Legacy, power and the truth about politicians: Lunch with Mark Leibler

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When meeting The Powerbroker for lunch, it feels judicious to arrive early. But, of course, as I approach the corner cafe in suburban Balaclava, Mark Leibler (pre-eminent tax lawyer, corporate strategist, political activist and one of the world’s 50 most influential Jews, according to The Jerusalem Post) is already here.

But he’s not relaxing at a table. Through the window I can see he is standing in the middle of the room talking to a staff member. I wonder why.

Mark Leibler lunches at All Things Equal, in Carlisle St, Balaclava. Credit: Jason South

Turns out he is pondering – on our behalf – as to which table might best suit the needs of The Age for our Lunch With interview and photograph.

Leibler, a man whose influence far exceeds his profile, is the most formally dressed person here. He wears a favourite navy-blue suit and expensive light blue shirt, accessorised with an Apple Watch and AC winking from his lapel. His black leather shoes are sensible, thick soled.

The art of journalism advises start with a gentle topic, but somehow we are straight into the Holocaust before we have even placed our order.

The Leibler family arrived in 1939 from Belgium, before the horrors of the Holocaust, when Nazi Germany and collaborators murdered 6 million Jews during the Second World War.

Leibler’s Avo Benny. Credit: Jason South

“Australia has outside of Israel the biggest Holocaust survivor community in the world today, at least when you look at the descendants of Holocaust survivors because not too many Holocaust survivors are actually alive any more,” says Leibler, who was born in Melbourne in 1943.

“Australia was pretty forthcoming in allowing refugees to come in at the time, and you know, a lot of people who’ve suffered so much harm in the Holocaust who … wanted to get away as fast as possible away from Europe. You can’t get much farther than Australia.”

His decision to lunch at All Things Equal a cafe on Carlisle Street, Balaclava, is also wrapped up in family. It is far from the Collins Street address of his law firm Arnold Bloch Leibler, where as senior partner he devotes his time to tax, social equality, Jewish causes particularly Israel and bending the ear of politicians.

All Things Equal has white painted wooden walls and yellow chairs and like most suburban cafes, is incredibly noisy. It’s also a kosher social enterprise. The choice of venue is both tactical and strategic. Tactically, it’s close to his home (about 60 per cent of Melbourne’s Jewish community lives within a few square miles, he says) but strategically, he wants to showcase the registered charity set up by his son-in-law and daughter and where his granddaughter, who has autism, works in the kitchen.

Smashed avo with extra eggs from All Things EqualCredit: Jason South

All Things Equal menu has a heavy emphasis on breakfast. It is kosher, so it’s vegetarian and protein options are limited, particular as they have run out of cured salmon. Leibler orders an avo green benny, I go for smashed avo with extra eggs. When they arrive a large sliced avocado is draped over a potato rosti while hollandaise eggs are coated with beetroot dust. The smashed avo is heaped on toast with edamame beans and cherry tomatoes and lemon spinach hummus.

A question about Melbourne’s Jewish community leads unexpectedly to Noel Pearson, who joined Arnold Bloch Leibler in the 1990s to do his articles under Leibler and understand how commerce and the world worked from inside a commercial law firm.

“He always looked towards the Jewish community,” Leibler says of his protege. “He said to me on more than one occasion that he would hope that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders could emulate what we’ve succeeded in doing. In other words, avoiding assimilation, but achieving full integration. I think the Jewish community has done that very successfully. And that was his vision for the Indigenous community.”

What was his impression of Pearson? Leibler’s face lights up.

“He was one of the most remarkable people I have ever met in my life.”

Then or now? Both!

“His intellectual capacity was just off the charts as far as I was concerned. I thought he’d make a brilliant lawyer. He’d go on to be one of the most outstanding barristers this country ever produced and would end up as a judge in one of the highest courts of this land.

Anthony Albanese and Mark Leibler at ABL’s 70th anniversary party. Credit: Eamon Gallagher

“But you know what? To give him more than full credit. He was determined to go and to devote themselves to his people, to their welfare.

