You would think as we head into Christmas that the 2009 AGM season would be over. Alas, taking the prize for cynical timing are those agri-business competitors AWB and Incitec Pivot, which are starting their AGMs at 2pm in Melbourne tomorrow — that’s December 23 for goodness sake.

Australia’s grain growers are flat out completing their harvest and with AWB shares having plunged 80% from their highs of 2006, farmer shareholders are naturally giving the company a decent kicking in the rural press.

As a candidate for the AWB board tomorrow on a platform protesting against the outrageous treatment of retail shareholders in the recent $459 million capital raising, it is very disappointing that the AFR won’t be reporting on the debate until next week given tomorrow is scheduled for one of those “bumper” issues.

The big banks used to be the masters of cynical pre-Christmas AGM scheduling, usually clashing with each other in different cities and focusing on Fridays, which work best for minimising scrutiny because there are no shock jocks to pick over the pieces on Saturday morning.

However, this year it is AWB and Incitec Pivot, which have stepped up on the cynicism stakes as the banks in 2009 were relatively well behaved given the following schedule:

  • Westpac: 10.30am start in Melbourne on Wednesday, December 16
  • NAB: 11am start in Brisbane on Thursday, December 17
  • ANZ: 10am start in Melbourne on Friday, December 18

A diligent shareholder could attend all three meetings but it was surprising to see how comfortably the big bank boards got through these AGMs in terms of minimal criticism from the floor and passive press coverage.

Westpac should have got an absolute shellacking but the 45 basis point rise in mortgage rates and botched banana smoothie strategy barely got a mention.

Shareholder Leigh Kealton and I gave the NAB board some stick but the 50-minute pre-AGM interview with journalists Ross Greenwood and Peter Thomson had taken the edge off the formal AGM debate in Brisbane.

Fast forward to the ANZ AGM last Friday and proceedings were pretty dreary until it all fired up over the director elections right at the end.

The botched plan of out-going chairman Charles Goode to hand the chairmanship to former Allco Finance Group director Sir Rod Eddington was never mentioned until the “second best option”, John Morschel, came up for election.

Goode claimed the board hadn’t failed in succession planning and also defended  the idea of ANZ having its first Sydney-based chairman, noting that Westpac had successfully operated with two out-of-town chairs in John Uhrig and Leon Davis.

The retirement of former BHP chairman Jerry Ellis and Goode after a combined 30-plus years of service really does signal the end of “Club Melbourne’s” hold on the ANZ board.

It was also very interesting to give Lee Kuan Yew’s son, Lee Hsien Yang, this spray about authoritarian Singapore when he was seeking another three years on the ANZ board.

Goode’s wife came up after the meeting and hissed that I was “f-cking rude to Mr Lee” and the slightly more measured new chairman John Morschel later declared the comments to be “below the belt”.

Indeed, although I did point out to Morschel that the family of executed Australian citizen Van Nguyen also felt the treatment of their son at the hands of the Lee family regime in Singapore was a tad harsh.

*Listen to last night’s 50-minute “year in review” discussion with Rod Quinn on ABC local radio including two calls from climate change nutters.

Peter Fray

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