to find any dirt on him with regards to his personal life (though they have indeed tried). It’s his professional performance that has been called into question. And yet it was for his personal charitable work that he received the Order of Australia.
No one has ever questioned the integrity of Ray’s charitable work. He helped establish the Juvenile Diabetes Ward at the Sydney Children’s Hospital and worked tirelessly over many years, serving on the hospital board and helping to extend its research work worldwide.
Ray helped fund and manage hospitals and charitable works across this country, particularly those targeting at-risk youth. He did this not only through corporate sponsorship but from his personal funds, supporting organisations such as Vinnies for Youth and my own Youth Centre in Dulwich Hill, which is how I got to know him.
I saw first-hand the work Ray did for us over a number of years. In the glory days, when HIH was flourishing, Ray made some sizeable donations to our work from his personal resources. In the latter days, as HIH started to come under pressure and eventually collapsed, the donations dried up, but Ray would continue to be there at our fund-raising events, selling tickets at the door, and even helping to mop and clean up the restrooms after the event.
If you’ve read my analysis of the legal fiasco that led to Ray’s conviction, you know that I believe that Ray was simply a scapegoat for a cowardly beaurocracy that had to justify the immense amount of money it poured into their Royal Commission on the HIH collapse by hanging a few tall poppies. Maybe one day the rest of this country will come to view these events in the same way.
My point here though is that it doesn’t matter how you view the collapse of HIH, the Royal Commission, or Ray’s culpability. Indeed, it doesn’t matter what you think of Ray personally. The truth is that the good work he did for hospitals and charitable organisations and children at-risk was still good work, and it was for that good work that Ray received the Order of Australia.
Ray did not receive the award for his contributions to the insurance industry. He did not receive the award for modelling integrity in business. Ray was awarded the Order of Australia because of the extensive charitable work he carried out as an Australian citizen. Do the powers-that-be think that this good work has now somehow been undone?
My guess is that this decision probably came out of a conversation at some exclusive country club, over a glass of port. “Oh, we can’t have Williams back here in the club. He might bring some of his dirty prison mates with him! We must strike him from our register immediately. He’s an embarrassment!”
That’s as much sense as I can make of it all anyway. However you understand it, it’s a very un-Australian way to behave – kicking the man while he’s down.
I appreciate of course that ‘tall poppy syndrome’ is an integral part of Australian culture. While we like to hang from the cultural coat-tails of the Yanks in almost every other area of life, in this respect we remain distinctively Aussie. We don’t like to see the bloke next door doing too well, and we love to see the high and mighty brought to their knees. Even so, when the guy has been brought to his knees, we generally stop kicking him. In my view, there is nothing quite so cowardly and un-Australian as putting the boot in when the guy is already in the dirt.
Who knows what the future holds for my mate Ray? I wonder sometimes whether it might not all be reversed soon? Just like the family breakdown that turns good again through mediation and counselling. The Mrs comes back, the kids are back in their room, the smashed photos that can be recovered from the bin are reframed and dusted off, and all the positive memories return!
Maybe, now that the communal anger has been assuaged, the Australian public will start to come to grips with what really happened to Ray Williams, and maybe we’ll eventually want to apologise and give him back his Order of Australia? Maybe. But as with the guy who has been kicked on the ground, he may walk again, but the scars will remain.
DBS February 2006