The AGM season formally finishes next Wednesday, November 30, and the final days will feature the traditional avalanche of penny dreadful gatherings, most of which will be missed by the media. However, there will be plenty of media interest in the Gunns and Woolworths AGMs tomorrow, courtesy of the ongoing controversies about the $2 billion Tamar Valley pulp mill and pokies reform.
Senator Nick Xenophon has scored himself a pair and will be attending his first Woolies AGM at Darling Harbour. He’ll be accompanied by GetUp’s Simon Sheik, whose members are quite energised about the $500 million a year punters lose playing on Woolworths’ 12,000-plus poker machines.
As the proud owner of 11 Woolworths shares, I’ve appointed Senator Xenophon to represent five of them and Sheik the other six. This gives them both a ticket to the microphone.
The Petition on the GetUp website is doing a roaring trade and Sheik intends to present it to Woolies chairman James Strong during the meeting.
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The 70-kilogram Strong may look like a lightweight with his trademark bow-ties but he’s very adept at playing hardball at the Woolies AGM as can be seen from this transcript of what happened last year in Brisbane. Indeed, as one of the Qantas directors who agreed to lock out the workforce and ground its fleet, Strong clearly has an appetite for controversy and conflict.
As Woolworths chairman for the past decade, he has overseen the aggressive push into pokies and is very proud of the fact. He has been a very staunch public support of Bruce Mathieson, the tough publican and former Alan Bond business partner who Woolworths has largely left alone to run its giant ALH pokies business from South Yarra in Melbourne.
However, billionaire Mathieson retired as full-time CEO of ALH on September 30, the same day Michael Luscombe handed over the reins of Australia’s biggest retailer to Grant O’Brien, the clean-cut Tasmanian from the tiny town of Penguin on the north coast.
O’Brien is yet to utter a word publicly on the pokies but can expect a baptism of fire tomorrow, especially over the $250,000 commitment that Woolies has made to the fighting fund established by the NSW pubs and clubs to roll the proposed federal government reforms. The contrast with rival Wesfarmers, which has completely avoided the protest campaign, is stark indeed.
The other interesting AGM tomorrow will be Gunns Ltd, which is venturing to the mainland for the first time. The Australian Greens emailed the following to members yesterday:
This Thursday, 24th November 2011, there will be a targeted protest against the proposed Gunns Ltd Tamar Valley pulp mill outside the Sofitel Hotel on 25 Collins St where Gunns will be holding their AGM.
The AGM starts at 10.30am and protesters are encouraged to meet at around 10.15am in the back entrance to the Sofitel Hotel, which is on Flinders Lane, near the car park. Participating groups include: TAP, Pulp the Mill, Tasmanian Wilderness Society and Friends of the Tamar Valley. There is a possibility that members from Occupy Melbourne will also attend.
The Tasmanian Greens are the only Party in Tasmania to stand against the pulp mill.
It is important for Victorian Greens members to go along to help support Tasmanians against a pulp mill that will be pumping dioxins into the Bass Strait, which is that stretch of water that we share with migratory whales, seals and hand fish.
Despite passionate interventions such as this recent Crikey piece by Tasmanian Greens Minister Cassy O’Connor, much of the controversy around Gunns has dissipated since it sacked controversial CEO John Gay and agreed to exit old-growth logging earlier this year.
However, the stench of corruption has been re-ignited with ASIC’s move to charge Gay with two counts of insider trading yesterday. This is arguably the biggest insider trading case against an individual since Steve Vizard’s Telstra shenanigans during the dotcom boom.
The Gunns board will no doubt declare it can’t comment given that charges have been laid, but they would be well advised to publicly slam Gay’s stewardship of the company because many Gunns critics still associate the past cowboy tactics with the current board.
For instance, up until 2004, John Gay and Rupert Murdoch were the only two executive chairs in Australia who were using the CEO exemption and refusing to subject themselves to election every three years. The majority of CEOs still do this but the new Gunns CEO, Greg L’Estrange, is up for election tomorrow.
On this issue, well done Gunns. And with the media no longer locked out of the AGM, the company appears to be consciously taking the governance high road when it can.
*Disclosure: Stephen Mayne will be representing the ASA at the Gunns AGM in Melbourne tomorrow and voting undirected proxies in favour of all resolutions