A Full show but was anyone home? Terry Television looks at the latest offering from the Sunday morning business shows.

Business Sunday had a full program thanks to the interview with Bruce Rankin of ALH who was also on Michael Pascoe’s segment on Seven’s Sunday Sunrise. It was underwhelming and both Adam Shand and Pascoe had to work hard to make a grey man remotely interesting.

Business Sunday has a curious story on James Hardie and its asbestos obligations. It had the appearance of a rapidly organised story. And the curious back announcement to a 60 Minutes report on Sunday night on James Hardie was also odd. Knowing 60 Minutes and its greater resources and producing staff, it will be a more aggressive and researched story. Which is in contrast to the Business Sunday effort of Ross Greenwood, which was too little too late.

Of all the big business stories this year, its been the one that Business Sunday had ignored, up till now. And yet, as the story showed, the program has archival vision from its ‘award winning’ story on CSR and asbestos back in 1988 (The reporter was Michael Gill, now running Fairfax Business media), and an interview with Hardie CEO, Peter Macdonald back in 2001.

And with that sort of background, and the unions willing to talk and any number of victims, it’s taken months until Business Sunday saw the story and followed it. It took the miserly offer from Hardie this week to provoke coverage from the program. Odd!

And what was lacking in the story was a sense or comment from anyone questioning the morality of Hardie’s move, or an explanation of what the Jackson Commission is really looking at. There was only one tiny comment from a legal academic at the ANU in Canberra.
Is it still considered bad form at the top of PBL and the Nine Network for programs like Business Sunday to be critical of Australian companies?You can bet on 60 Minutes there will be a lot attitude.

Nor did it look at the damage the Hardie story on asbestos might cause to some of its well-connected directors such as chairman Alan McGregor, or director Peter Cameron, the company’s law firm, Allens, executives, led by Peter Macdonald, and the directors of the Foundation set up in February 2001 to handle the asbestos claims. People like Dr Llew Edwards and Mr Peter Jollie, directors of a number of public companies.

Dr Edwards, for example is a director of Westpac, so the stakes are high. At one stage he was also a director of James Hardie. He was a director of Hardie until the MRC Foundation was established in 2001, so his role in some pre-2001 transactions by Hardie in stripping assets from the asbestos-related operating companies, will be investigated by the Commission, along with all other directors and managers at the time. That was not revealed on Business Sunday, which is a shame.

Helen McCombie looked at the relaunch (again!) of Country Road in Sydney at the huge Westfield (again!) shopping extravaganza at Bondi Junction. A nice story by the departing reporter which contained a message for, of all people, NAB shareholders. Country Road CEO, Ian Moir explained how long it took for the company to extract itself from the failing US shops and business and change roles to a more wholesale based outfit.

Well, that’s a message for the NAB as CEO John Stewart ponders about what to do with the UK banks, which unlike Country Roads’ shops, are profitable. But exiting the banks will take time, and as Terry McCrann remarked, Stewart no longer has the 12 to 24 months he’s been asking for. It might be time for him and the board to pop around to the AMP for a some advice about quitting Britain. It might be cheaper than another profit downgrade.

On the ABC’s Inside Business, Lend Lease CEO Greg Clarke gave an upbeat promotion of the proposed merging of the company and its property trust offshoot, GPT. Alan Kohler made the very valid point that to win GPT over, Lend Lease will have to sweeten its offer and raise the stakes, something Clarke sidestepped. Clarke also claimed the Australian residential property market was holding up well and this was enough for the ABC evening news to create a story out of on a slow news day.

There was a sense of greater confidence from Clarke than there was in a recent appearance on Business Sunday where he floundered in selling the merits of the proposal. But having done numerous ‘dog and pony’ shows with big investors here and overseas selling the deal, Clarke now knows the key selling points well.

He seems confident another bid won’t emerge, despite slipping a direct question from Kohler. An aside to an earlier question which wondered if a counter-offer would emerge, was a better indication of his true state of thinking on an opposing bid. With GPT independents promising a reply to the proposal at the end of the month, it won’t be long before unitholders in GPT have something concrete to deal with.

And finally, Inside Business did a story on tree tax schemes that was really a longer version of a couple of good columns Kohler has done on the schemes in the past month.

60 Minutes delivers the goods on Hardie

The Sunday night effort from tick, tick, tick was a much better story on Hardie, even though it was a touch shrill in places and short on someone other than a lawyer (Peter Gordon from Slater and Gordon) damning Hardie. (At least Business Sunday managed to speak to the unions.)

Even better would have been trying to grab one of the directors, even the old CEO, Dr Keith Barton, now a leading company director.
But it was more focussed and told a better story than the cobbled-together effort on Business Sunday. Even if 60 Minutes failed to credit the two comments from CEO, Peter Macdonald to a Business Sunday interview back in 2001. That was a bit naughty!

But at least with the Peter Overton effort you had a sense of just how appalling has been the behaviour of James Hardie, especially the boards and managements over the years. And the role of the NSW Government bears some probing, especially how it allowed itself to be snowed by the lobbying efforts of Stephen Loosely.

The Jackson Special Inquiry into Hardie’s handling of its asbestos liabilities has a strong hint of embarrassed retribution by the Carr administration for swallowing the company’s line three years ago about the compensation trust and the move to the Netherlands, as outlined in the web spun by Mr Loosely.

No such appreciation could be gained from the Business Sunday effort by Ross Greenwood.

Peter Fray

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