He’s one of Melbourne’s most colourful characters, made famous throughout the land in the Underbelly TV drama. Here, Mick Gatto talks royal commissions, Brynne Edelsten and charity work.

By Robin Bowles.

Professional hardman Mick Gatto’s gangland style

Professional mediator Mick Gatto.
Professional mediator Mick Gatto.

Friends know Mick Gatto as Uncle Mick. But to others, the name conjures loathing, even fear. Reputed nationally as an underworld figure, leg breaker, dispute negotiator, TV character, author and boxing entrepreneur, he wears many hats. Some are black, some white.

Melbourne’s spring has brought tables onto the footpath of the Little Italy end of Lygon Street, Carlton, when I catch up with Gatto for a coffee. Mick often says, “I’m not hard to find”, and he’s right: there’s the Rolls-Royce out the front of his cafe “office” and a Ray-Ban convention of acolytes around him. “Be with you in a minute, darl,” he says. 

There are a number of reasons I am meeting Gatto, but one of them is the royal commission into union corruption. “It’s turning into a minestrone,” says Gatto, who has a long-running association with the building industry. “It’ll go for three years, cost millions and, in the end, we’ll be back to where we are now, knowing what we already know. It’s history repeating itself – they done it with the Hawke government’s vicious campaign to smash the BLF and now another government is gunning for the CFMEU.” 

Conversation turns to Norm Gallagher, the Builders’ Labourers Federation secretary who was jailed after a royal commission into his union. “I was in jail with Norm Gallagher, you know, in the early ’80s. He had the cushy job in the garden. It always comes down to who you know and he knew more people than I did back then. I had a billet in the kitchen. Put that in. I’ve paid my dues.”

Gatto says he has been offering his industrial relations services in the building industry for 20 years, long before he went into mediation for debt recovery. He had a significant crane business, too, although he gave that up a few months ago. Untrained formally in industrial or legal issues, he explains his role as follows: “I act as a buffer between the unions and the builders. Unions don’t like bosses; employers don’t like unionists. They don’t like dealing with each other. I get on with both.”

Gatto’s living, in the shape of a retainer paid by the building employers, comes from solving problems. “Perhaps the union might tell me the Cbus or Interlink payments are behind – that’s bad; an accident at work wouldn’t be covered – or there’s not enough toilets. It can be anything. It’s mostly done on the phone – I make the call, tell them you gotta pay this or fix that and it’s fixed. It takes a bit of my time, because I have about 15 big clients, but some are on the phone all the time and others might not ring for months.”

1 . ‘The Italian Stallion’

Gatto’s pugnacious nature and strong physique, developed over years of helping his father at the fruit and vegetable market, attracted the attention of boxing trainer Kevin Watterson, who ran the A’Beckett Street gym – a rough-as-bags joint where sparring partners grabbed mouthguards randomly off a shelf on their way to the ring. Billed as “The Italian Stallion”, Gatto’s heavyweight future showed promise. But so did the illegal two-up games going on upstairs. The good life beckoned and Gatto climbed those stairs, beginning his precarious relationship with the law. Over the next 20 years – from being a “bender” picking up two-up pennies to running the biggest two-up networks in the state – Gatto made his fortune. 

Then Crown Casino opened, putting police pressure on two-up schools and SP bookies. “Put us out of business in the end. But I enjoyed playing the pokies and baccarat at the casino, until I was banned. I learned about being banned in 2004 when I was in prison.”

Gatto served 14 months on remand for the alleged murder of Andrew “Benji” Veniamin in 2004, pleaded self-defence and was acquitted. 

“I was taken out of my solitary cell, all trussed up like a crab in chains, and I was given a letter from police commissioner Christine Nixon. It was a directive banning me from the casino and all racetracks for 10 years. I clung on to that ‘hope letter’. I was facing life for Benji and Nixon had only banned me for 10 years. I thought, ‘She must know I’d be getting out, or she wouldn’t have bothered.’ ” Nixon ended up right, but Gatto’s 10-year gaming ban was adjusted to life to compensate. 

I ask him if it is lonely being the “last man standing” after the dust has settled on the notorious Melbourne gangland murders between 1998 and 2010. Gatto was the only person to be tried for any of the deaths. “Not really,” he says. “There’s a lot of erratic people out there. One of them might think it a big deal to bring down Mick Gatto. All I can do is hope they miss.”

