It was good to see David Marr extract an admission on Insiders yesterday from Gerard Henderson that his Sydney Institute does get some funding from a mining company hit by the proposed super profits tax.
Disclosures of this sort are going to be very important over the coming months because pollster Gary Morgan was right to say that 2010 could well become like 1949 — a federal election dominated by the issue of Labor versus a major industry, albeit miners rather than bankers.
The Liberal Party nationally is said to have already raised about $4 million over the past month from individuals and companies aggrieved by the RSPT.
That could just be the beginning. Any industry that is subjected to an unprecedented $9 billion a year tax is going to be go absolutely ballistic. Especially in a country such as Australia, which, thanks to coalition obstinance in the Senate, has arguably the weakest campaign finance disclosure laws of any first world democracy.
Foreign companies are banned from donating to American politicians but the $200 billion-plus worth of Australian resources projects owned by multinational companies can generate unlimited cash for Tony Abbott’s campaign, which won’t have to be disclosed until well after he’s moved into The Lodge.
While this lack of transparency is disgraceful, as a shareholder activist who believes directors must preserve value, I have no problem with boards attempting to move heaven and earth to stop the tax. And with Abbott promising to kill the proposal, the major miners have no option but to strongly back and fund Abbott.
When you consider that Rio and BHP spent close to $1 billion on their takeover skirmishing in 2008, it would be nothing for both boards to authorise $100 million campaigns to stop the tax.
However, BHP and Rio both claim to operate on a higher ethical plain that their competitors by banning donations to governments. The challenge for them is how to fund the campaign, which is why direct advertising and others channelled through the Minerals Council will be the way to go.
The level of foreign ownership in the resources sector, including more than $30 billion worth of projects owned by the Chinese dictators, is what makes the campaign especially tricky for the Australian miners.
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While BHP-Billiton is 40% Australian-owned, only four of the 12 directors are from Australia and still live here.
Rio Tinto is even worse with Australian ownership down to about 15% and only three of the 15 directors living here. Wednesday’s Australian leg of the 2010 AGM in Melbourne will be a cracker.
The best-known Australian mining face is Andrew Forrest but he put on a very ordinary display with Alan Kohler on Inside Business yesterday, reverting to hyperbole that was almost as bad as Clive Palmer. Twiggy reckoned “the resources sector saved us from a situation like Greece” before asking: “So what happens now to our children? Our children when they grow up they must chase those careers in better industries than our resources sector overseas.”
The 2010 BRW Rich List is due out this week and as James Thomson pointed out on Business Spectator, Twiggy is expected to enjoy the largest increase, up from $2.4 billion to an estimated $4.4 billion.
Sure, Fortescue’s share price has declined lately to Friday’s close of $3.72, but don’t forget the lad picked up his 31.5% stake or 972 million shares for about $15 million. Yes, that’s right folks, Twiggy paid less than 2c a share and now complains about giving a bit back!
If there is any Australian who hasn’t paid his fair share for assets owned by the entire community, then it is the man who cost bondholders in Anaconda Nickel hundreds of millions of dollars and then came back from the dead to ride the China boom and build an equity stake in Fortescue still worth $3.6 billion on Friday.
Indeed, the Anaconda battle warranted a Four Corners investigation in August 2002, which included this from reporter Ticky Fullerton:
TICKY FULLERTON: Joe Gutnick blames Forrest for the downfall of his company Centaur. He claims Forrest reneged on a $20 million investment in his nickel project. Gutnick won his case in court, the judge calling Forrest an ‘untruthful’ witness. Anaconda is appealing, but it’s not the only time judges have singled out Forrest. In a litigious career, a judge said, he would achieve commercial ends even if it involved threats and falsehoods. And just two weeks ago, another judge called him ‘quite untruthful’.
Hmmm. Perhaps Alan Kohler should have mentioned a couple of these things yesterday.