Is there a campaign to undermine either Insurance Australia Group (IAG), the NRMA, or both? Nominations are now open for the board poll for the NRMA. They opened on June 15 and close on July 15, and the voting starts soon after. The new four-year-term board members will be named later in the year, with their terms starting December 3.

It’s odd then that a day after the nominations opened that The Sydney Morning Herald reported exclusively that the Commonwealth Bank had looked at buying IAG. That story was firmly denied by the CBA. The source for the story was former NRMA director Richard Talbot (who was ejected from the NRMA board in 2006 and can’t stand again). The CBA still hasn’t fully explained it’s side of this story, just issued a firm denial. But they story lasted less than a day.

Then there was another story last week claiming that some board candidates were being blocked from campaigning by a ban on comments, a claim that was firmly rejected by NRMA head Wendy Machin, in a letter to the SMH. That killed off the story. Richard Talbot was also quoted in this story. Then yesterday the SMH and Age reported breathlessly on a split between the NRMA and the IAG, with a board meeting being called for Tuesday night to discuss the NRMA’s surprise sale of shares in IAG.

Yesterday that story fell flat and in the SMH this morning there was a column by Paul Sheehan, who spoke to Machin and found out several interesting points not in the first story. These were the fact that the NRMA is more than happy with the money it pays IAG for shopfront space, IT and other costs. Machin said Tuesday night’s board meeting had been arranged six months ago.

Machin also said the NRMA was very happy with the IAG deal. She explained that the IAG shares had been sold because the NRMA had too much of its investment portfolio in the one company (more than $110 million). In fact NRMA has been hurt by the slide in the IAG share price because of losses in the UK and the impact of storms, floods and earthquakes on its insurance business this financial year.

No sign of Richard Talbot, but there he was in a story in The Australian Financial Review this morning being quoted about how IAG would be damaged if NRMA started a rival financial products brand. But he then had the grace to admit that that would be unlikely (why say it in the first place?).

In his piece this morning, Sheehan said of Talbot:

“The election campaign has again roused a great war horse of the NRMA battles, Richard Talbot. He was a long-serving director until voted off the board in 2006. A new rule was introduced preventing anyone who had been removed from the board from running again. It was clearly the Talbot rule.

“Talbot was steadfast in his opposition to demutualisation and took the NRMA to the Federal Court in 1994. Included in his highly public skirmishing were two successful defamation actions. It is almost 20 years since he began the fight for a co-operative ethos now almost gone, but this appears to be a battle he will never give up.”

No doubt we will get more stories about the IAG-NRMA relationship between now and December 3. It looks a lot like a campaign to destabilise one or both groups. Apart from the NRMA poll, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for these whispers and leaks.

ASIC and others have been worried about misreporting and rumour spreading, allegedly to help short company shares. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of that in this case, but someone has it in for one or both groups.

For that reason alone, ASIC should make inquiries, not to shut down discussion, but to make sure there’s no other motives involved.

Peter Fray

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