For a supposedly close mate of the Prime Minister, Telstra director Geoffrey Cousins appears to have joined his colleagues in going native although in his case the issue is Malcolm Turnbull’s approval of the Gunns pulp mill.

As part of a bigger push into shareholder activism, I was literally about to hit the button on a campaign to gather 100 signatures from Telstra shareholders to put up a resolution seeking to remove Cousins from the board at the AGM in Sydney on 7 November.

The deadline was 6 September and the plan was potentially a Machiavellian beauty based on the hope that the Telstra board would maintain its opposition to Cousins, such that he would have been turfed off the board just days before or after the federal election.

Given that Telstra is at war with the government, the assumption was that his close Cousins association with John Howard would make him unpopular with his board colleagues.

Alas, the opposite seems to be the case. The mail coming out of the Telstra boardroom is that they are all getting along very well and now we’ve got Cousins declaring war on both the Lennon Labor Government in Tasmania and federal environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

The Australian splashed today with revelations that Cousins will try to unseat Turnbull from his marginal seat of Wentworth.

At one level, this could be interpreted as Cousins establishing his anti-government credentials to save his skin on the Telstra board. It has certainly ended my removal resolution.

The government forced Cousins onto the board last year by voting its 51% stake in favour just days before it sold down to 17%. A resolution to remove him, if backed by the board, would have been a fascinating test of the Future Fund’s independence right in the middle of an election campaign.

At last year’s AGM, Cousins needed the government’s 6.446 billion votes to get elected because he faced an unprecedented against vote from institutions of 1.73 billion shares. I was the best performed outside candidate with 186 million votes in favour and Cousins was only supported by 240 million shares before the government saved the day.

However, Cousins does have a long history of trashing relationships in pursuit of good corporate governance. A 20 year friendship with Nick Whitlam didn’t stop him from turning crown witness against him over some NRMA proxy voting and he also railed against the practices of Crown Casino developer Hudson Conway when he was put onto that board by Kerry Packer.

Maybe the guy really is a genuine campaigner for good corporate practice who also has a strong green streak from his experiences bushwalking in Tasmania.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW