Bryan Frith might have labelled the state attorneys-general
“disgraceful” for rejecting the Federal Government’s push to abolish
the 100 shareholder rule for the calling of public company EGMs, but
BHP Billiton chairman Don Argus this morning said he had no problem
with the rule.

After Don had addressed the IFSA conference on the Gold Coast, a member
of the audience asked if the rule should be a abolished. Don said that
companies should be able to manage their shareholders and other
stakeholders well enough to avoid the need for an EGM to be called in
the first place.

“I don’t think so. Provided you are prepared to listen to all your
stakeholders then you don’t have to have EGMs to resolve things. Good
companies are engaged and you would be silly not to react to
stakeholder concerns.”

Considering that we haven’t had an EGM called by 100 shareholders for
three years, he’s right in the sense that the issue is being managed
and it seems the government is reacting to a non-existent threat.

Don remains sceptical about the whole push on corporate governance
making the dubious claim that better governance structures wouldn’t
have avoided the Enron or HIH collapses. Hmmm, if John Howard had
cancelled FAI’s licence in the late 1970s as his insurance regulators
recommended at the time, HIH might well still be trading today.
Instead, he had lunch with Larry Adler and rumours persist that a large
secret donation was made to the Liberal Party after the then Treasurer
intervened to save the company.

However, Don is quite a convert to corporate social responsibility,
saying that good social practices give BHP a licence to operate in many
countries around the world. For instance, Don reckons BHP’s work on
indigenous education in the Pilbara gives it a competitive advantage as
well as helping boost the company’s reputation and making it an employer
of choice in a tough full employment market.

He also raved about the annual gathering BHP has with a variety of
green groups and NGOs in which they are encouraged to challenge the
company’s environmental practices. “It is one of the most informative
meetings I have attended,” said Don.

I wandered over for a brief chat at the end and handed Don this written
question: “Who will retire first? Don Argus or John Howard?” The doyen
of directors dodged it, but he did point out he was older than the PM,
having just enjoyed his 68th birthday, but would continue on as long as
he remained fit and healthy.

Peter Fray

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