The call to arms worked. Nearly 800 shareholders gathered at the ‘battleground’ well before the 2.30pm starting time. Some came with genuine grievances but I suspect most turned up to watch the expected fireworks between Western Australia’s wealthiest, if not most powerful, man Kerry Stokes take on the board.

The ringmaster of the whole show, WA Newspapers chairman Peter Mansell, was clearly uncomfortable being there. He spent 10 minutes announcing the rules of the fight, but then turned the whole performance into an anti-climax by announcing the results of the proxy votes: Board – 1, Stokes – 0.

With the suspense ruined, the floor was thrown open to question time. After spending my own dough on advertising in The West Australian to get my views across to shareholders – which I was forced to do after the West’s ‘boy’ editor took it upon himself to apply censorship to this issue – I rushed to the microphone.

In the hope that the rest of the meeting would pick up on what I perceived was the main issue at stake, I put this question to the chairman:

It is quite obvious that Mr. Stokes with an almost $500 million investment, will need to be dealt with. You have clearly shown your discomfort with this by your threat to resign en masse, thereby effectively abandoning us shareholders in the face of battle. Will you therefore assist in a smooth transition, in finding with the assistance of shareholder representatives, four mature and experienced replacements for yourselves, before resigning?

The response to this was met with discomfort and waffling from Mansell, but the bottom line appeared to be that they’d try to reach some accommodation with Stokes.

I then posed this question to Kerry Stokes:

You are on record as stating you do not seek control, if offered, at some stage, would you accept ONE seat on a five man board which is equal to your current holding in the company, and undertake not to seek additional representation, until your holding in the company is such, that additional representation is warranted?

Reluctant at first to respond, when he did, he stated that he may consider this. After being defeated where else can he go at this time?

Lots of questions followed. Stephen Mayne was quite entertaining in his stirring way, there was a lot of criticism of the board and discussion about editorial issues, but one that struck a chord were the grievances of the newsagents and delivery agents. And we had the usual proposal of “three cheers for the board” from a satisfied shareholder.

By 4 pm we were still waiting to hear from the board candidates. Each candidate was allowed to speak for five minutes on their resolution. The first resolution was for the removal of the chairman and I couldn’t detect one ounce of praise for him.

After three hours the vote was taken. Shareholders were treated to tea and biscuits, but the suspense had already been lost and most people headed home.

End of Act 1 – a mixture of comedy, tragedy and farce. Act 2 is expected to be performed behind closed doors.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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