“Paul Keating when he was prime minister encouraged him to move into parliament, and I am sorry he didn’t take that up.

“I’m not sure that either of the two major parliamentary parties, would ever have appointed an Indigenous Australian to be prime minister, I would hope that that day would come because he was a classic candidate for the job. I just think he would have been magnificent.”

Speaking of prime ministers, Leibler has been close to many in his time.

The recent ABL 70th anniversary party at the grandest ballroom in the Grand Hyatt was a scene. Prime minister to the left, premier to the right, lots of small wizened men who turned out to be rich-list billionaires.

Anthony Albanese spoke (as did Tony Abbott at the 60th anniversary party). Leibler laid out a clear and coherent support for the Voice to Parliament. He was co-chair of the Referendum Council, appointed to advise on constitutional reform, which recommended a referendum on the Voice.

So what’s gone wrong? He says the proposal is modest, will impose a “huge burden and responsibility” on Indigenous Australian to conduct themselves in a way that will be taken seriously by everyone.

“The real difficulty here is people have been deliberately confused about what they are voting for. The only thing that is enshrined in the Constitution is the principle of the Voice. Everything else can be altered from time to time.”

Leibler – a religious Zionist with a formidable reputation in Jewish community politics and forceful support for Israel – today is genial, thoughtful, focused. He speaks slowly, with a lawyer’s considered precision. And he talks with his hands.

At one point he slices his avocado and rosti into a neat cube and spins it on his plate. But it doesn’t go into his mouth. He rests his cutlery by the side of his plate. There is too much to say.

But the geniality vanishes, temporarily, when I mistakenly overestimate his age as in his early 80s.

He affixes me with a hard stare. There is a pause in proceedings.

“I’m turning it (80) in December which is bad enough.”

When I ask about his plans, he slightly defensively says to keep going. But I’m really asking about another party.

He wants to gather his four children and their families (he has 14 grandchildren and hopefully a great-grandchild on the way) from where they live around the world and celebrate together at a hotel for a couple of nights. They are his legacy, he says simply.

“You think about what’s important in life. At the end of the day for me, the one thing that has always stood out is my family. The reality is everything else you’ve done, eventually with time will fade. But if you look at your family, not only will it not fade, but all things being well it will just continue to multiply exponentially and there will always be a bit of you in there and without you it wouldn’t have happened.”

Leibler is active on social media, where the anti-semitic abuse “is like water off a duck’s back to me”. But he acknowledges its essential problem “you lose sight of the centre … social media brings out the extremes, which are not really representative of what most people think”.

The Powerbroker moniker was bestowed on him by the former editor-in-chief of The Age, Michael Gawenda, as the title of his 2020 biography. Emblazoned on the front is a quote from Pearson. “Power, he taught me about power. How to get it and how to use it.”

On politicians, he says, people tend to overlook that they are “ordinary human beings and subject to the same human foibles as we are”.

“The other thing that one has to understand about politicians is that it is all about power. And the one consistent stream which runs through what politicians do and say is the desire to remain in power, which means winning elections, at all costs. And very often the loser in all of this is principles.

“My point is that if you’re working with politicians and if you don’t understand that, you’re not going to get anywhere.”

Mark Leibler at ABL’s 70th anniversary party.Credit: Eamon Gallagher

So what’s the dream for Mark Leibler? It produces the longest pause of the day.

“Outside of my family. I have worries rather than dreams. I worry about this referendum and if it should fail, what it will do to the cause of reconciliation in this country. We’ve got to bear in mind that this is just about the best country in the world. To live in, certainly for a Jew outside of Israel.

“It is the best country in the world to live in and the only blot on this wonderful country is the treatment of Australia’s Indigenous peoples. The desperate massacre, intergenerational trauma, diseases that you know the British brought. And we’ve got an opportunity to try and fix it. I worry about what’s going to happen next there.”

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