The making of a maverick
Mark Carnegie is by repute a tough-talking, big-thinking investor with a combustible temper and a taste for profanity. But either the Sydney-based venture capitalist is striving to deceive when we meet at his office squirrelled away in a narrow Paddington street, or his fearsome reputation ignores an altogether more relaxed temperament. Carnegie pads down the corridor in a crushed aqua linen shirt worn outside khaki chinos, his feet shod in dark tan loafers. I feel an urge to check the calendar. Is it a work day or a golf day?
Equally disconcerting is the genial air of this Melbourne-born silvertail, son of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC (BSc 1954, Trinity College) and a man born, by his own confession, “into such immense privilege that I don’t want to advocate for more”. He offers a civilised handshake – neither assertive nor indifferent – and a genuine, if slightly reserved smile. Once seated in a leather lounge chair he rolls out a range of social and political views that are provocative, perhaps idiosyncratic by the standards of narrowly partisan politics, and never less than challenging. In the process there is the odd expletive, usually for dramatic effect, but nothing like the incontinent cussing I’d been led to expect.
Education is at the core of his social vision, and on the subject he holds, as he puts it, “strong and really unpopular views”. Carnegie himself has a BSc(Hons) from the University of Melbourne and a BA in jurisprudence from Oxford, and is the quintessential lifelong learner: for the past few years he has hosted a highbrow book club at his home. It’s a fun yet formal affair, with a guest expert delivering a disquisition on a canonical text such as Macbeth or The Iliad. For his next pairing Carnegie will offer chosen guests the NSW Crown Prosecutor, Mark Tedeschi, on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
Carnegie believes the nation has got the wrong end of the stick on education policy. “Education is an investment,” he asserts. “It’s not an expense even though it turns up in the national accounts. All the evidence is that money spent on education returns to society and if you under-invest in education that’s bad policy. Of course that’s unpopular with an ageing population. When there’s a choice between spending on healthcare and education, health gets the votes.”
But there’s a caveat, and it bears on Carnegie’s strict cultural conservatism. “I’ll fund anything at university so long as it doesn’t end up in the word studies – cultural studies, women’s studies.”
His scorn for “self-indulgent” tenured professors and the “self-serving pap” or “pernicious rubbish” offered in the “new” theoretical humanities is seemingly limitless. He’s an old-school liberal arts kind of guy.
“Does the country need more engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, doctors, health and medical researchers?” He answers his rhetorical question in the affirmative. “But these are not only the tough subjects, they’re the most expensive. This is where I really worry about current government policy. If they’re using market-based pricing then cultural studies is cheap by comparison. And guess what! One is easy, and one is hard. Education should be about working hard to learn something that’s hard to learn.”