If you want a summary of the board campaigns madness then read this story and you’ll know exactly what we’re doing and why, regardless of what the companies concerned are choosing to tell their shareholders.

In terms of the boards we are actually standing for, let’s do it chronologically.

AGL

The board gathered before shareholders on Tuesday, October 17, at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne from 11am.

I managed to persuade an old colleague Ray Proudley to stand on a platform that urged the board to abandon the 5 per cent shareholder limit which is a complete anachronism.

Lo and behold, the board immediately started making noises about removing the limit voluntarily after receiving Ray’s nomination. Quite a few institutions voted for Ray to send the board a message that they want the takeover protection lifted.

If I was a shareholder I’d have vote for Ray because removing the limit will create shareholder value. Unfortunately, the Australian Shareholders’ Association have not recognised this and advised members to vote against Ray who has 20 years experience in the gas industry. He’s also had to buy 2000 shares for more than $20,000 so he deserves a few votes for this alone.

ASX

The board will be gathering before shareholders in Sydney at the ASX on October 23 at 11am so please come along and support my nomination.

The platform is the fairly unremarkable proposition that the ASX separate out its commercial and regulatory arms. Put simply, the ASX is a rapacious monopoly that has been gouging big and small customers alike for years and making its exclusive members extremely rich. The government should never have let them demutualise and the ACCC should be forcing them to slash their prices.

As a customer of the ASX, I was outraged to have to pay for the full proxy votes after standing for the AMP board in May. They charge for information which should be free and massively overcharge for most of the other market data they sell.

Voting me onto the board would probably not be good for the the ASX share price but it would be good for the integrity of the broader market if the regulatory arm was split off. Similarly, if this monopoly could be held to account, customers across the board would benefit from price cuts that I would campaign for.

The Commonwealth Bank

Shareholders will be gathering in Melbourne on October 26 at the Exhibition Centre and once again the platform has only been half enunciated to shareholders.

Earlier this year I pledged to stand for the board of any company still making cash for comment payments to Alan Jones or John Laws and The Commonwealth Bank is one such outfit. Don’t expect to find this in the notice of meeting though because clearly they are embarrassed that their wholly owned subsidiary Colonial State Bank is still paying Alan Jones between $100,000 and $500,000 a year.

The board have permitted the second part of the platform which involves the Commonwealth Bank becoming a far more activist fund manager. If Australia is to ever develop a culture of shareholder pressure, the Commonwealth Bank should be doing what I do; standing up and asking questions and agitating for board change where necessary.

Therefore, a vote for me would send the board a message that you want the Commonwealth Bank to become more activist as a fund manager.

West Australian Newspapers

The board fronts shareholders on Thursday, November 2, in Perth and shareholders have a choice between me and Mr FA Manford.

If I was an independent fund manager assessing all of these boards, this is the only one which I would vote for Stephen Mayne.

WA News has no directors with any direct newspaper experience and they have no comprehension of editorial independence. Similarly, the board has failed to develop any form of cohesive internet strategy and this is why shares in John Fairfax has gone sprinting ahead of them.

After an exhaustive search, the board made a very curious choice of Brian Rogers to replace Paul Murray as editor of The West Australian. But chief executive Denis Thompson was the only director to interview Rogers before the appointment. If the board is not even getting involved in the most important appointment the paper can make, what the hell are they doing for their money.

The paper itself is not exactly setting the world on fire and could do with a director who has a unique perspective in Australia. Who else out there has worked for News Ltd and Fairfax in Melbourne and Sydney. The board complained about the lack of east coast candidates prepared to put their hand up for the job. Well having an east coast director with newspaper experience would surely be a good start.

Throw in a good understanding of government, PR, business and the internet and I reckon having Crikey on the board of WA News would be a good thing. Let’s hope enough of the institutions agree.

Westfield Holdings

This one is likely to be the most explosive of the AGMs when the board and shareholders meet in Sydney on November 9 at 10am.

The Lowy family are notorious manipulators of what people think and say and my experience in nominating for the Westfield Holdings board has borne this out.

My platform was very specific. As a unitholder in Westfield Trust, I am calling for Westfield Holdings to have an independent board from Westfield Trust. At the moment there is no-one in there batting for unitholders in the Trust and the Lowys have all of their money tied up in Holdings. Is it any wonder then that the $4 billion worth of development contracts that currently flow between the two include very tidy profit margins of about 30 per cent. That’s pretty easy when you write your own contracts like Frank and his friends do. I want some independent directors appointed to the board of Westfield Trust and wonder what on earth the institutions who own the trust have been doing for all these years.

But don’t expect to read about this in the notice of meeting. Nope, Frank and his manipulators reduced my platform to a couple of lines about being an internet journalist who once won a Walkley Award.

Obviously I’ve got no chance of winning because the Lowys will vote their 30 per cent against me. And the shareholders in Holdings should vote against me because I’m actually arguing for a transfer of value from Holdings back to Trust.

Because the law does not require Trust to have an annual meeting, there is no forum to mount this argument in. The law is an ass in this regard and maybe it is time unitholders in Westfield Trust petitioned their own meeting to work through these issues.

Afterall, shares in Holdings have increased about 25 fold since 1990 yet Trust units have barely doubled. And guess where Dad has got all his money? Yep, in Holdings.

Woolworths

This meeting in late November should be very positive given the rocketing Woolies share price. It is certainly not an obvious company to target but chairman John Dahlsen has a couple of interesting issues to work through. Firstly, as a director of the ANZ bank, he’s in a pretty interesting position as Woolies hurtles down the path of its supermarket banking joint venture with Woolworths.

Secondly, Dahlsen’s family owns a chain of hardware stores in regional Victoria which compete against Woolies but the chairman reckons paint is the only major product that overlaps and the company needs some directors with retail experience.

Dahlsen rang the other day to discuss these issues and I did not mention my third concern which is the pivotal role he played for Jeff Kennett in trying to neuter former Victorian auditor-general Ches Baragwanath. Dahslen was the man who went hardest after Ches and it begs the question of what sort of accountability mechanisms he supports within Woolworths.

NRMA

Unless we have a crack at another bank in December, this will be the last of our board tilts. The platform is twofold and identical to the Commonwealth Bank. We want NRMA to cease paying John Laws under their outrageous cash for comment deal and we want them to become a more activist fund manager. Interestingly, the board decided that our neutrally worded cash for comment paragraph for the notice of meeting was “defamatory” and therefore not run. What garbage. We’re up against Nick Whitlam who isn’t the most popular of chairmen so it will be interesting to see how we go.

Peter Fray

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