Allan Fels: Australia’s consumer crusader on going public about his private life

For someone Paul Keating once described as a “media nymphomaniac”, Allan Fels is a reticent memoirist, revealing as little as possible about himself, preferring instead to deflect attention to questions of public interest.

Many will remember that whenever Fels appeared on TV to rap a corporate miscreant over the knuckles he had the morose demeanour of a Dickensian undertaker. True, he was rarely there to deliver good news. As the nation’s corporate watchdog, his role as chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission gave him little to smile about, whether dealing with the criminal behaviour of 7-Eleven and the exploitation of migrant workers or navigating the fraught landscape of the taxi industry, both cases he revisits in his book Tough Customer.

The cover features a grim-looking Fels brandishing two petrol pumps like pistols, as if he were an urban cowboy. It is a little lame and dorky, but the image nevertheless suggests he does have a sense of humour (he admits to a fondness for weak jokes – illustrated by his suggestion that his “sleepy manner” may have been an advantage when he had a job as a student selling pyjamas).

For many years, Fels’s sombre facade concealed an additional private source of anxiety and sorrow. Eventually, after many years of secrecy, he revealed the shadow over his personal life in an episode of Australian Story in 2002, talking openly about his daughter Isabella’s struggle with schizophrenia.

“I hid her illness for a long time because I was always in the firing line and thought that it might be used against me,” he said. “People will resort to attacks on character and family and make public disputes personal in the heat of controversy.”

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In a life punctuated with difficult decisions, Fels writes that “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was consent to my mentally ill daughter undergoing electroconvulsive therapy”.

Sharing the issue on television had a positive outcome: many other families in a similar situation got in contact, leading him to establish the Haven Foundation, offering long-term housing and daily support for socially and financially disadvantaged people living with mental illness. It is probably his proudest achievement and one he remains actively committed to. “This is my cause now,” he says , as if taking a vow. Retirement does not mean an end to the crusading which he describes as “my natural tendency”. On the contrary, it means more time to focus on advocacy for those who need it.

First diagnosed at the age of 25, Isabella is the eldest of Fels’s two daughters. During her childhood, she exhibited eccentric behaviour. As an infant, she ate cigarette butts; at school she found it hard to form close friendships and was subject to ridicule.

‘“As a teenager, she saw psychologists, to no avail,” says Fels, speaking on a bad line from the Salzburg festival where he is indulging his love of Mozart. His mother was a music teacher and taught him the piano, although he no longer plays. Perhaps opera provides Fels, who describes himself as “unemotional”, with a dose of heightened feelings at a safe remove.

“The voices and delusions began in her 20s but she was never dangerous,” he says in his characteristically rasping voice, as if he were hoarse from shouting, which he never does, having been born to calm parents and inheriting a placid nature from his father.

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Asked if his own life has ever been at risk, whether he has ever been threatened by anyone as a result of his often heated public crusades, he becomes briskly evasive. “I don’t want to talk about that,” which inevitably invites speculation that the answer must be yes.

Fels got his strong sense of right and wrong from his parents, particularly his father. “He was a very upright citizen who emphasised the importance of ethical behaviour … He inculcated me with a sense of the need to be honest and useful in the public sphere.”

Those values were reinforced by Fels’s education by the Jesuits. He contemplated the priesthood briefly, but his parents were determined he would go to university. There he discovered other voices in philosophy and economics and became active in student politics.

“And then almost by accident I found myself the president of the Nedlands branch of the Liberal party,” he says.

He remained a member of the party for three years until a scholarship took him overseas to study in the US where he met Isabel, a Spanish academic, his wife of 46 years. The couple had two daughters, Isabella and Teresa. Only later was it discovered that there was a history of mental illness in Isabel’s family. “It wasn’t a family secret, but we only found out after Isabella was born. Back in those days no one thought about genetics,” Fels says.

Like Fels, Isabel was deeply religious. “That was a bond between us. But she was also my opposite, more fiery and passionate. She was also very supportive of my career and created an oasis for me.” Isabel died four years ago of pancreatic cancer. His daughters are a regular source of company.

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Cover of Tough Customer by Allan Fels.

Cover of Tough Customer by Allan Fels. Photograph: Penguin Random House

He never rejoined the Liberal party: “Once I became involved in regulation it was important to be neutral and independent. And besides, regulators can be as powerful as MPs.”

Today there is no party he would consider membership of, he says, but his faith has remained a constant source of comfort and guidance: “And my own parish in South Yarra has had a very strong social commitment to mental health and refugee housing.”

Although he is encouraged that attitudes to mental health have shifted, if he had to write a report card on Australia’s approach his assessment would be “could do better”.

“As far as as the public goes, there’s been a vast improvement in sympathy for mild mental health issues such as depression, but not for more severe conditions. And while it’s true the media give the issue more time and attention, the reporting of incidents where mental illness is involved in a crime needs to improve.

“The current approach creates the impression that anyone with an illness is potentially violent. There needs to be more context, which invariably reveals that the perpetrator has not been treated.

“Government needs to make it a high priority not just in health but across portfolios including housing, justice, emergency services and the NDIS. I see a parallel with aged care, but my worry is that mental health is even lower down the pile. We need more MPs to understand how devastating it is for families. Politicians think there are not many votes in it. And the trouble is that the mental health lobby is not very effective. They are quite divided by competing interests, and fighting over crumbs.”

As well as being a director of MIND, the organisation that provides psychosocial services to support mental health, he will continue to champion the rollout of the Haven Foundation’s residential model nationally: “There are currently two in Victoria and we have secured funding for another seven. It’s a very scaleable model.”

One gets the impression that remaining busy is imperative for Fels, not because he fears relevance deprivation syndrome, as Keating’s remark implied, but because of the moral compass he has spent a lifetime living by. Even on holiday his reading material of choice has a somewhat worthy quality to it: “I’m still pursuing self-improvement.”

Tough Customer by Allan Fels (MUP) is published on 2 September


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