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The Sydney Morning Herald

Mr Lonely Hearts: cruising with David Oldfield

Author: By BEN HILLS
Date: 11/07/1998
Words: 650
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News And Features
Page: 1
The highlight of David Oldfield's guided tour of Manly comes when we stroll into the Bar Cirella, a cosy little beachfront cafe on South Steyne popular with the local Italian community.

The man they call Pauline Hanson's puppet master is introducing me to his supporters in the neighbourhood where he has lived most of his life to try to prove that "it's a load of nonsense to say I have no friends, that I am this hated and reviled figure".

"My friend David," beams the proprietor, Frank Curulli, on cue, with an accent you could cut with a mezzaluna despite the 50-plus years he has spent in Australia. He pulls up chairs, fetches macchiato and water (Oldfield doesn't take caffeine) and confesses that, in spite of the party's reputation for racism, he will vote for Oldfield if, as expected, he heads One Nation's NSW Senate ticket at the next election.

Then the bombshell. "Fascisti," says Curulli, tapping his chest, explaining how he proudly wore the black shirt in Italy before the war, and the highlight of his childhood was when, at the age of nine, he met the great Benito Mussolini.

"We need Mussolini here today," says Frank Curulli.

"He made the trains run on time," nods David Oldfield approvingly.

It's the warmest welcome Oldfield receives as we stroll along the bustling Corso, past the pubs and the fish-and-chip shops, on this sunny, windy winter morning - though the old fascist is by no means his only friend in the local business community.

Another Italian Australian, a man named John who runs the local markets, stops to chat. I ask him whether he is concerned about One Nation's anti-immigration policies.

"Why do we need people coming here and sitting on the beach and drawing the dole?" he says in an impromptu speech that Ms Hanson herself would applaud.

Then he introduces me to Tony Staunton, a long-time backer of Oldfield during his six years on Manly Council, who owns the chemist's shop on the Corso. He tells Oldfield to his face that he thinks One Nation's tariff-raising policies would be "disastrous" for Australia, then insists on telling a story he attributes to Oldfield's father, Bill, an Air Force gunner during World War II who was held prisoner by the Japanese on Ambon in Indonesia. A Japanese captured by Oldfield's unit had asked for some toilet paper. Over the protests of the other crew members, Oldfield had gone to get him some.

Later, when Oldfield himself was a prisoner, he asked his captors for some paper - only to find his charity was not reciprocated. He was given a handful of grass.

I am not quite sure what the point of this story is, though Staunton laughs, apparently thinking it is a joke. When I talk to Oldfield snr - he still lives in Manly, though at 80 he is long retired from his job as head of Samuel Taylor, the company that makes Mortein insect killer - he says that he was "tortured" by the Japanese, but holds no grudges now.

Nor, if you can believe him, does his son.

"One of my best friends is married to what they call an ABC, an Australian-born Chinese," he says. "She's a lovely girl. I don't have any problem with individual people, but I probably have some problems relating to conflict of cultures."

Not all the people who befriended - and financially supported - David Oldfield during his time as a local councillor, leading light in the Manly Liberals, and unsuccessful candidate for State Parliament in the 1995 election, have stuck with him. For instance, Henroth Investments, a local property investment company, helped pay for his campaign and wrote a glowing testimonial supporting his endorsement, describing Oldfield as "a serious and committed young man who is not only intelligent but also blessed with common sense . . . dedication, drive and energy".

However, after Oldfield defected from the Liberals to become Ms Hanson's senior adviser last year, the company's principals, Henry Roth and his two sons, wrote to him saying that they felt betrayed, that Oldfield had made a "gross error of judgment", that Hanson's party was retrograde, introspective, would return Australia to "pre 20th century isolationism" and was "too potentially dangerous to receive anything other than fringe endorsement".

Oldfield has a different take. "They are Jewish," he explains. "They think I am working for the reincarnation of the FuEhrer."

Oldfield is a tall, fit-looking man - a legacy of his years as a champion scuba diver - with brown hair, fashionable glasses, and dressed for the day in jeans, a blue open-necked Oxford cotton shirt, and a blazer. He's a fussy groomer, and dabs at a barely noticeable cold sore on his lip with a stick of balm. Good looking, too, as he approaches his 40th birthday, which makes you wonder why he's never married, and why he uses telephone dating services.

"The Liberal Party couldn't get any dirt on me financially, which is why they are spreading this story that I am homosexual," he says. "I can assure you that I am not, though I don't have anything against homosexuals."

His mother, June, confirms that "David's big problem was always that he had too many girls chasing him".

He denies he is a habitue of 0055 "phone sex" lines - a charge thrown at him in Federal Parliament - but admits he has listed himself ("David, 6 foot two inches, likes sport, dining out . . .") with dating agencies from time to time, and has gone out with girls he met that way. A couple were quite nice.

"I'm a bit of a lonely heart . . . sometimes you find yourself in a city where you don't know anyone. I'm not the sort of person to go picking up people in bars," he explains.

He commutes constantly between Manly, where he lives alone in a rented flat, Ipswich, where Ms Hanson has her electoral office, and Canberra, often putting in 100 hours a week, never getting time to listen to all the calls on his incessantly ringing mobile phone message bank.

