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John Dorman Elliott (1941–2021)

by Graeme Leech and Alan Howe

John Elliott, by Rennie Ellis, 1986

John Elliott, by Rennie Ellis, 1986

State Library of Victoria, 49176260

John Elliott sometimes seemed to revel in uncouth behaviour. He would demand Foster’s lager and meat pies when travelling first class on Qantas. He could be blunt, confrontational and overbearing. He drank too much and when his record is examined, he was not much of a businessman, having made, but lost, a fortune.

Aside from his damaged business reputation, Elliott was best known for his 20-year presidency of the Carlton Football Club. His love for the Navy Blues was never in doubt, and during his reign at Carlton it lifted two AFL premierships. But the club, which had become accustomed to its winning ways in the 1970s and 80s, “won” the wooden spoon for the first time in 2002, Elliott’s last year as president. It has picked up four more since in an unusual period of failure many at Carlton still blame on Elliott, who presided over a player salary-rorts affair that was punished by the AFL when it stripped the club of draft selections.

While he could be boorish, ­Elliott was mostly a companionable fellow who enjoyed a joke, a smoke and the company of like-minded larrikins. He was a devoted father. He commanded loyalty, especially at Carlton, and gave it in return.

His second wife, Amanda Drummond-Moray, once said: “I don’t know anybody in his position who relates to people across the board like he does. He can talk to kings and queens or the men who take out the rubbish. He’s charismatic and magnetic.”

The couple had their ups and downs. One rain-drenched Saturday morning in May 1995, a large pile of businessmen’s clothing – striped shirts, sports clothes, underwear, dark-blue suits, a pair of leather driving gloves and bathers – were dumped in the driveway of the couple’s Toorak home. How they got there remained a mystery. Elliott wasn’t talking but his then wife later offered: “We all have moments like that.”

Elliott was the first of three sons born to Frank and Anita Elliott. The family moved from Williamstown, in Melbourne’s bayside west, to genteel East Kew after World War II. Elliott went to upmarket Carey Baptist Grammar School (motto: Courage and faith, and whose alumni include Peter Costello and Speaker Tony Smith) where he played football and cricket – and did enough study to win two prestigious scholarships to Melbourne University, where he graduated with a bachelor of commerce degree. He was one of the first Australians to take a masters in business administration, also at Melbourne University.

In this phase of his life, he also found time to play 247 games as ruck-rover for Old Carey Grammarians in a football career that spanned 17 seasons and numerous nose and shoulder injuries. He was known for his ability to deliver a classic shirtfront. He could mark and kick well, but was too slow for the big league.

He married Lorraine Golder (who later served as the member for Mooroolbark in Victoria’s Legislative Assembly for a decade from 1992) in 1965. They had two sons and a daughter. Lorraine passed away in 2014.

Elliott worked for BHP for two years and later did a stint with management consultant McKinsey in Chicago, which was followed by his 1972 partnership takeover of rundown Tasmanian jam-maker Henry Jones IXL.

Elliott was on his way.

He also joined the Liberal Party in the early 70s, although it would be another decade before he reached the party’s higher offices, a progression that culminated in Elliott being touted for the prime ministership when the party was struggling against Labor led by Bob Hawke.

In the 1970s and 80s, however, business was his preoccupation, and he was doing well. He recruited old pals from Melbourne University’s MBA alumni, among others, and took over Elders GM, a famous old pastoral company ripe for restructuring.

Leading Victorian brewer Carlton and United followed and became part of an expanded Elders IXL group. Elliott used the brewer’s brand, Foster’s, to “Fosterise” the world. The Melbourne Cup became the Foster’s Melbourne Cup in 1985 (Elliott met Amanda there that day) while one of England’s most famous cricket grounds, The Oval, became The Foster’s Oval.

He would carry trays laden with cans of Foster’s and offer them to football patrons after games, once causing consternation in the members bar at the Sydney Swans home ground, the SCG, after a Carlton victory.

He thought he was indestructible. At the end of the 80s, Elliott was in control of a conglomerate and had a seat on the board of Australia’s biggest company, BHP.

In 1987, he became federal president of the Liberal Party, ­having previously been treasurer of the Victorian division. Also president of the Carlton Football Club, Elliott was arguably one of the most influential men in the country.

That year, he married Amanda, Carlton won the AFL (then the VFL) premiership and more than a few commentators touted him as a future prime minister.

It was clear to Elliott, in retrospect, that he had taken on too much. “What I didn’t realise was you can’t hold important corporate office and important political office at the same time,” he told The Australian’s Kate Legge in 2005.

In 1990, Elliott quit the Liberal presidency and began a long, exhausting court struggle to clear his name after the National Crime Authority (now the Australian Crime Commission) brought theft and conspiracy charges after he made an unsuccessful $5.3bn buyout bid for Elders IXL via his private company, Harlin Holdings. Harlin subsequently collapsed under the weight of its debt.

With three former Elders ­directors, Elliott was charged with paying $66m to the New Zealand group Equiticorp – allegedly disguised through sham foreign exchange transactions – in an attempt to thwart a takeover bid for BHP by West Australian entrepreneur Robert Holmes a Court.

It was a complex case and took six years to be resolved. Elliott was found not guilty but the case wrecked his business reputation and reduced his estimated $80m fortune to a few hundred dollars and a second-hand Mercedes.

In 2004, business commentator Terry McCrann wrote a landmark column on the Elliott phenomenon. “In the mid-1980s, John Elliott strode the national stage as a colossus like no one else. Certainly then, and arguably since … Even that, though, wouldn’t quite capture the breadth of his omnipotence. He was master of all he surveyed, and he surveyed both corporate Australia and the Liberal Party.”

