Gunns
Ltd executive chairman John Gay made Rupert Murdoch look like a
corporate governance saint with his performance at today’s AGM in
Launceston.

For starters, the press were locked out, something no other top 200 company does. The Sunday Age’s
Clair Miller fronted up with a proxy and didn’t disclose where she
worked. She fired off a succession of questions at the start of the
meeting on forestry valuations and should have a good story for this
weekend.

Gay, surely the most inarticulate chairman of a major
public company, opened proceedings with a stuttering 8 minute address,
but his profit forecast of between $95 million and $100 million for
2005-06 helped reverse the recent share price slide as the stock rose
7c from a two year low to reach $2.82 by midday.

For some
unexplained reason, Gay was accompanied on stage by the auditor
from KPMG, company secretary Wayne Chapman and Les Baker, the executive
running the controversial $1.3 billion pulp mill project in the Tamar
Valley.

The five non-executive directors got to sit in the
audience and one of the blokes I was running against, Eddie Rouse’s
former ENT CEO David McQuestin, was two foot from me in the next row.
The “meeting room” at Gunns HQ is a hopelessly cramped and stuffy venue
with no air conditioning and not enough room for the director to even
sit up the front.

Asked who was the nominated senior independent
director to answer questions about the executive chairman, Gay point
blank said they didn’t have one and he didn’t know.

When I asked
a series of questions of candidate Cornelius Van der lay, Gay at first
told him not to answer a couple of the questions. Are these independent
directors or John Gay puppies?

Former Liberal Premier Robin Gray
got up and declared Gay was “a mere pussycat most of the time” and an
absolutely “outstanding chairman and outstanding managing director” who
has made lots of money for all the shareholders. Shame about the 40%
slump in the share price since November 2004, something Gay partly
blamed on all the negative publicity his company has received of late.

The
only more fawning address came from former state Liberal MP and federal
candidate in Bass in 2001, Tony Benneworth. “I really admire this great
company,” he declared whilst sitting in front of Robin Gray and without
pointing out his Liberal Party history. “We need Gunns in Tasmania…it
would be a catastrophe if they were not here.”

It seems both
major parties are sucking up to the giant tree slaughterers ahead of
next year’s Tasmanian election. I asked Gay about Mark Latham’s claim
that he “runs Tasmania” but he declined to expand on his relationship
with Premier Paul Lennon, who Iron Mark said “wouldn’t scratch himself”
without John Gay’s say so.

The vote turned out to be a comfortable win for the incumbents as follows:

Candidate For Against Abstain Undirected
David McQuestin 176.9m 15.6m 7.4m 4.9m
Cornelius Van der lay 178.6m 15.8m 10.8m 4.9m
Stephen Mayne 27.3m 158.9m 3.3m 4.9m

However, even if the outsider had got 94% of the “for” and
“against” vote, I still would have lost thanks to the undirected
proxies and the rort that is the old “no vacancy” tactic.

John
Gay was told I’d be running for the board every year until he relented
and offered himself up for election like every other executive chairman
and he conceded this would now be considered, as would the “no vacancy”
tactic and the retirement benefit scheme for directors which attracted
a modest 15 million protest vote against the remuneration report.

The
rest of the meeting was a relatively civilised affair with no
interjections or shouting, as apparently occurred at the 2001 meeting
when the Wilderness Society ferals took over.

Les Rochester, the former journalist who is running the Tamar Residents Action Committee (TRAC)
Valley spoke eloquently, as did numerous other respectable anti-logging
and anti-pulp mill shareholders or proxies. A lot of the questions were
detailed and sensible and the more erudite and informed answers came
from Les Baker and the company auditor. John Gay seemed to have little
patience with the whole process.

Gay is clearly frustrated that
the pulp mill is being so bitterly opposed when he has been pressured
into doing it for decades by greenies and everyone else. He pointed out
that woodchips fetching $80 a tonne would now be value added into pulp
that would fetch $700 a tonne, but still the Greenies aren’t happy.

However,
despite expressing confidence it will proceed, this does not appear so
sure. Les Rochester was elected to the West Tamar council yesterday and
there’s every chance that the Greens could hold the balance of power
after next year’s state election.

If that happenes, share in Gunns would plunge below $2 as they have
only prospered courtesy of sweetheart deals with successive Liberal and
Labor governments over the past decade.