Obituary: Sir Peter Abeles

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the abiding images of the 1980s is that of the big lorries marked "TNT" laden with newspapers and speeding away under floodlights and abuse from sacked printers at Rupert Murdoch's new headquarters in Wapping, east London. The lorries were Murdoch's independent distribution system that he needed for his Wapping revolution against the print unions, launched in 1986, to work.

TNT is Thomas Nationwide Transport, Australia's biggest transport company, then controlled by Sir Peter Abeles - "my friends and partners in Australia", as Murdoch referred to the man and the company that backed him. In later years, Abeles put a rather grand spin on just how closely he was involved with Murdoch's adventure in breaking the power of the old Fleet Street unions: "I personally ran Wapping for Rupert."

If so, it was one of many bold gestures in support of fellow tycoons and political leaders from a man who was one of the giants of Australian business. Abeles carved a niche in Australian life as one of a generation of successful immigrants from war-torn Europe who helped to transform the country from its parochial pre-war British character into a vibrant multi-cultural society. At his funeral in Sydney, the eulogy was delivered by Bob Hawke, a former Labor prime minister, who wept when Abeles died: "He was my closest friend." Hawke, like Murdoch, formed an alliance with Abeles, one that came to be seen as a hallmark of the Australian Labor Party's business-friendly image of the 1980s.

The image sometimes portrayed of Abeles, as a penniless immigrant stepping off the boat in Sydney and forging a rags-to-riches success story, does not quite mirror reality. His Hungarian-Jewish father was a metals dealer. Peter was born in Vienna, but moved back to Hungary with his parents as a boy. During the Second World War they fled to Romania. The Communist takeover of Hungary after the war again forced the family out of their homeland. At 25, and already equipped with business acumen from his father's world, Peter Abeles took a ship to Australia.

He landed in Sydney in 1949 and started selling books and clothing door- to-door. The following year, with George Rockey, a fellow Hungarian, Abeles founded Alltrans, the company that became his empire. In 1950 it consisted of two second-hand lorries which the two young entrepreneurs called Samson and Delilah. They pursued one of their first contracts in Broken Hill, a rough mining town in outback New South Wales.

As Hawke told the story, Abeles and Rockey set out from Sydney in their central European suits and ties, carrying schnitzels wrapped in napkins, naively unaware of the heat, distance and tortuous Australian roads before them. But they made it to Broken Hill and got the contract.

By 1967, Alltrans was operating about 500 lorries in Australia. That year it merged with another transport company, TNT Limited, then controlled by the Australian businessman Ken Thomas. Abeles eventually became TNT's chief executive, and through the 1970s TNT expanded beyond Australia to Britain, the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Brazil.

In 1979, Abeles forged his second big strategic alliance. It was with News Limited, Rupert Murdoch's Australian media company. TNT and News jointly took over Ansett, one of Australia's two big airline companies, and Abeles and Murdoch became the airline company's joint managing directors. The Ansett connection brought Abeles firmly into Bob Hawke's orbit. Their friendship had started in the 1970s when Hawke was a rising star in public life as president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (Australia's TUC). Blanche d'Alpuget, Hawke's biographer, and now his second wife, wrote that Hawke looked upon Abeles as a "father figure"; he found the older man "subtle, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, immensely fascinating".

In 1989, when Hawke was prime minister, Australia's domestic airline pilots went on strike. They were demanding a 30 per cent salary increase. It was a prolonged, bitter dispute which the pilots eventually lost. The air force and pilots from overseas were called in to keep the country operating. The profits of Ansett and other airlines plummeted. Hawke and Abeles were relentless in their attacks on the pilots, but their alliance was too much for some Labor supporters who saw the prime minister as colluding with big business and using the military to smash an industrial dispute.

Abeles played another central role in one of the most dramatic episodes of Hawke's prime ministership - the famous "Kirribilli House agreement", a secret meeting in November 1988 at the prime minister's official Sydney residence between Hawke and Paul Keating, then his most senior minister. They called it to try to iron out a smooth plan for Keating to succeed Hawke as prime minister without spilling blood and damaging Labor electorally. Each man called in a witness; Hawke's witness was Abeles. The agreement later collapsed, and Keating unseated Hawke in a bloody party-room challenge in 1991.

Abeles himself was unseated as TNT's chief executive in 1992, and as deputy chairman the following year, amid boardroom disputes over the company's restructuring. It was an ignominious departure for the man who had built TNT into the world's second-largest transport empire, with 70,000 employees in 80 countries. Two years later he stepped down from the board of Australia's central bank, to which Keating had appointed him in 1984.

He carried on his works for charity, especially the Australian Cancer Foundation, which raised research money for the disease that eventually killed him.

Peter Emil Herbert Abeles, businessman: born Vienna 25 April 1924; managing director and chief executive, Thomas Nationwide Transport (later TNT) 1967-92, deputy chairman 1967-93; Kt 1972; AC 1991; twice married (two daughters); died Sydney, New South Wales 25 June 1999.

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