Nov 3, 2011

How Clifford took the Qantas chair as a consolation prize

While Alan Joyce is copping most of the grief for the provocative Qantas lock-out on Saturday, no such decision can ever be taken without full board approval.

Stephen Mayne — Journalist and Founder

Stephen Mayne

Journalist and Founder

While Alan Joyce is copping most of the grief for the provocative Qantas lock-out on Saturday, no such decision can ever be taken without full board approval. Graham Richardson was in no doubt in The Australian yesterday that Qantas chairman Leigh Clifford is an industrial relations "ideologue" who was instrumental in the hard-line approach. Clifford is a veteran of fighting unions from his Rio Tinto days, which included 13 years as a main board director until 2007, the past seven as global CEO based in London. He joined Rio Tinto from Melbourne University in 1970 and spent several years as managing director of the Australian operations and global head of the energy operations, both positions that put him at the forefront of battles with the CFMEU and the AWU over coal mining productivity in NSW and Queensland. Ironically, on retiring from Rio Tinto in April 2007, Clifford did not aspire to be a professional director. His main goal was to replace former BHP chairman Jerry Ellis as chancellor of Monash University. Unfortunately, he lost a power struggle with pharmaceutical entrepreneur Alan Finkel, who has led the 18-member Monash council since January 2008. Having amassed a fortune worth about $30 million from his career at Rio Tinto -- including a staggering $US15.34 million final defined benefit pension entitlement on his departure in 2007 -- Clifford didn’t need the money from a non-executive board career. However, when the acrimony erupted after the failed private equity tilt at Qantas, outgoing chair Margaret Jackson needed an external successor and she persuaded Clifford to step up for the job in November 2007. This succession plan was announced in August 2007, two months before the Rudd government swept to office and Julia Gillard set about dismantling the WorkChoices system, which Qantas had enthusiastically embraced under former CEO Geoff Dixon. It was Clifford who then led the process to appoint Alan Joyce as CEO with the full knowledge that it would be a provocative gesture to the unions, especially the pilots, seeing as Joyce had driven the Jetstar Trojan Horse industrial strategy, which did involve breaking a series of promises. From that point on, the trust with the unions was gone and Qantas was inevitably on a collision course. Clifford chairs the Qantas nomination committee and has added some tough players. Richard Goodmanson was a fellow Rio Tinto director who joined the board in June 2008. This was a good appointment as Goodmanson was chief operating officer globally for Du Pont, but also spent three years as CEO of America West Airlines in the late 1990s. Unlike many boards, the Qantas directors do not lack the all important "relevant industry experience". Remuneration committee chair James Strong was CEO of Qantas from 1993 until 2001 through the privatisation period and he was also CEO of Australian Airlines for four years until 1989, a period that culminated in the pilots' dispute. Strong is a hard-liner as can be seen from his decade in the chair at Woolworths, which has not given a single concession on its 12,000-strong pokies operations and continues to brutalise suppliers of all sizes with its aggressive roll-out of home brands. While it would be easy to characterise the Qantas board as being full of right-wing business types, you shouldn’t discard the importance of Barbara Ward, a former adviser to Paul Keating who was CEO of Ansett Worldwide Aviation Services for five years until 1998. Ward was also a director of Allco Finance Group, a major global player in aircraft leasing which collapsed in 2008. This led to a stunning 42.5% against vote  at the 2008 Qantas AGM, but all was forgiven last Friday when every resolution was supported by more than 96% of the voted shares. Ward has clear links to the Labor Party as she enjoyed a series of government appointments by the NSW government over the past decade. It would be interesting to know what members of the famed NSW Right, such as the TWU and Graham Richardson, think about her support of the Qantas lock-out. Another recent addition was Paul Rayner, an expat Australian who Clifford got to know better in London when he was global finance director of British America Tobacco. You have to be tough to make it working for Big Tobacco. The other key player is the highly regarded John Schubert, the longest serving director and a former CBA chair who missed out on the BHP chairmanship after a battle with Jac Nasser. There was an element of military strategy in what Qantas did on Saturday and for that element on the board, look no further than General Peter Cosgrove, who has been a Qantas director since 2005. Qantas spin doctors are very much pushing the line that the lock-out was an operational decision taken by management. Nice try. The full board gathered for a phone hook-up on Saturday morning and endorsed the decision. If it backfires, and it is still too early to tell, then it will be on their heads as much as Joyce's.

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6 thoughts on “How Clifford took the Qantas chair as a consolation prize

  1. cairns50

    lets cut to the chase here, clifford and joyce are 2 right idelogues

    who are out to destroy the international section of qantas ,

    there other obvious aim is to deunionise there workforce and to

    outsource most of there employees and replace them with cheap

    contract labour and to outsource there overseas operations using

    the same means

    they will be happy with a qantas that has a near monopoly on

    domestic air travel in australia and to trash the rest of the airline

    imagine the outcry if it were the unions that took the action that

    joyce took over the weekend ?

    just another example of how these bastard right wing thugs operate

  2. go-mag

    Umm….what private club do you have to belong to to get a job as a CEO or be a director of the board. I think it is time to get rid of these bullies and employ others that are a little more conciliatory and have a few ethical and moral standards. Oh, that’s right, you need those types to squeeze as much as possible out of the company, so they and the shareholders can get the proceeds.

    One of the things I have against superannuation funds…it is all of us that are getting the proceeds, but we don’t have a say about what goes on in the company….only the super fund managers that have no scruples!!! “So, the beat goes on…..”

  3. go-mag

    I would say “Nepotism in its purest form!!!!

  4. granorlewis

    A very astute analysis Mr Mayne. There was a time when Boards of public Comapnies were simply rubber stamps to Management, but not anymore. Current corporate law compels them to make the decisions and carry the blame – and so it should be.
    Having said that – well done to the Qantas Board and the Company’s Managenet

    These Union bullies, operating in the sleaze allowed by Julia’s laws, had to be challenged, not justt for Qantas sake, but for all of us in business.

  5. Mark from Melbourne

    My father who has been involved in significant way for decades both as a major investor and also someone who floated companies always steered me away from investing in Rio – his comment was that they did not consider their shareholders when making decisions. I looked into this and there is a fairly clear trail of decisions that provide the rub to this view. This was during Clifford’s time there and surely an indictment of the decisions that the senior management and board took over many years. And it seems clear a culture that has been either transfered or fostered at QANTAS.

    Just who do these people think they are working for? Certainly not the people in the company, not the shareholders, not the customers, not the country. Doesn’t leave much…

  6. AR

    If that listing of a rogues gallery of failed raving rightards was intended to reassure us that the board weren’t a bunch of headbangers … it didn’t.

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