Australia’s biggest company, BHP Billiton, has never been overtly political. The company eschews political donations and was traditionally very compliant with union demands at places like Newcastle and Wollongong.

So what prompted yesterday’s unusual entry into the political debate? The most likely explanation is the close personal relationship between chairman Don Argus and Prime Minister John Howard. After all, when Argus was running NAB, he was the banker that bailed out the Liberal Party and funded much of the 1996 campaign.

Pamela Williams’s book The Victory quoted then Liberal Party treasurer Ron Walker declaring at the time that Argus was “the backbone of this campaign” and now he’s stepping up to potentially do it all again.

But this is a two-way street. When Argus led the campaign for BHP’s ill-fated merger with Billiton, the PM came out on the very first day and declared it to be a “marvellous merger”. Marvellous for Billiton shareholders that is, who’ve ended up about $30 billion in front on where they would have been had BHP stayed independent.

While BHP’s words yesterday were reasonably strong, they appeared a reluctant participant after what was undoubtedly a strong-arm campaign from the PM down. How else to explain the failure to release the statement to the ASX, or even place it on the BHP-Billiton website?

And why didn’t chairman Argus or CEO Chip Goodyear put their name to it? The company said this and the company said that. Can you imagine the government putting out a statement without bowling up a talking head to follow through?

One senses a great deal of unease within BHP which is not surprising given the huge damage all the Labor state governments could do to the company’s interests if they chose to pursue some retribution. And then, of course, there is relations with the CFMEU – Australia’s most notorious union with assets of about $100 million.

With the polls where they are, BHP is probably on a hiding to nothing with this exercise but John Howard clearly regards economic management and job creation as his lifeline, so it was quite a coup to get BHP over the line yesterday.

In a vibrant democracy, such a development should be par for the course – but the Labor movement is not renowned for politely standing around when big business has a go. It really is a shame that more Australian corporates don’t come out and say what they really think.


Samantha Evans, senior media relations adviser, BHP Billiton Limited, writes: Stephen, personal views of yours they may be, but your story on BHP Billiton should not have been presented as fact given the gross inaccuracies. The facts are:

1. The Prime Minister did not direct us to make any statements in relation to the ALP’s industrial relations policy. Our reaction was purely driven by our absorbtion of the ALP IR policy following its conference on the weekend, as well as being inundated with media requests for comment. (We had been working collaboratively with the ALP for some time and were disappointed that the final policy appeared to not take into account any of the concerns of the mining industry.)

2. Our chairman, Don Argus, did not formulate our comments. While he supports these views, they are the views of the operational leadership team.

3. We did not issue a media release, which is why it doesn’t appear on our website. We in fact provided some verbal and written commentary to journalists following the IR debate.

4. We did not put any specific executives’ names to our comments because they are the collective view of our leadership and represent a company position. This is in line with our normal practice.

5. While you are correct in saying that we do not normally weigh in on political debates, we strongly believe in the importance of retaining flexibility in our approach to industrial relations. This is not about saying that we want AWAs specifically — it’s about saying each operation in Australia should have the right to choose the industrial relations instrument that best suits the individual business (there is no “one size fits all” approach). We are only a “reluctant participant” in the debate in so far as we are disappointed that the policy appears to take away this flexibility.