Subject: Agitator brings focus to crusade - Ian Melrose

The West Australian (Perth)

July 21, 2006 Friday METRO

Agitator brings focus to crusade

ANDREW PROBYN

A news article about the death of an East Timorese girl awoke the activist in wealthy businessman Ian Melrose

Ian Melrose is a one-man political phenomenon. You probably don't know him - that's the way he prefers it - but you'd no doubt be aware of some of his work. Some of you might even wear his products.

On the face of it, the itinerant, sometimes Perth-based businessman is not the sort of man you'd expect embracing humanitarian causes.

The 53-year-old has amassed considerable wealth through his 40-plus national chain of Optical Superstores. He has numerous homes in leafy suburbs across Australia, his two teenage children attend private schools and he believes the Howard Government's economic stewardship has been great.

In fact, he reckons he was a bit of a couch potato "when I wasn't working my arse off".

But political activism came upon him suddenly, relatively late in life. In May 2004, he read a newspaper story about a 12-year-old East Timorese girl who died from worm infestation. A United Nations-funded autopsy on the girl had found that 20cm-30cm roundworms had moved from her starved gut into her stomach, searching for food, and then to her throat, choking her to death.

A 20<cents> tablet would have saved her life.

"I read that article three times. Each time I read it I walked about the house for about half an hour thinking 'This is horrific, I've got to do something to change it'," Mr Melrose told The West Australian.

"What really pissed me off was that the Australian Government was stealing East Timor's gas and oil that under international law belonged to East Timor.

"Politics bamboozles me: how governments can make appallingly wrong decisions, know that they're wrong and go full steam ahead anyway. Australia is the richest country in Asia, East Timor is the poorest and we were stealing from them. Not what we should do."

He wrote and funded a TV campaign soon after reading the article, decrying the Australian Government's decision to withdraw recognition of the maritime boundary jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice.

He targeted three South Australian Liberal-held marginal seats during the 2004 election with TV and newspaper ads. He used his database of 600,000 customers (124,000 of whom are in Adelaide) to send brochures on the East Timor oil and gas dispute. Two of the Liberal marginals fell to Labor (Adelaide and Hindmarsh).

A few months later he paid about $30,000 to have a hard-hitting 30-second commercial played during the Australian Open's men's quarter-finals.

"East Timor, a country where eight out of every 100 children die before they're five, don't want our charity, they just want justice," the voice-over said. "Under international law, the Howard Government has stolen $2 billion in tax revenue from gas and oil royalties. Please, let your Liberal politician know that Australia must stop stealing East Timor's gas and oil."

Then he conscripted former World War II Diggers for another series of provocative ads in which the Howard Government was pummelled for ripping off the East Timorese.

"A lot of those guys are based in Perth," Mr Melrose says. "They owed their lives to the East Timorese who hid them and fed them during the Japanese occupation. They'd always followed what had happened in Timor, knew the Government was wrong in what it was doing and were eager to go in ads.

"They'd been campaigning in their own way but the reality is, if you haven't got money you can't do much. Doesn't matter how much your position is, if you haven't got the money you can't run TV ads, you can't create public awareness."

Mr Melrose has money. Lots of it.

And the natural Liberal voter who once voted for Gough Whitlam ("he was good in his time but he reached his use-by date, just as Johnny has") admits spending much of his fortune to kick the coalition where it hurts.

"I've got money but money's not what motivates me. I never thought that I would do what I did but I couldn't sit on the couch and do nothing - what the Howard Government was doing was just so morally wrong.

"Actually, the reason I've got the money is because John Howard's run the Government well, the economy well. I am not against the Liberal Party, not at all. All they need is to become honest."

Mr Melrose says his East Timor campaign was successful "in as much as it caused the Australian Government to act a lot more fairly than it was going to".

"(Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander) Downer is on record as having said he didn't care whether it took 20 years to resolve the East Timor gas and oil dispute. It got resolved in 12 months."

But the East Timor lobbying left his conscience permanently pricked and the man who deprecatingly describes himself as having a "small brain, deep pockets" has now embraced the West Papuan cause and broader immigration issues.

In April, he commissioned a Newspoll that found three-quarters of Australians supported self-determination for the Indonesian province and he now plans a fresh round of TV ads starting next month. The cost? $300,000 to begin with, with much more to come.

"I can tell you it won't cost over $6 million a year but I don't know how much less," he says, remarkably casual about such enormous sums.

"(Self-determination for West Papua) would be great but I don't know whether that'll be achievable - what would be better is if the Indonesian military just got out of West Papua."

Mr Melrose has employed Ben Oquist, the former media adviser to Greens leader Bob Brown and NSW Upper House Greens candidate, as a political strategist.

Together they've devised a marginal seats campaign for next year's election, roughly based on where Mr Melrose's customers live.

WA electors in Cowan, to be vacated by the ALP's Graham Edwards, will be targeted, as will four in South Australia (Boothby, Makin, Adelaide and Hindmarsh), two in Victoria (Chisholm and Isaacs), three in Queensland (Bonner, Lilley and Rankin) and Bass in Tasmania.

What is he campaigning for?

"Our foreign policy should have a significant human rights component which it currently hasn't got. The Australian Government will act for money in relation to foreign policy, but it won't act to protect other people's human rights and it shouldn't be that way."

So why doesn't he just become a politician?

Mr Melrose laughs. "Me? Never. Not a chance. Just look at 'em!"


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