You’d imagine a bloke who had just trousered a quarter of a billion bucks would be in a passably good mood. But if that bloke’s name was Gerry Harvey, you’d be dead wrong. The billionaire boss of Harvey Norman marked the retailer’s record half-yearly profit of $257.29 million with an emo-baby howl that could teach Donald Trump how to kick off a pity party.
Rather than filling a swimming pool with banknotes and YouTubing his nude bomb dives to celebrate, Harvey took the opportunity to get all stampy and snarly about the threat to his next quarter billion from Amazon.
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The Beast of Bezos is rumoured to be slouching towards Australia for a full retail launch later this year, and Harvey gave vent to the fear and loathing of an entire industry when he invoked the spectre of the gibbering Cheezel Demon now haunting the White House.
Amazon, he complained (with some justification), was “not a good corporate citizen” and if Canberra were even halfway smart they’d stop it at the border “like Donald Trump not letting the Muslims in”.
Citing the wisdom of Donald Trump on trade policy is the modern corporate equivalent of Godwinning your own comment thread — but Harvey doubled down.
“They’re parasites,” he said. “They just want to pay everyone minimum wages.” Unlike Gerry, who can look forward to at least one more bumper quarter thanks to all those inconvenient penalty rates he won’t have to pay his wage slaves on the weekend anymore.
Warning that predatory pricing was “part of Amazon’s long-term plan” to clear the field of competitors, he said, “they come in and because of their power in the marketplace they can sell things as loss-leaders to make no money and send everyone broke, then put up the price.”
It was a prize-winning performance, if somebody gave out prizes for unhinged rants in defence of a billionaire’s hard-won privileges. It sort of fell apart on closer inspection though — not entirely unlike the thousands of bogus brand-name products that infest the giant US online retailer. (Apple last year announced that 90 per cent of the “genuine Apple” products listed for sale on Amazon were actually fakes).
Having dived into a panic spiral at Amazon’s predatory pricing, Harvey did concede that predatory pricing was illegal under Australian law. And having called for a Trumpian Wall to keep out the barbarians, he crowed that even if Bezos did invade the Antipodes, he couldn’t possibly win anyway. The distribution chain here was incompatible with the Amazon model. (Incidentally, so is a unionised work force — but Australian employers and their allies in the Coalition government have been preparing the field for the American carnivore on that front at least).
Harvey’s performance was passing strange and hard to credit, except that it fits within a pattern familiar to local observers: privatise profit and socialise loss. Australian business leaders, as a class, are more than happy to tell the government to get out of the way when the only thing Big Gov is standing in the way of is a big pile of money.
Fierce libertarians when there’s an easy buck to be had — or a bothersome regulation menacing that easy buck — they turn socialist quicker than an undergraduate poetry major at the prospect of real competition from an aggressive or even merely novel opponent. That’s also why you are paying GST on purchases worth less than a thousand bucks even though the tax raises less money that it costs to administer.
Likewise, the taxi industry’s collective fit of violent hypercrazia at the arrival of Uber lead not so much to a rethinking of their lazy arrogance and moribund practices as it did to witless hysterics and cries for state aid in the form punitive legal strikes against the disrupter.
Even relatively new digital sectors are not immune. Witness the response to ad-blocking apps by Randall Rothenberg, President and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau in the US who last year described their developers as “an immoral, mendacious coven of techie wannabes.” Not an improvement of content and delivery — just a meltdown.
Amazon will come, and local retailers will struggle. Some may even go out of business. Just like the smaller operators, often family-owned, that Harvey Norman buried as it grew. Gerry Harvey might eventually have to retire on a slightly smaller fortune than he would otherwise. But if he and his colleagues go into the battle assuming they’ve already lost, they will.