Fairfax Media’s Ron Walker is emerging as a contender to be the first ASX100 chairman turfed out by his own shareholders.

With executive payouts in political and corporate governance focus like never before, Big Red has put himself in the firing line by agreeing to a $4.1 million golden farewell to ousted Fairfax CEO David Kirk. After all, shareholders were hopping mad when Kirk’s predecessor Fred Hilmer walked out with $4.5 million and it was chairman Ron who vigorously defended that at the 2005 Fairfax AGM.

After six years on the Fairfax Media board, the last four as chairman, Walker looks like he’s doing a John Howard in attempting to stay one term too many.

The electorate rejected Howard when he was 68, yet his old Liberal Party bagman is running again at the Fairfax AGM in Sydney on November 10 even though he will be celebrating his 70th birthday on September 20.

When John Howard was defeated, there were four ageing non-executive chairs of major companies who were particularly associated with him.

Maurice Newman retired as ASX chairman last September, Don Argus has promised to retire from BHP-Billiton in “early 2010”, Charles Goode will finally depart as ANZ chairman in February next year and Ron Walker…

Well, Ron declared at last year’s Fairfax AGM that he was fit and strong with a lot to offer and on August 21 we got this announcement revealing former Woolworths CEO Roger Corbett had been appointed deputy chairman.

As for the timing of any handover, all Ron would say is that “Mr Corbett’s appointment is part of our ongoing Board renewal programme for the future.”

ANZ, ASX and BHP-Billiton have one key difference with Fairfax Media — each has performed very well for shareholders during the terms of their various entrenched chairs.

The same can’t be said for Ron Walker given that he led Fairfax on a debt-funded acquisition binge at the top of the market which left it exposed during the credit crunch.

When major ASX-listed companies get into trouble, the chairman and CEO usually depart in quick succession.

The idea that Ron Walker can send David Kirk packing with a payout double what he was entitled to and then present for another three year term at the AGM is ridiculous.

Whilst Roger Corbett is a supporter of Walker on the Fairfax board and provides him with protection from the institutions who love what he did at Woolworths, The Australian’s John Durie had this very interesting line in his column on Wednesday:

Within the Fairfax board the biggest opponent to the Hilmer payout was Roger Corbett, who recently was appointed deputy chair, which suggests he rather than John B Fairfax will be the next company chair.

Hmmm, is that Fairfax’s next chairman attempting to distance himself from these excessive payouts? The two big unknowns going into the Fairfax AGM are whether powerful proxy adviser Risk Metrics will recommend against Walker’s re-election and whether John B Fairfax will use his 10% stake to save the chairman he so dislikes from defeat.

If John B can’t score the chair for himself, surely Roger Corbett would be a more palatable alternative.

Disclosure: Stephen Mayne writes a weekly column) for Fairfax’s Businessday.com.au website and hopes this morning’s column won’t be his last.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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