Kerry Packer was not a poor man, but when the end of the financial year rolled around and it came time to fill in his tax returns, the reptilian billionaire got quite good at appearing destitute.
Anyone who didn’t try to slither their way out of paying taxes must be barmy, he said. Governments were simply too stupid to spend it on the right sort of thing. And when Mr Packer
died in 2005, the Government, in what must count as the most expensive practical joke in Australian history, decided to prove that the old man had been
right, at least about government spending. Mr Packer was given a state funeral, an elaborate operation procured for the blushingly
modest sum of $73,000. Exactly why the government was playing deluxe funeral agent for a media tycoon was
never really explained. In response to a few murmured protests, it was noted (by former ANU Chancellor Kim
Beazley, no less, who was at the time Leader of the Opposition) that Mr Packer was a
“business leader”, which presumably meant that the Government owed some kind of special
duty to his carcass. Last week, two rather more likeable Australians
died: Margaret Whitlam, wife of the former PM, and Jim Stynes, the footballer and philanthropist. Their families were offered
state funerals. (The Whitlams declined; the Styneses accepted.) Both, in my opinion, had done more to deserve the offer than Mr Packer, a man who knowingly sabotaged the cricket
boycott of apartheid South Africa. But who gets to decide which funerals will be government-sponsored? I’m no smallgovernment
type, but I find it somewhat creepy when politicians start sorting through the death notices, deciding in which funerals they want the taxpayer to invest.
But it is, of course, merely a symptom of a wider, rather gruesome obsession we have with death, an event upon the commemoration of which we lavish
vast sums every year. And someone, of course, is doing rather well out of the trade. The death industry in this country is
worth more than a billion dollars annually, with one funeral company, Invocare, making
$15 million in after-tax profits from a revenue base of $140 million. The average Australian funeral costs somewhere north of $7000, a figure which doesn’t
include the many ancillary costs – like the purchase of flowers and burial plots – that one seems to impose on one’s family simply by no longer being alive.
Of course, there are reasons – religious and cultural – why people spend money on funerals, and though I personally can’t see the point in buying flowers for someone who cannot by
definition enjoy them, it is, in the end, a matter of personal
choice. However, our governments need not be quite so sentimental. Having already compromised
our revenue base by eliminatingestate taxes – efficient, fair and not particularly
difficult to administer – in a miserable sop to the mortality entrepreneurs, state and
federal politicians might perhaps think twice before they volunteer to bury private citizens
at inflated prices.