Christopher Skase

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The Independent Online

Christopher Charles Skase, businessman: born Melbourne, Victoria 18 September 1948; twice married (one stepdaughter); died Andraitx, Majorca 5 August 2001.

The corporate success-turned-villain Christopher Skase died one of the most hated and maligned of all Australians, in a self-imposed exile, after he refused to return home to carry the can for one of the most expensive and spectacular financial crashes in Australia's history.

Skase, like his contemporary Alan Bond, built a business empire from nothing, and had at first attracted the affection of countless citizens who admired his undoubted style and chutzpah. But unlike Bond, who stayed to face the consequences of his actions, when the inevitable end came for Skase in 1991 he fled to Spain, a country with no extradition treaty with Australia, and thumbed his nose at the authorities and their claims of 60 criminal charges and debts of A$1.5bn.

He topped Australia's "most wanted" list for 10 years but, in what became known as the "Skase Chase", successfully beat all attempts to bring him to justice, claiming he was too ill to travel. The federal government refused to believe him but Skase's family, who were well looked after financially, say that their patriarch was hounded to an early grave. The Australian government spent a decade and a small fortune pursuing Skase and the missing millions in Britain, Spain and the Cayman Islands but a maze of tax havens and companies defeated what some saw as a witch hunt.

Skase was born in 1948 in Melbourne, the son of a radio announcer. After leaving school he joined a stockbroking firm and worked in journalism and banking. He began to think big when he bought a small tin-mining company called Qintex in the mid-1970s. Within 10 years Qintex would become a household name after Skase bought up the national Channel Seven network and controlled 66 per cent of the Australian television market. The fact that he could not pay for them never deterred Skase, but the chinks in his financial armour soon began to appear.

Yet, in the 1980s he was one of the most glamorous of entrepreneurs, with a string of luxury resorts whose name, Mirage, proved prophetically accurate as to Skase's real financial position. With his wife Pixie, he was not shy about flaunting all the trappings of wealth – lavish parties, a jet, yacht and fine art. He sought to be the byword for luxury and good taste, but more often appeared a symbol of vulgar excess.

Ultimately it was an ill-considered bid to become a Hollywood mogul which sent Skase's house of cards tumbling to earth after a $1.5bn bid for the MGM-United Artists movie studio fell apart under costly lawsuits. Skase could not pay the first installment of $25m and rapid disintegration soon followed. In 1989 a prolonged pilots' strike damaged his tourism interests, and rising interest rates and a credit squeeze helped bring Qintex badly unstuck.

The failure of Qintex led to the collapse of the State Bank of Victoria in the same year, then the largest corporate bankruptcy in Australian history. At the same time Skase was paying himself and his fellow executive millions in management fees. When the end came in July 1991 he declared himself bankrupt with personal debts of A$80m and corporate debts of A$1.5bn against assets of A$170 in cash and a few clothes and books.

Skase soon became public enemy number one after he fled Australia to what he always claimed was a basic existence in Majorca in a rented mansion. He believed the Australian government was conducting a vendetta against him and refused to accept he was a fugitive, claiming that he had already moved to Spain by the time any charges were laid.

Alan Bond may have been demonised but at least, albeit reluctantly, he faced the courts, went to jail and emerged rehabilitated in the eyes of most Australians. But Skase's pleas for mercy on the grounds of his failing health fell on deaf ears back home. The nation seemed incapable of believing there was anything wrong with him at all and an incident where he was filmed walking a dog, shortly after appearing in court in a wheelchair and clutching an oxygen mask, did him no favours. Images of Skase playing tennis or swimming even while claiming to be on his death bed made him appear all the more guilty to his thousands of creditors, large and small, many of whom were ruined by their losses.

Skase was admitted to hospital several weeks ago for chemotherapy suffering from stomach cancer and an inoperable lung tumour. Some colleagues described him as a visionary who helped take Australia "upmarket" but he will be remembered by many more as a self-serving scoundrel.

Christopher Zinn

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