The James Hardie shareholder meeting in Sydney yesterday didn’t formally decide anything but it is clear the proposed long term compensation package for asbestos victims will be overwhelmingly endorsed in Amsterdam next week.
It was an unusual meeting to say the least. ACTU secretary Greg Combet and asbestos campaigner Bernie Bantum held a press conference in front of about 20 hacks on Pitt Street before the meeting, but then Combet didn’t attend.
Crazy Jack Tilburn, who now claims to be a billionaire, and Australian Shareholders Association President Stephen Matthews both endorsed the deal but then a retired doctor who had received research funds from Hardie boldly declared that the company had done nothing wrong and copped an unfair rap from the press.
This prompted former waterside worker, unionist and current Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia President Barry Robson to get up and give Hardie a serve for all the angst and expense caused by its six year attempt to dodge its asbestos liabilities.
Chairman Meredith Hellicar also attempted to blame the press, so I got up and asked her whether this characterisation of what happened was accurate:
In 2003 James Hardie told the compensation fund to get stuffed and attempted to pass the buck to the NSW Government in what was the most disgraceful try-on in Australian corporate history. Bob Carr set up the Jackson inquiry, Hellicar took over as chairman in 2004, CEO Peter Macdonald and CFO Peter Shafron departed and Hardies capitulated in the face of enormous media, political, union and customer pressure.
Despite being a longstanding director, Hellicar distanced herself from the events of 2003 and also disputed that she was a former PR professional who had presided over the greatest trashing of a corporate reputation in Australian history. She even said that a name change had never been contemplated.
However, it is clear that few reputable Australians are willing to touch the company. Four quality new directors were elected to the board yesterday – three Americans and a Dutchman.
There are now only three Australians left – Telstra chairman Donald McGauchie and two who have flagged an intention to resign, Hellicar and former Brambles finance director Michael Brown.
Hellicar told the meeting the board was looking for two more directors but these would also come from America and she couldn’t commit to her replacement being an Australian.
CEO Louis Gries is an American and even the bloke running the Australian operation, Peter Baker, is a Pom who was recruited two years ago.