It's not a career you could have predicted. When Oldfield was erratically attending Balgowlah High (then known as "shack town" because of the number of portable classrooms) the only career he thought seriously about was the Army - as well as his father, two uncles fought in World War II, and his half-brother Wayne served in the Air Force in Vietnam.

"I don't know any young person who knows more about what Australia did in the war," says his mother. However, when push came to shove, Oldfield decided not to seek admission to Duntroon officer-training college because he realised he would have to start off as a lieutenant, not a general, and "I'm not too good at being told what to do".

Like Ms Hanson, he left school at 15. He boasts - a hint at his party's education policy? - that "I could read, write and add up . . . probably a lot better than a lot of people these days who finish university". With these qualifications, he swept the floor of a shop, then worked in a tenpin bowling alley (he was later a member of the Australian champion team), then in the stock market with his father, before he decided "it wasn't really me . . . I really didn't like being locked down nine to five in a suit every day."

At one stage he worked in the promotions department of Samuel Taylor. Once he had to dress up in a red, white and blue frock-coat and top-hat, and go around supermarkets braying "You need Uncle Sam", the slogan for a long-forgotten under-arm deodorant spray. Oldfield "felt a bit of a goose" and that job didn't last long, either.

What first got him into politics - Manly Council - was a move by the ruling residents' group, "a rotten, no-good anti-development mob", who tried to restrict scuba diving off Manly Beach. They, he says, were behind accusations of a conflict of interest which inspired the current audit into his voting record, accusations he says he couldn't care less about.

In Manly, Oldfield is best remembered for his time at Fathom Diving, a diving-equipment hire company on Sydney Road, up the hill towards Fairlight. He was given a job there by Ted Lougher, who still runs the business, and in 1984 bought in as director and half-owner.

His time at Fathom Diving led to one of the most tragic and controversial episodes of Oldfield's career. In 1988, a Melbourne Queen's Counsel, Richard John Evans, drowned while diving onto a sunken wreck near Vaucluse. The boat and the equipment had been hired from Fathom.

At the inquest it emerged that Evans was inexperienced, that he had only recently completed a basic diving course in Melbourne, and that he had never before dived to that depth. The Coroner, Mr Derrick Hand, found the drowning was an accident, but recommended that diving regulations be tightened "as a matter of priority" to prevent further loss of life. In the Victorian Supreme Court, Evans's widow, Deirdre, sued Fathom and the two Melbourne companies responsible for training the barrister and arranging for the fatal dive. Oldfield represented Fathom in court under a little-used rule allowing non-barristers to appear if a party to a case cannot afford legal representation.

After a lengthy hearing, the proceedings were dropped when the insurer for the Melbourne companies agreed to a settlement which is rumoured in diving circles to have been more than $1 million. The action against Fathom was struck out.

At his preselection a few months later, Oldfield represented this as a personal triumph, and produced a magazine article which compared his performance with Perry Mason.

Lawyer David Bell, a Liberal who was backing another preselection candidate, was so incensed at what he believed to be Oldfield's attempt to mislead the preselection panel that after Oldfield squeaked in by a handful of votes he asked the State Liberal Party to overturn the result. The party held an investigation, but declined to act.

Oldfield sold his share in the dive business to allow him to campaign full-time for the seat, but was pipped at the post by a few hundred votes by the present Independent MP for Manly, Dr Peter Macdonald. When Oldfield was hired the following year to join the staff of Liberal backbencher Tony Abbott, he had been "drifting around Manly unemployed", says a staffer.

Oldfield now agrees that the dive was too deep for someone with Evans's experience, but insists: "It wasn't up to us to stop him from going. We were not in control."

He says that dredging up this incident from his past is part of a vicious "dirty tricks" campaign being waged against him, as a proxy for Ms Hanson.

"There's nothing paranoid about it," he says. "We are being attacked by people on an almost daily basis . . . [it is] intended to break us down psychologically, but I think we are coping very well."

A moment later, however, the mask slips, the teeth are bared for a moment. John Laws, who has attacked him on his radio program that morning is a "lying c---". Told in a phone call of another criticism, he snaps: "That just shows what a gutless piece of work he is."

Everyone who knows him - not just disgruntled One Nation defectors - agrees you wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of David Oldfield.

He is equally sensitive about his finances, claiming the Taxation Office had launched a "politically motivated" investigation into his affairs.

"I don't have any vague or strange or shadowy financial dealings," he says. "I don't owe anybody a penny. Rather, I am owed money. I have money in the bank. I have money in shares. I have money in gold. I have money in a building. I have money in insurance. I have money in superannuation. I have a very diversified but not large asset base."

As far as can be gathered from Australian Securities Commission records - none of his companies is required to file financial returns - Oldfield is a director of two companies, which he says are semi-defunct. One was used by Oldfield and his father for share trading, the other in association with the diving business.

Oldfield has just resigned from a third company, a machinery-repair business operated by his half-brother. A fourth company is the vehicle for his only apparent real estate holding, a half-share he retains in Fathom's Fairlight premises.

"It's all above board," says his father. "It wasn't done to avoid tax or anything like that."

"If I run for the Senate," says David Oldfield, "I will be the cleanest candidate ever."

With friends like Frank Curulli, he will need all the help he can get.

PAGE 44: Editorial.

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