Meredith Hellicar’s regrets James Hardie is unable to play today.
It’s not apparent from the string of spin engaged in by James Hardie
and its chairman, Meredith Hellicar over the past few days, but it is
now clear the company would not be spewing forth crocodile tears and
mea culpas had Jackson Special Commission of Inquiry not been ordered
by the NSW Government.

James Hardie would not have been pushed to making some sort of offer,
had it not been for the probing of the Commission, the Commissioner and
various counsel representing the Commission, and the victims and unions.

This was especially apparent on the Nine Network’s Business Sunday
interview yesterday between Hellicar and Ali Moore. It’s clear that the
Hardie chairman was on message all the way through, and didn’t
understand the opportunity presented by the interview.

The mea culpas and wrong information line are no longer enough to
defend the indefensible. Hellicar’s move into the public arena has been
to try and soften the impression that it had been dragged kicking and
screaming to the present situation by the revelations in the
Commission, the growing public pressure on it and the resulting rapid
collapse in its reputation.

And the Business Sunday interview saw a rotten piece of blame
shifting by Hellicar that showed this was a company still in denial. In
response to clever questions from Moore about the size of the problem,
Hellicar maintained the new line that the company only acted when it
saw the much larger estimate in the actuarial report from KPMG.

She effectively bagged, sunk and then trampled all over Trowbridge’s
reputation (the actuarial firm responsible for the very controversial
report back in 2001). This is what she said on Business Sunday:

ALI MOORE: So in your view this is entirely the fault of Trowbridge consulting?

MEREDITH HELLICAR: I am not saying that with the benefit of hindsight
lots of different things couldn’t have been done differently. I
acknowledged that before but the foundation on which the foundation has
proved to be unsuccessful is the use of the wrong number.

ALI MOORE: And that wasn’t your fault?

MEREDITH HELLICAR: No.

That was a piece of self-serving fluff. But Hellicar, legal beagle she
is and former PR gloss merchant forgot this exchange from the
Commission between as detailed in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald in a good feature by Liz Sexton – The house that Hardie built

Counsel Assisting the Inquiry John Sheahan SC asked Shafron about his
dealings with the actuarial firm Trowbridge Deloitte, hired by Hardie
to estimate the future compensation bill. He moved on to Shafron’s
talks with the incoming directors. Then he began to join the dots
between what Shafron knew and what he disclosed.

The witness agreed he told the prospective directors the most recent
complete Trowbridge report was dated 1998. “The 2000 report was
complete, wasn’t it?” asked Sheahan.

The head of the inquiry, David Jackson, QC, had both reports near him on the bench. Shafron said yes.

And, yes, although the 2000 report was marked “draft”, the substance of
what he told the directors was false. He was concerned to “protect the
confidentiality” of the report.

“The way this technique was supposed to work, I take it, was that if
the document leaked somehow, you would be able to deny that you
accepted the results and the analyses because it still had the word
‘draft’ printed on it?” Sheahan asked.

– “That would be part of it.”

– “In fact, you did accept the results and the analyses, didn’t you?”

– “Yes.”

– “So your purpose in keeping the word ‘draft’ on it was to enable you,
if the need arose, to lie about your views of that document?”

– “No, I wouldn’t agree with that.”

– “Haven’t you just said as much, Mr Shafron?”

– “No. Well. It may not require a response from the company.”

THESE were the first concessions from a senior Hardie witness that the
company had not adhered to its public mantra of being “open, fair and
transparent”.

And this was very conveniently ignored by Hellicar in her interviews
and spin message this week. How about we put the word ‘draft’ on
all her comments!

The board and the company and management knew there was an updated
report with new, higher figures, and did nothing to alert anyone to its
contents.

So Hellicar’s claim that the board moved when it saw the KPMG estimates
a month or so ago obviously didn’t apply back in 2001 when they knew of
the second Trowbridge report with higher estimates.

To acknowledge that would have possibly sunk the whole restructure demerger/shift of domicile tango.

And in the Business Sunday interview another admission. That
Hardie may not have been able to afford to meet the claims back in
2001, unlike now when it has become a much bigger and financial
stronger company.

This is what chairman Hellicar told Ali Moore on Business Sunday:

ALI MOORE: You say you don’t know what you would have done if you had
the correct number, but wouldn’t you just have put in more money?

MEREDITH HELLICAR: We may not have established the foundation. I mean
if we knew at that time that amount of money was owed frankly the
company wasn’t in a position to afford that sort of money. We’ve grown
considerably since that time so we wouldn’t have established a
foundation.

ALI MOORE: So how would you have compensated victims?

MEREDITH HELLICAR: Look, I don’t know what we might have done. We
obviously wouldn’t have denied legitimate victims their compensation –
we never have, but I don’t know what we might have done.

Yep, the poor little ‘weak’ company argument.

Nice one, Meredith, but the answer is bull—-! The only reason you
went out and spun was the monstering you were receiving in the
commission and the loss of reputation (and stock market value) was
starting to imperil the company. And affect the share options, share
holdings and bonuses of management and the board.

This is a good commentary in Friday’s SMH on the Hellicar campaign – Hardie’s change of tack truly, truly breathtaking

There is a big warning in the end of the Ackland piece. That any move
to replicate the US situation could very well end up in similar
problems being experienced here. That remains the danger,
especially with the Carr Government in NSW under pressure from a
Premier with faltering touch.