In the legal wash-up of Alan Bond’s crooked empire falling apart, it was surprising how Peter Beckwith was responsible for everything that was the least bit naughty. If you believed the various defendants, Beckwith had been running the game singlehandedly.

It might have been convenient that Beckwith, the Bond Corp CEO, was dead by the time it all hit the courts – hence the Dead Man Defence. The James Hardie gang has an even greater luxury – the Dead Men Defence.

A cynical soul might expect plenty of fingers pointing towards the graves of ex-Hardie chairman Alan McGregor (deceased February 2005) and ex-Hardie advisor, lawyer and director Peter Cameron (deceased February 2006).

Cameron was “the legal architect of James Hardie’s controversial corporate restructure and exit from Australian shores” according to the SMH, while the AFR’s Chanticleer column this very morning is waving a digit at McGregor (and ex-CEO Peter Macdonald) while defending directors with “long-established reputations”.


Indeed, Chanticleer’s John Durie is taking the stick to ASIC for daring to commence action against the whole board:

ASIC walks a fine line between rightly upholding the law and unnecessarily trashing reputations. It is this line the corporate cop has crossed with this action.

ASIC could have satisfied the court of public opinion simply by chasing the people who were framed by Jackson, like Macdonald (who is still under investigation for possible criminal breaches), but instead it has taken the issue further by attacking some of the top names in Australian business in a board which at the time was known to be deeply divided.

These include Hardie chairwoman Meredith Hellicar, former AMP and Maybe chairman and present Telstra director Peter Wilcox and Michael Brown, who ironically enough were the key ginger group who fought to have the asbestos claims properly accounted for.

Their alleged sin was not their part in fighting this battle against the former chairman, the late Alan McGregor, Macdonald and others but allegedly agreeing to a press statement which was false.

Which is all rather interesting. There are other people who might think McGregor and Cameron also had fine reputations – until the Hardie mud stuck anyway.

Somewhere along the line I can’t help imagining I hear the voice of spinner Sue Cato at work. Among other things, she was Peter Wilcox’s defender over his running a secret auction of Mayne Pharma. It’s just my opinion that Wilcox’s behaviour there left the market seriously uninformed, but no-one else seems to care about that.

Meanwhile this “boardroom blitz”, as the SMH headline writers call it above Liz Sexton’s coverage, will have plenty of other non-executive directors more than a little concerned. For example, all the AWB directors who weren’t specifically targeted by Terence Cole.

If the Hardie mob go down, the AWB gang have a great deal to worry about indeed. What they knew about Tigris and didn’t do might well give ASIC something more to go on with, “long-established reputations” notwithstanding.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey