There’s something quite perverse about the chairman of asbestos killer James Hardie
being on the board of Australia’s biggest life insurer, so it will be
fascinating to see what sort of reception Meredith Hellicar gets at the
AMP AGM in Sydney on Thursday when she faces re-election.

Hellicar was recruited to the AMP board by her old James Hardie mate
Peter Willcox in March 2003 as AMP teetered on the brink while its UK
operations dropped more than $5 billion. As a cleanskin she was strongly supported by AMP shareholders at the AGM two months later with 339.7 million proxies in favour and only 4.37 million against.

However, the appalling governance and attempted deception by James
Hardie over its asbestos liabilities will stay with the company’s
long-serving director and current chairman for decades, so expect a few industry funds to perhaps make a
modest protest, despite AMP’s stellar recovery over the past two years.

Hellicar last faced election at the 2003 James Hardie AGM but this was
before the asbestos scandal blew up so it was no surprise she received
258 million proxies in favour and only 0.1 million against. She only
assumed the Hardie chair in 2004 and immediately ran into the firestorm
around its attempt to escape asbestos liabilities by scurrying off to
Holland and creating an severely under-funded subsidiary to meet any

Ironically, former chairman Alan McGregor and the lawyer turned Hardie
director who helped create the scheme, Peter Cameron, have both
subsequently died of cancer while their successors have agreed to
stump up an estimated $1.4 billion over the next 40 years to compensate those poisoned by James Hardie products.

Hardie finally took the profit hit on this liability yesterday when it
reported a full year loss of $670 million, ranking it 19th on Crikey’s
list of Australia’s biggest loss-makers over the years.

I’ll be at the AMP AGM in Sydney speaking against Hellicar’s
re-election based on her attempted asbestos chicanery and inquiring as
to whether many victims of
James Hardie’s products received life insurance payouts from AMP.
However, you can’t fault her commercial performance because Hardie
yesterday reported a 63% jump in operating profit to a record $274
million, although the stock still fell 5%.

Hardie is even receiving plaudits in some quarters for not renewing the
completely inappropriate consultancy deals for former CEO Pe

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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