The debate about Geoffrey Cousins has polarised the commentariat with The AFR’s John Durie at one extreme, blaming John Howard for arrogant vindictiveness, and News Ltd’s Terry McCrann at the other calling on Telstra chairman Don McGauchie to be sacked for being a “prat”.
The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle.
Donald McGauchie is one of the hardest line professional directors you will find. He stepped up for the waterfront dispute, was the last James Hardie director to agree to the asbestos compensation deal and led the revolution on the Telstra board when a bunch of hand-picked government mates literally went native.
Geoffrey Cousins has an even more dramatic record of going feral and blowing up old mates. Kerry Packer put him on the Hudson Conway board in the mid-1990s and before long he was publicly blasting co-founder Lloyd Williams, the executor of KP’s will.
Cousins was also close family friends with Nicholas Whitlam for almost 25 years and was invited onto the NRMA Insurance board after it demutualised in 2000.
At first he did Whitlam’s bidding by monstering CEO Eric Dodd out of the place, but it wasn’t long before he turned and displayed that trade-mark “independence”, although some believe it is more accurately described as “corporate terrorism”.
However, the problem for Geoffrey is that he decided to give evidence against Whitlam in his battle with ASIC over NRMA proxies and board minutes and the three judges of the NSW Court of Appeal gave him a toweling in overturning ASIC’s original victory.
In talking up what Cousins offers, the PM is presumably aware of this 2003 judgment. Like any judgment, it should be read in full, but the most relevant line is as follows:
His honour erred in treating Mr Cousins’ evidence as reliable or sufficiently reliable having regard to its inconsistency with two sets of contemporaneous notes, the imprecision of his evidence and his own concessions that he may have been in error and that his recollection may have been coloured by subsequent events.
When it came down to the word of Cousins versus NRMA company secretary Gaye Morstyn and other directors, the three judges clearly didn’t back Cousins, who was the only witness ASIC called.
Maybe the PM was impressed that Cousins had ratted on a Whitlam, even though he was a very old family friend. Cousins could clearly write a very good book about his dealings with John Howard over the last 20 years. Will he turn on him too?