McCrann observed that Elliott did so residing in the citadels of their power, “where they intersected in various places along Collins Street in Melbourne”, and with a man-of-the-people flavour, embracing – even personifying – as he did “two great icons of our culture. Both named Carlton – the beer and the football club”.

At that point, McCrann believed Elliott could have seriously contemplated a choice: “To take command of Australia’s biggest company, BHP, or of the federal Liberal Party and ultimately of the country.”

In the event, it was mostly downhill – and rapidly – from that dizzying peak. Although spoken about in the same breath as the era’s legendary, sometimes notorious, entrepreneurs Alan Bond, Christopher Skase and Robert Holmes a Court, McCrann pointed out one clear difference. “He was also hired help … (unlike them) he didn’t own a large slice of the company he ruled over.”

Of course Elliott was wealthy, but he had made others – the real owners – richer still. Most men would have cracked under the trauma of the following years, but Elliott returned to Melbourne’s social scene undaunted. “Larger than life, as usual,” was the reported comment of one observer at a party he attended after being cleared.

Typically, Elliott did not stand still while the case was running. He amassed interests in several companies trading in things ranging from meat pies and wool to rice growing. At one point, he was one of Australia’s largest rice growers. He developed partnerships in Russia and Romania, and dreamt of exporting sushi to Japan.

In 2004, he suffered another blow when the administrator of his failed rice-milling group, Water Wheel Holdings, was given the ­go-ahead to issue bankruptcy proceedings.

He was given a deadline to pay $1.43m in compensation to more than 200 creditors. He was ordered to pay the compensation after he was found guilty in 2003 of breaching corporations law by allowing Water Wheel to trade while insolvent. He was fined $15,000 and banned from being a corporate director for four years.

In February 2005, Elliott declared himself bankrupt with unpaid debts of $9.4m, telling reporters he was down to his last $50, not that he ever appeared to be short of cash. Creditors received 2.5c in the dollar.

For a time, Melbourne’s distinguished all-male Savage Club excluded him because its rules disqualify bankrupts. It hurt Elliott, who was a regular referred to as “Mr Elliott” by the women staff. He appeared never to order lunch – it seemed as if the women knew instinctively what he wanted from the club’s 60s-style cuisine.

He blamed the NCA and the Australian Securities & Investments Commission for his downfall, but friends and former associates took a more rational view. Ken Jarrett, who went to jail on charges that were never brought against Elliott, told Legge: “My general view is that he self-destructed and hasn’t done much to help himself.”

That could be true. In June 2000, after a whisky or two, he was stopped by a booze bus – despite being warned of its presence just 200m up the road. He lost his ­licence for two years. In a famously reported incident in 2004, he had a lunch encounter with ALP official Greg Sword, who was unable to stand afterwards.

One of his friends noted in 2002: “Big Jack is proof that you can’t get pissed every lunchtime and stay on top.” That was the year Carlton members plotted to get rid of their president, who some now saw as a liability, although prominent players of his time stayed onside. Former club captain Anthony Koutoufides, on hearing Elliott was ill, said the former president had affected him like few other people. They met when Koutoufides arrived at the club aged just 15. In recent years, the old mates have met up each year at the Savage Club for a lunch and to talk about the club they both love.

“When I think of Carlton I think of him. What a man he is. I love him,” Koutoufides said. “He was such a character. But also his leadership and the culture he ­created there. That’s a special ­talent. He loved and embraced the players as if we were part of his family. He made it so much fun to be there.”

Koutoufides said that under ­Elliott, he knew what was expected of him: “I knew what I needed to do. I knew if I wanted to be remembered here, we had to win premierships. I knew I had to become a better person and player.”

The retired star also suggested there were greater complexities underlying salary cap issues than has been commonly accepted, and that Elliott should not have carried complete responsibility for it.

“He was a clever man and fascinating to listen to. When he started talking, you wanted to hear every little word to the end.”

Less generous fans believe ­Elliott personified the arrogance for which Carlton was famous on the field. He sometimes offended players as well as officials – and he infuriated fans who accused him of bringing disrepute to the club.

But many Blues fans from the outer loved Big Jack. He was like so many of them: a beer, a pie, a smoke (sometimes controversially after smoking had been banned at AFL grounds), barrack for your team and give the opposition hell. But increasingly this went down less well in the emerging corporate era where sponsorship dollars were as important as success and an untarnished image.

In November 2002, Elliott resigned 24 hours before the Carlton board could sack him and a few hours after the AFL announced it would charge the club with breaches of the league’s salary cap.

It was later revealed Carlton was in financial trouble, was struggling to pay players and coaches, and owed hundreds of thousands to creditors.

The AFL fined the club and stripped it of crucial and generous draft picks aimed at supporting poorly performing clubs. Elliott never admitted responsibility for the debacle. Instead, he blamed favourite sons Craig Bradley and Stephen Silvagni for disclosing their parts in the salary rorts.

In his later years, Elliott worked as a business consultant, and his outspoken personality saw him invited on to television and radio shows, including a weekly appearance on his broadcaster son Tom’s 3AW radio show in Melbourne.

Two-time president of the Victorian division of the Liberal Party, influential political heavyweight Michael Kroger defended Elliott on two fronts. “With (former Melbourne lord mayor and long-term Liberal national treasurer) Ron Walker, John was the party’s greatest-ever fundraiser. When the Liberal Party was friendless in the late 1980s, John Elliott publicly stood up for our principles and ­beliefs.”

He added: “I was always deeply suspicious of the origins of the NCA attacks on John.”

Original publication

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Citation details

Graeme Leech and Alan Howe, 'Elliott, John Dorman (1941–2021)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/elliott-john-dorman-32080/text39643, accessed 29 May 2024.

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