The inevitable has happened at James Hardie, but you have to look hard to find the news.

You’d have dig deep to paragraph four of the today’s official announcement to find out that Peter Macdonald
has quit as the company’s CEO. And you will have to go to the fifth
paragraph of the nine paragraph statement to find out that Chief
Financial Officer Peter Shafron is also going.

The spin doctor’s special (and Greg Baxter is at News, isn’t he?) is headlined “James Hardie appoints interim CEO and CFO”.

Well, isn’t that what the company said it would be doing when it
announced that Macdonald and Shafron were standing aside? Here’s that
statement from late last month – James Hardie CEO and CFO stand aside.

On the face of it, just on the two headlines, today’s statement seems normal, a follow on from the one in September.

No headline such as “CEO, CFO resign” That would have been too much for
‘Sorry’ Meredith Hellicar, the Hardie chairman to have to contemplate.

And it wasn’t until the later media briefing that it was revealed Peter
Macdonald will receive nearly $9 million as a payout after his
resignation, though he will still be retained as a consultant for a
short period. Wouldn’t it be nice if he made a donation to the asbestos
victims.

Hellicar also told the briefing that Shafron would receive $US865,000.

Chanticleer in The Australian Financial Review got it
right this morning, so why couldn’t Hardie and ‘Sorry’? It’s not too
much to ask, is it too state the bleeding obvious in a press release.

Take this one from earlier this week – James Hardie Committed To Solution. Well, that says Hardie is committed to a settlement of the asbestos negotiations with the unions.

I hope that is what it means because the way the statement today is
spun, there could be a deeper, more important (and true) meaning buried
in the statement.

Hmmm, Is that the bit about one that is ‘supported by our shareholders’
or the comment she made in the press that the deal has to be ‘bankable’.

But what’s a bit sickening is the last paragraph in this statement ” A
quick fix is not going to meet the needs of this complex but historic
opportunity”

‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” is a well known saying
from the past. In describing the settlement of the asbestos claims as a
“historic opportunity”, an opportunity of James Hardie’s creation, by
the way, is as disreputable attempt of spinning as you would read, even
from the word processor of Greg Baxter and his gang.

Needlessly wasteful might be a better way of describing the asbestos scandal and Hardie’s part in it.

Meanwhile the new Chief Financial Officer(interim) is Russell Chenu and
the new CEO(interim) is Louis Gries, a long time Hardie executive based
in the US.

He has been Executive Vice President of Operations, which is perhaps
the second most important role in the company after the CEO, given the
importance of the US to Hardie.

Chenu was previous at the TAB and before that Pancontinental and Delta Gold and ANI.

His time at ANI would have been interesting insofar as asbestos is concerned.

ANI at one stage had Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour(a defence ship
building and repair facility). It’s old and got a lot of asbestos
problems, as well as badly polluted soil. Its restoration remains
uncertain and it is on a care and maintenance basis.

Russell’s involvement with ANI would have given him a unique
perspective into the problems of asbestos, the nastiness of the
diseases it causes, and the best way to minimise the damage,
corpratewise!

In all the tooing and frooing about Hardie, there has been little in
the way of mention of asbestos related diseases among workers at
Cockatoo Island or other navy and defence facilities in Australia.

Meanwhile The 7.30 Report had an intriguing story and a new bit of
former Hardie talent on Tuesday
night. Neil
Gilbert was a former Hardie factory manager who actively pushed a
campaign of safety so far as asbestos was concerned.

It was a good get by The 7.30 Report, but I wonder why the Sunday
program on the Nine Network didn’t use him in Sarah Ferguson’s report
on Hardie a few weeks ago.

It’s understood (from ABC sources) that Mr Gilbert talked to the Sunday
program, but didn’t make it into the story done by Sarah
Ferguson.

Why remains a big question. It cannot be a question of relevance
because what he told Matt Peacock on The 7.30 report is highly damaging
to Hardie and the documents he had for the ABC were available to the
Sunday program.

From The 7.30 Report, Gilbert sounds a lone management voice (or almost
lone) warning about the dangers of asbestos. And it is significant that
when he left the push for asbestos suppression and control procedures
rapidly lost impetus.

Gilbert’s comments were strong and did take the story further than others have.

But perhaps there might have been information that others in the
anti-Hardie camp might not have wanted to see voiced in public. That was
the attitude (culpability?) of the unions to the Hardie problems back in
the 19502, 60s and 70s. And their responsibility to their members at
the James Hardie facilities.

There are continuing suggestions around that the unions and the NSW
Government (ALP and Liberal-National/Country Party) have yet been
apportioned any blame and responsibility for the abestos problems in
the state.

After all the unions had members in the various facilities of Hardie so
why didn’t they more actively police them? As Mr Gilbert says when he
was at Hardie his dust supression ideas of wet masks for the workers
were opposed by the unions because their members wanted to smoke (talk
about double jeopardy!).

That would indicate some culpability on the part of the unions in the
asbestos scandal. Not large, but something for the members to berate
their unions for.

That was not actively explored in The 7.30 Report story. Nor was it
explored at all in the Sunday story which completely ignored the role
of the unions and the governments in the scandal.

Perhaps it doesn’t fit in with the current orthodoxy of blame Hardie for everything because they have ‘deep pockets’.

It may have been what the members wanted at the time, but the fact that
people like Mr Gilbert were trying to limit asbestos inhalation should
have been a bit of a signal to the unions that they should have been
doing more to help change their members attitudes.

At least insisting that wet masks be worn at the Hardie plant in Sydney where many of the employees have become sick and died.

Hardie bears most of the blame, but the unions and the NSW
Government (through the department of health and the departments
responsible for health and safety issues in the workplace) do also
deserve to bear a small amount of responsibility.

Peter Fray

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