We are briefly interrupted by Angelo “Fat Ange” Venditti, wanting a word with Uncle Mick.

“Can you describe Mick in one sentence?” I ask.

“A gentleman; a real straight shooter.”

I look at Mick. “Do you want me to put that in?” 

“Why not?”

2 . CFMEU strife

The latest Gatto news has centred around his 20-year friendship with John Setka, CFMEU boss and alleged standover man and head basher. I ask how Gatto sees his friend Setka – blackmailing bully or champion of workers?

“He’s a decent man with the interests of his members at heart,” Gatto says. “He’s not crooked. He’s very straight. Too straight, maybe. He’s a good union leader. He gets people home safely. He might have made a few mistakes, but that’s why they put rubbers on pencils.”

What about all the evidence given to the commission regarding the CFMEU, I ask.

“Look, royal commissions are witch-hunts. Lawyers lining their pockets. There’s no evidence. People say things which then become gospel. Take this rubbish given by Chiavaroli about me and Ken Hardy.”

West Homes principal Peter Chiavaroli gave evidence to the commission that he was told industrial problems would be fixed on his Pentridge prison housing development site if he paid $50,000 to Mick Gatto for each problem he encountered.

“I know Ken Hardy quite well. He’s an industrial consultant, like me. We probably have talked about the Pentridge development at some stage – it’s a big job – but $50,000 to fix each separate problem? No way. I wish I could charge that.”

3 . ‘No legs, no heads’

I ask Gatto to tell me what a day’s work looks like. Is he a “leg breaker”, as he’s been described?

“No legs, no heads,” he says. “My phone is my office. I’m like 7-Eleven. I never close. I work in four main areas. Industrial relations, debt recovery, running events and charity fundraising.”

He’s on a roll now. “I look after a few big builders in Melbourne; I’m their IR man. My role is to prevent loss of productivity. I usually deal with the CFMEU steward on site, regarding any needs for members. He talks to me. I talk to the bosses. Work continues.”

Then there’s “mediation” – a big part of his debt collection. “I have a few rules. We do not work for women: they’re too emotional. No domestics and no drug-related issues. We get 10 to 20 calls a week, usually after they’ve exhausted all other avenues and thrown away money on lawyers. We sit around a table. There are always three sides to the debate – their side, your side and the truth. Nevertheless, these things are usually resolved quite amicably. We charge 50 per cent of the result, plus an upfront retainer, which weeds out the serious clients. That’s deducted from the outcome if we succeed. If we don’t, we wear it.”

I can’t resist asking about Brynne Edelsten, who engaged Gatto to collect debts against her former husband, Geoffrey. If you don’t work for women, I say, what did Brynne offer that persuaded you?

“Ah, she is a friend of a friend who asked me to help. And I know Geoff, so I agreed. Geoff acknowledged he owes Brynne money, but with his problems in the USA…”

I get the feeling Gatto might have “worn it” on that occasion.

Gatto remains passionate about boxing. The Napthine government took his licence to promote fights, but he now works as a sponsor manager. Gatto has a big fight up next month: Anthony Mundine versus Sergey Rabchenko. 

“This fight is huge for Australia,” Gatto tells me. “If Mundine wins, we’ll fill the MCG when Mayweather or Alvarez come here to fight him. It’ll be the biggest fight in Australian history.”

His other passion, he says, is charity. Since 2004, he has raised and donated about $4.5 million. “It’s not drug money or underworld money, but from pockets of honest citizens, friends and supporters who’ve known me for 40 years. Not one charity has ever knocked back a Mick Gatto donation,” he says. “$4.5 million: not bad for a little underworld figure like me.”

I ask Gatto if he expects to be called to front the royal commission and he says maybe. “I’ve got nothing to hide. There’s no one more scrutinised in this country than me. I’d be arrested in a heartbeat if they got anything on me.” 

He leans forward. “Here’s what I think is the hidden agenda behind this commission,” he confides. “The government wants to get enough on the unions to give them the excuse to deregister them. The unions control millions of super dollars in Incolink and Cbus and the government wants to take over control.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 25, 2014 as "Gangland style".

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Robin Bowles is a true-crime writer based in Melbourne.

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