The Newcrest Mining AGM was punctuated by an incredible outburst from a lead poisoning victim, yet the press completely ignored his claims, surely some of the most newsworthy in the many AGMs that we have seen.

The company’s results were satisfactory but could have been better (in the eyes of both management and especially shareholders), but there was the promise of riches to come from the company’s mine at Telfer in Western Australia.

A big directors’ fee increase from $500,000 to $800,000 was always going to get some reaction from shareholders, especially in the current environment of austerity when it comes to directors’ pay.

But the meeting took an extraordinary turn when a shareholder and former employee took the floor during the resolution to approve the directors’ pay increase and made some astonishing allegations about the company’s behaviour in relation to lead poisoning that he suffered at the Telfer mine.

The former employee, Andrew Hobday, had been handing out flyers prior to the meeting. It should be pointed out that his poisoning occurred prior to Newcrest’s ownership of the mine and the charges that he made of management cover-ups relate to the period before Newcrest’s ownership.

So his claims against the company are on moral rather than legal grounds, as any action against Newcrest (who inherited the liabilities of the mine when they took over ownership) is now statute barred.

But his story is extraordinary and reflects an industrial relations era which we would hope is well and truly behind us:

Hobday’s flyers read:

“Corporate alchemy at Newcrest Mining turns gold into lead:

While working at Telfer gold mine and processing plant, I was acutely LEAD POISONED while dutifully operating the Fire Assay Laboratory.

The laboratory did not have correct ventilation or adequate fume extraction.

This is criminal.

* FACT: Management did not inform me of contracting the disease.

* FACT: Management published a deceitful and defamatory letter to the WA Health Department blaming me for causing the disease due to sub-standard professional standards and poor personal hygiene. This is immoral, unethical, and criminal. It is an outright lie.

* FACT: The level of Blood Lead I experienced KILLS children and causes permanent physical injuries and neurological deficits in adults. It is one of the highest lead levels recorded in Australia.

* FACT: I did not receive the urgent medical treatment the disease required, despite my complaints of ill health and classic textbook lead symptoms.

* FACT: Due to failure to receive timely and urgent medical treatment I am now certified permanently and totally disabled. I have lost my means to earn a living in my trained profession or otherwise.

* FACT: I was only able to discover the true nature of my lead exposure after a front-page newspaper article alleged a “cover-up” by the WA Health Dept. with regards to public lead testing.

* FACT: Due to WA’s 6 year Limitations Act, I am unable to claim personal damages. NEWCREST know full well of my circumstances and have assured me I will be “looked after”. Yet after several years of stalling and ignoring my correspondence, they have done nothing.

* FACT: NEWCREST are willing for the Australian taxpayer and general community to pick up the tab for criminal negligence perpetrated at Telfer, while they exploit a technicality of WA law, allowing NEWCREST off scot-free.

* FACT: My medical expenses have so far been over $32,000. These expenses will continue for the rest of my life.

* FACT: At this year’s AGM, item 5 on the agenda calls for an increase of $300,000 from $500,000 to $800,000 per annum for non-executive directors, while I struggle to support my family.

* FACT: Telfer is one of the world’s most successful gold mining operations, producing over 6 million ounces, with a further 20 million ounces so far identified. This is Australian gold, mined by Australian workers, who, in my opinion, are simply treated as cannon fodder for Directors’ greed. This is NOT good corporate philosophy. This is immoral. This is NOT ethical, …and laws have been broken.”

Hobday got up during the resolution to approve the directors’ pay rise and rattled off many of these facts.

In fairness to the company, chairman Ian Johnson gave Hobday a very fair run but after some minutes without interruption, Johnson attempted to shut Hobday down as he drifted away from the issue of directors’ pay.

Hobday challenged the chairman and reiterated why his claim for compensation from the company was relevant to the resolution, including questioning the ethics of the board that they would ignore his comparatively modest claim when viewed against the $300,000 the directors were seeking.

After some heated discussion, Johnson was close to having Hobday removed from the meeting and Hobday’s microphone was switched off.

As if that were not extraordinary enough for an AGM, a shareholder at the front of the room raised a point of order.

Having seen several AGMs where activists use the forum to promote their particular cause, usually – in fact, in every instance I have seen – other shareholders will side with the chairman and call for the meeting to move on.

But in this instance the reverse happened – the shareholder asked that Hobday continue to be heard.

Another shareholder seconded the motion, so Hobday carried on with as much vigour as before.

He had clearly rattled Johnson and the chairman, who had been pretty jovial despite having to front shareholders with not the happiest news even before Hobday had his turn, seemed lost for a few seconds.

He paused before saying “thank you Mr Hobday” and then seemed to be flustered as he missed another speaker who wanted to speak to the resolution.

But the most extraordinary aspect of this meeting was the fact that Hobday’s appearance barely registered a mention in the press.

It was mentioned briefly in some of the business gossip columns, but neither the SMH / Age, AFR or the News press carried any mention of the events in their write-ups of the Newcrest AGM.

In the SMH report, apparently Hobday’s outburst wasn’t the “main point of contention” from the meeting. Funny that, as he probably spoke longer than anyone else at the meeting and clearly did so with far more venom than anyone else.

“At the meeting, the main point of contention was the resolution to lift the annual remuneration cap for the Newcrest’s non-executive directors from $500,000 to $800,000 a year. One shareholder, Roma Blackwell, received a round of applause after arguing that the directors should only get a raise when shareholders start getting higher dividends. Mr Johnson responded that shareholders were already getting value from Newcrest’s appreciating share price. “But that is only if I sell”, Ms Blackwell retorted. The resolution was passed on 93 per cent of the proxies.”

Over at the AFR, they focused on the fact Newcrest’s growth over the short term would help them fend off a takeover, should it occur.

News Ltd merely fed the AAP reports of the report, which again mentioned the company’s ability to defend a takeover and the company’s arguments to justify the pay hike for directors.

Amongst the allegations Hobday levelled at the company was that the press were conspiring against him as well, accusing them of following the company’s directive to keep his complaint quiet as the company would deal with it.

If ever he wanted proof, perhaps the paucity of coverage he gained the day after one of the most extraordinary AGMs one is likely to see would go a long way to supporting his case.

Peter Fray

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