1998 Telegraph series - wrap of week one

By Stephen Mayne
January 17, 2008

The 1998 annual meeting season got into full swing this week. Daily Telegraph business editor Stephen Mayne reports.

The contrast could not have been greater. In Adelaide, Rupert Murdoch remains something of a home town hero for the estimated 200 shareholders who attended the News Corp annual meeting on Tuesday. As usual, the News Corp chairman and chief executive rattled through the official agenda in 20 minutes with not a murmer from the floor. News is Australia's biggest company but shareholders have asked less than five questions in the past decade despite the various issues which arise across the group's sprawling interests.

The shareholders came to listen, support and not question, which is in stark contrast to the ERA annual meeting in Sydney on Thursday.

Anti-uranium protestors dominated the agenda starting with chanting during the address to shareholders by chairman Campbell Anderson.

Anderson's tactic was to charm, mimic and confront his long-time and vocal opponents, making this the most entertaining annual meeting I've attended in 10 years.

As he rejected the suggestion by one protestor that he was overly defensive, Anderson ducked and weaved like a boxer.
When agitators shouted "Hiroshima", he shouted "Hiroshima" back, louder.

Most of the chanters were carried out screaming during his official address, the most farcical parting gibe being that ERA caused "death, cancer, everything". As Anderson pointed out, the activists are unusual shareholders as they want ERA to fail. Yesterday they closed at $1.90: 10 years ago they were $13.

While the chanting stole the headlines, once 10 activists were ejected the meeting turned into an interesting two hour debate on uranium. On points, I thought Anderson won the debating, in spite of his foolish retort that he hoped one female protestor would never have children. His assertion that Jabiluka's impact on Kakadu is the equivalent to two football ovals in Israel was eloquently rebuffed by the analogy that "it was only a small cigarette burn on the Mona Lisa". However, when it came to the facts, Anderson held firm in the face of the onslaught and shot down what he called the "lies" and "half-truths" pushed by the agitators.

The company passed every environmental test, was the most regulated mine in the world, nuclear power reduces greenhouse problems, the Ranger mine predated Kakadu National Park and no worker had sued it for radiation damage over the 18 year life of the mine, were just some of his retorts. The protestors made their best points on marginal matters such as poor staff morale at ERA and the cost of building a separate mill at Jabiluka rather than trucking ore 20km to the Ranger mill.

Despite most of the confrontation during the meeting - and preceding dramas such as firebombings and death threats and the tinkering with a wall lining at a Jabiluka retention pond, the attitude was civil after the meeting as most of the activists not ejected joined the directors for tea and pastries.

MIM's Brisbane meeting on Thursday was the week's longest, dragging on for 3.5 hours as the 430 shareholders who registered wanted answers for its woeful performance. One young woman, who professed to know nothing about business, summed up MIM's predicament when asking why directors were getting a $200,000 pay rise amid economic turmoil and poor performance.

The hotly contested resolution passed 98 to 94 on a show of hands but only after many shareholders left when it was revealed the chairman held proxies in favour for 16 per cent.

By comparison, Melbourne was blessed with very civilised meetings. On Thursday shareholders in blood products and drug company CSL were their usual happy selves during the 90 minute meeting while Spicers Paper meeting yesterday finished in half an hour. Only five shareholders asked questions and the board was congratulated for a "beautiful" annual report and the "most unusual" combination of rising profits and falling directors' fees.

Wouldn't ERA and MIM love to have an annual meeting like that?

* Stephen Mayne has bought shares in 50 prominent Australian companies to attend meetings or sending proxies to ask questions along with other shareholders. Flowing from this will be a six week series on AGMs. Each Saturday we will summarise the week's meeting and each Monday review the coming week's events. Readers who would like to suggest questions can contact us by phone on (02) 9288 3000, by fax on (02) 9288 2594, by post to GPO Box 42452, Sydney 2001, or by email at annualmeet@hotmail.com.

THE AGENDA: News Corp, MIM, ERA, CSL, Spicers.
Longest battle: MIM three and a half hours.
Shortest chat: News Corp 20 minutes.
Biggest attendance: MIM, 430.
Cheap Shot:
1. "With a little bit of luck hopefully you won't have any (children)": ERA's Campbell Anderson, responding to a protestor's concern about uranium on children.
2. "Sometimes (shareholders) are our worst enemy": New MIM chairman Leo Tutt.
Resolutions rejected: None.
Most controversial resolution: $200,000 pay rise for MIM directors.
Silliest question: "Is the company doing something about THE major disease of unemployment in Australia?" Shareholder at drugs company CSL.

Brief meetings

* James Hardie shareholders yesterday approved the company's plan to incorporate in Holland and shift its headquarters to California.
* Shareholders in Network Entertainment approved the Waterhouse family's rescue package.
* HIH shareholders yesterday approved a name change but one took the opportunity to lambast its former controlling shareholder Winterthur for selling out before a large profit drop was announced.
* Simon Ainsworth, largest shareholder in pokies maker Aristocrat, will have lawyer Aleco Vrisakis ask questions at the AGM on November 10. This has nothing to do with his six brothers who own 30 per cent