February 16, 2006

Even in death, richest Australian draws protest

By Michael Perry

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Even in death Australia's richest man,
billionaire Kerry Packer, continued to stir divisive emotions
on Friday as mourners and protesters gathered for a state
memorial service at the Sydney Opera House.

Celebrities Tom Cruise and his pregnant fianc©e Katie
Holmes flew in for the service, along with Yahoo chairman Terry
Semel, golfer Greg Norman and Oscar-winning film star Russell

Prime Minister John Howard led a procession of politicians
and business leaders, including News Corp's Lachlan Murdoch who
now lives a few suburbs from Packer's Sydney home.

Eulogy after eulogy praised Packer, 68, who died in his
sleep at home in December, as a "legend" who dominated
Australian media and changed the face of international cricket.

But outside the iconic Opera House a small group of
protesters mingled with a curious crowd, arguing that taxpayers
should not have to foot the bill for the state memorial

Police arrested six protesters.

Packer's battles with the tax office were legendary. He
once said: "Anyone not minimizing tax should have their head

Called an "idiot" by his father and forced to spend nine
months in an iron lung as a child with polio, Packer took over
the family media business in 1974, and built a personal empire
now worth an estimated A$6.9 billion ($5 billion).

The Packer family owns about 30 percent of Publishing &
Broadcasting Ltd., which operates Australia's Channel Nine
television network, publishes a swag of magazines, and has
interests in Australian casinos.

Health problems dogged Packer for years, forcing him to
undergo heart surgery and a kidney transplant. He was
clinically dead in 1990 after suffering a heart attack while
playing polo, but was revived. "The good news is there's no
devil. The bad news is there's no heaven. There's nothing," he
said later.


The Opera House stage resembled a cricket stadium during
the memorial, with fans waving banners and flags, as cricket
commentator Richie Benaud recounted how Packer turned cricket
from an amateur game into a professional sport with World
Series Cricket in the 1970s.

In the audience were Australian cricket captain Ricky
Ponting and world record leg-spin bowler Shane Warne.

Several speakers recalled Packer's infamous temper, but his
son James, now head of the family empire, said his father had
been a great believer in loyalty and one of Australia's unsung
philanthropists, giving away millions to average Australians.

"He could be flint-hard, but he could also be soft," he
said. "He never forgot a favor. In life you looked after one
another ... you watch out for those who watch out for you."

James said his father had never held a grudge, except for
one, against an Australian lawyer who ran a government inquiry
that looked into false allegations he was a "Mr Big" of crime
called "The Goanna." James said the family still carried that

Packer was one of the world's most recognizable gamblers,
reportedly wagering millions on cards in Las Vegas and London

"He was acting out the fantasy of millions of Australian
punters (gamblers) and they were not the only ones struck by
the size of his bets, so were we," admitted James.

To the strains of the national anthem and the iconic
Australian song "Waltzing Matilda," about a sheep thief,
Packer's memorial was broadcast live on his national television

"He was a larrikin (rogue), but he was also a gentleman and
that's a dual description that any Australian man would be
proud to have," said Prime Minister Howard.