Ross Coulthart has long been one of the Sunday program’s best reporters and his story yesterday on all the political connections to the AWB share register had some merit.

However, at the outset it should be said that Alexander Downer and
Christopher Pyne should not have been included just because they had
some funds with Adelaide-based Argo Investments and Argo held AWB
shares for two weeks after it floated in 2002.

Pyne and Downer had every right to react angrily.
I’ve got $30,000 of super with AMP but please don’t blame me for the
fact that AMP has been a substantial shareholder in tree slaughterer
Gunns Ltd for much of the past few years. Politicians can’t control
what a fund manager does and shouldn’t be either held responsible or
expected to know.

However, the other four examples produced by Coulthart had merit and it
was especially amusing that he nailed Bill Heffernan for not disclosing
a $4000 holding in AWB B class shares. For all his bluff and bluster, Heffernan was clearly caught out breaking the rules.

The failure of John Cobb and John Anderson to disclose their
AWB A class shares is another interesting debate. These shares aren’t
worth anything but do allow grain growers to control the AWB board as B
class shareholders don’t get a say on board control, which explains why
this $1.4 billion company is still controlled by a bunch of farmers who
tolerated a “whatever it takes” culture.

However, the right to vote is indeed an asset that has some value,
albeit not transferable in the case of AWB. Farmers wouldn’t have
spent years haggling to retain voting control as part of the
privatisation if it didn’t have some value to them.

The biggest cloud continues to hang over former Nationals leader and
deputy prime minister John Anderson, who dumped his AWB shares on
10 October last year, three weeks before the Volcker report was
released.

Anderson forgot to disclose this for four months and still hadn’t
disclosed his A class shares until Sunday did it for him yesterday. And
he still hasn’t disclosed the size of his holding in B class shares,
which we suspect probably raised a six figure sum.

Another important question is how Anderson got those shares in the
first place. What role did he play in the demutualisation debate when
the government effectively gifted the AWB to growers such as Anderson?

The old Crikey mantra of “disclose, disclose, disclose” comes to mind
here. Information is power in the modern world and sunlight is indeed
the best disinfectant. When in doubt, disclose – and that should include
the size of each shareholding.

Peter Fray

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